French made simple (for English-speakers)

(Padraig A. Carty) #1

1. Why learn (about) French.

Why Learn (About) French?

There are many many many reasons why you should learn, or learn about, the French language, here goes :

A) It sounds sexy and that can only be a good thing.

B) In terms of geographical spread, it's the second most widely spoken language in the world -English is the first.

C) You'll know what 'Comme ci - comme ça' ; 'Oh là là' ; 'C'est la vie' ;and 'Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?' actually mean.

D) You won't die of starvation or thirst next time you find yourself in a French-speaking country.

E) Quebec will actually consider letting you emigrate to their province.

F) You know you want to.

G) Your next door neighbour claims he speaks French fluently and everyone knows that's not true, so let's humiliate him.

H) It's actually quite an easy language to learn for a native English speaker as there are many common points between the two languages. If you don't believe me try learning Thai or Korean.

I) The French will feel flattered by your attentions.

J) Your lifelong dream is to go to Paris one day, and wouldn't you just love to be able to communicate with 'les natifs'.

K) You'll finally be able to understand the menu at your local posh restaurant.

L) You'll learn how to pronounce 'Des Moines' properly.

M) You'll put that arrogant smirk on the other side of French people's faces when they say to you 'Je ne parle pas anglais',* by replying : 'Ce n'est pas grave, je parle français.'**

N) Show that Ms. Simpson, who tried, unsuccessfully, to teach you French at school, that you're not the n'er-do-well she predicted you'd turn out to be.

O) It's chic to speak French. To prove this just look at the word 'chic', it is both French and chic.

* I don't speak English

**It doesn't matter, I speak French.

2. Quick test.

Ok, so here's a quick simple test to see what level your basic knowledge of French is. Don't panic, it's not long and boring and nobody will ever see or know how bad you are (apart from that guy looking over your shoulder... just there to your left... yeah that's him!). There's another, tougher, test at the end of the book which will enable you to see how you've progressed.

1) The verb 'To be' is :

A) Avoir

B) Etre

C) Parler

2) How is the word 'THE' translated to describe a thing or an object which is considered to be of the feminine gender?

A) Le

B) La

C) Les

3) Ask a French-speaking person if he/she speaks English.

A) Parle vous Anglais?

B) Parler vous anglais?

C) Parlez-vous anglais?

4) Tell a French-speaking person that you don't speak French.

A) No parlo Français.

B) Je ne parler la français.

C) Je ne parle pas français.

5) Ca coûte combien?. What is the translation of this question?

A) How much is it?

B) What time is it?

C) How far is it?

6) In which group do the words NOT rhyme with each other?

A) Vin (wine); vingt (twenty); vain (vain).

B) Porter (to carry); porté (carried); portais (was carrying)

C) Pays (country); payé (paid); paie (wages)

7) Which one of the following terms is not part of a house?

A) La cuisine

B) La chambre

C) La voiture

8) Which one of the following sentences contains NO error?

A) Je suis très fatigué aujourd'hui. (I am very tired today)

B) Nous n'êtes pas prèts pour le diner. (We are not ready for dinner)

C) Il est plus grand que son soeur. (He is taller than his sister)

9) What is the correct translation for 'I will do the work.'?

A) Je ferai le travail.

B) Je ferais le travail.

C) Je ferait le travail.

10) What is the correct translation for 'She went to the movies last night.'?

A) Elle a allé au cinéma hier soirée.

b) Elle est allé au cinéma la dernière nuit.

C) Elle est allée au cinéma hier soir.

Answers (give yourself one point for each correct answer):

1) answer is B 'Etre'. 'Avoir' is to have and 'Parler' is to speak.

2) answer is B 'La'. 'Le' is for the masculine and 'Les' is for plural nouns.

3) answer is C 'Parlez-vous anglais?' Others are grammar nonsense.

4) answer is C 'Je ne parle pas français'. Others are grammar nonsense.

5) answer is A (literally translate as 'It costs how much?)

6) answer is C (pronunciations are: 'pays'=payee; payé=pay-yea; paie=payh)

7) answer is C (la voiture=car; la chambre=bedroom; la cuisine=kitchen)

8) answer is A (in B 'nous ne sommes pas...' and C '...que sa soeur')

9) answer is A

10) Answer is C

Evaluate yourself:

0 out of 10 : Well, what can I say other than you really to need to read this book very very very attentively.

1-3 out of ten : Basically you've got little or no idea about the French language and you just made some lucky guesses. Am I right or am I right?

4-6 out of 10 : You took French at school but it's fairly rusty now and really could do with a thorough brushing up.

7-9 out of 10 : You're fresh out of school and you were the French teacher's little pet. Or alternatively you left school a few years back but you have kept up the language through visits to France; or you just have a damn good memory.

10 out of 10 : Hold on, did you cheat? If not then bravo! As you read this book just skip over the boring grammary bits, you brainy reader you. Hope there aren't too many readers like you, else I'll never sell this book.

3. The


It might seem strange to call a chapter 'The' but it really is essential to know how this very simple word (called 'the definite article' for the more technically-minded among you) functions in the French language.

In French 'the' is translated by Le, La and Les. Ok! Ok! Ok! I see your eyes water over already as you quickly supress a yawn; you're thinking "Oh God, I've only just read a few sentences and I'm bored to death already". Just be patient and bear with me. In French all nouns (nouns are basically words that identify things) are preceded by the definite article : Le lit (the bed); La montre (the watch); Les fleurs (the flowers). So now I suppose (if you haven't stopped reading already) you're wondering why it's Le for the bed, La for the watch and Les for the flowers. Well, it's simply a question of sexuality really. No, not that kind of sexuality. All nouns have a 'gender', that is to say they are either masculine or feminine. A bed for instance is considered to be masculine so it takes Le; a watch is feminine and so takes La; flowers are plural so, fortunately, we don't have to worry for the moment about their sexual preference since all plural nouns take Les. F.Y.I. a flower is feminine so in the singular it would be La fleur.

I'm almost afraid to tell you this, for fear of pushing your patience and good nature too far, but there is one slight further complication. If the noun begins with a vowel (A; E; I; O; U) or with the letter 'H', then you just write L' in front, e.g. : L'astronaute (the asronaut -you might have guessed that one); l'éléphant (can't for the life of me remember what this means again); l'île (the island); l'oeuf (the egg); l'université (you are joking right?) and L'histoire (the story).

Another slight complication (I'm really sorry about this) is that sometimes words begining with H do indeed take Le or La. It's a question of pronunciation and only happens with a very few words, I promise. In English we have a similar phenomenon; why is it 'a' house, but 'an' heir?, why 'a' hotel, but 'an' honor?, why 'a' happy child?, but 'an' honest child?; and would you say :'a' herb or 'an herb? So next time you're browsing through your latest French novel and you see words like Le héros (the hero), or, La halle (the large hall), don't rush back to your Survive France account to send hate mail to yours truly accusing me of trying to mislead you; you've been warned.

4. A & An

A and An

Ok now let’s look at the other article, this one’s called the indefinite article, which is the humble 'A' and 'An' in English. Gender is very important here too as it’s Un for the masculine (Un lit) and Une for the feminine (Une montre). And that’s it, it’s as simple as that; end of story, c’est simple non?

Now do bit of work; guess the gender of the following nouns : une fleur; un astronaute; un éléphant; une île; un oeuf; une université; une histoire ; un héros ; une halle ; un magasin (store/shop) ; une poupée (doll) ; une maison (house) ; un cheval (horse) ; un homme (man) ; une femme (woman) ; un travail (job) ; une voiture (car) ; la télévision ; la chaise (chair) ; un livre (book) ; une livre (pound - in weight).

Have you noticed something about the last example? That’s right, sometimes the same word can have two completely different meanings with two different genders. I know, I know, but I didn't invent the language so dont blame me.

5. Subject.


The subject is the person acting on the verb -sounds awful I know but it’s really not so bad.

For example in the following sentence : ‘I work in an office’, the subject is ‘I’ and the verb is ‘work’. In French that becomes ‘Je travaille dans un bureau’ so the subject is ‘Je’ and the verb is ‘travaille’. The different subjects are:

I : Je : Je t'aime (I love you)

You (singular) : Tu : Tu es très gentil (You're very kind)

He : Il : Il travaille à Londres (He works in London)

She : Elle : Elle est très jolie (She is very pretty)

One : On (the annonymous 'one' is little used in contemporary English but is very common in French : On ne sait jamais (one never knows)

We : Nous : Nous parlons anglais (We speak English)

You (plural) : Vous : Vous êtes americain (You are American)

They : Ils and Elles. : Ils vont à l'opéra (they [masculine or mixed genders] go to the opera); Elles sont prètes (They [feminine] are ready.)

So let’s look first at the two forms of 'you'. Tu is used to address one person but if you are addressing a group of people it become Vous. An interesting thing about this ‘subject’ is that the French also use the vous form to address one person when a more formal register of language is required. For example if you were to be introduced to the President of France it would be considered very inappropriate to say ‘tu’. You would be expected to say :

Comment allez-vous?’ (How are you?’) and not:

Comment vas-tu?

Generally the vous form is used to speak to hierarchical superiors, elderly people, people you don’t know (so strangers on the street, people on the phone, waiters etc). The ‘tu’ form is used with family, friends, work colleagues etc. Using ‘tu’ inappropriately can be considered quite offensive because the paradox of it all is that, though ‘tu’ is generally a more friendly and informal term, it can take on a very disrespectful and even aggressive connotation if used in the wrong situation. To try to understand this phenomenon in our culture, imagine two guys testing each other in a drunken brawl in a bar on a Saturday night. They won’t say such things as : ‘Are you looking for trouble sir?’; they’ll be much more likely to go into the artificial and threatening familiarity of ‘Are you looking for trouble pal?’ Some time ago, on a French T.V. news bulletin, I heard a teacher describe how she had been physically and verbally attacked by one of her pupils : Il m' a poussé par terre et il m'a même tutoyé. : “He knocked me on the floor and he even used the ‘tu’ form.” The French language has a verb for these two forms of ‘you’. Vouvoyer quelqu’un is to address someone using the ‘vous’ form, otherwise it’s ‘Tutoyer quelqu’un’. I have often been in the awkward position of not knowing whether it was appropriate to vouvoyer someone or to tutoyer them. For example at a party on a Saturday night you find yourself casually conversing, beer in one hand, cigarette in the other, with someone that you’ve never spoken to before; etiquette would have it that you vouvoyez the person, but in the informal context this could seem a bit stiff and distant. Often your French counterpart will take the initiative and say to you :

On peut se tutoyer, non?’ (We can use the ‘tu’ form, can’t we?)’.

But as often as not they won’t be aware that you are waiting for them to make this all-important decision and they may take your lack of initiative to loosen up as a sign that you are more comfortable with the ‘vous’ form. Unless they have some sort of background in foreign languages and in English especially (because ours is one of the very few languages in the world that doesn't have this distinction) they won't necessarily be sensitive to your difficulty. In Shakespeare's time we did have this kind of complication even in our own language. For example : "I gave thee mine before thou didst request it." (Romeo and Juliet) Simple, both 'thee' and 'thou' become 'you'; but Shakespeare also frequently used 'you' : Where did you dwell when I was King of England? (Henry VI). And don't forget 'thy', 'thine' and 'ye'.

Interestingly in some of the more bourgeois, upper-class families it is still considered very elegant for children to vouvoyer their parents while the parents continue to tutoyer their children. Brigitte Bardot, the 1960's French sex-symbol movie star once revealed in a T.V. interview that her parents punished her for some mischievious behaviour by announcing that she would henceforth have to address them in the vous form.

So when a French speaker says “Comment allez-vous?” you can’t actually know, unless you’re physically present, whether they are speaking to a group of people (plural you) or to an individual whom they consider it is appropriate to vouvoyer.

Je (I) is pretty staightforward, though it too becomes J' in front of a vowel or H.

Je suis fatigué (I am tired); J'ai une maison à la campagne (I have a house in the country).

Il (he) and elle (she) can also be used for 'it' to talk about things (those nouns if you remember).

Il est fatigué (He is tired); elle a une maison à la campagne (she has a house in the country); Speaking about a book : il est intéressant (it is interesting); speaking about a house: elle est grande (it is big). However for nouns it is also possible to use the demonstrative pronoun 'ce' : C'est intéressant (that's interesting); c'est grand (That's big -we can forget about the masculine/feminine aspect when we use this form, so we say grand and not grande even though a house is feminine... are you still with me on this one?)

Nous is the most commonly used translation of 'we' though the terms On is also very commonly used as a substitute for nous. For example :

Question : Qu'avez-vous fait hier soir? (What did you do yesterday evening?) Answer : Nous sommes allés au cinéma. (We went to the cinema) Alterantive answer : On est allé au cinéma. (We went to the cinema). This alternative version is quite informal and conversational in tone, so therefore very commonly used.

Ils and Elles are used for 'they' but of course one form is used for the boys and one for the girls. Look at the sentences below and decide if the sentence is talking about men or women.

1) Ils sont fatigués. (they are tired)

2) Elles vont au thêatre. (They are going to the theatre)

3) Elles travaillent en ville. (They work in town)

4) Ils parlent anglais. (They speak English)

If you've been paying attention and you've been concentrating very hard you probably said 1 and 4 deal with boys and 2 and 3 are for the lasses. Sorry but It ain't necessarily so. You're right about the lasses but if 'they' sentences 1 and 4 are a mixture of men and women then it is the masculine form which dominates (I know, it's a man's world even in grammar). So this means that technically we can't really answer the question for 1 and 4; we'd need more information.

Ils and Elles are also used to talk about 'they' for nouns.

Speaking about houses 'Elles sont chères' (They are expensive)

Speaking about books 'Ils sont lourds' (They are heavy).

Speaking about houses and books 'Ils sont laids' (they are ugly).

6. Vocabulary


There is no easy way to learn vocabulary in a foreign language; it's just a question of exposure, exposure, exposure and then practice, practice, practice.

Let's look at the words you've been exposed to in the three preceding chapters, without looking back try to match the following words with their translations (no cheating mind) :

La fleur


Une montre



Le lit


Une île


(to work; expensive; ugly; to speak; the flower; a watch; tired; an island; the bed)

When I started learning French my teacher used to play a game with us whereby she'd give us words in French and ask us try to find a word in English that was the same or similar. This used to help us retain a lot of words; here are a few examples:

Une maison : a house (Mansion)

Une dame : A lady (a dame)

Retirer : To withdraw (to retire)

Le mur : The wall (a mural wall painting)

La lumière : Light (luminary)

La route : The road (route)

Un ventilateur : A fan (ventilator)

Un tapis : A carpet or a rug (tapestry)

Un plat : A dish (plate)

Un pantalon : pants or trousers (pantaloon)

Le ciel : The sky (ceiling)

Fumer : To smoke (Fumes)

One could continue doing this activity forever, the list is endless.

Many of the words we use in English came to us through French. Here's another fascinating game: think of any word in the English language which has more than two syllables in it and, nine times out of ten, it will be the same word (sometimes with slight alterations) in French: Alphabet (l'alphabet); Political (politique); Destiny (le déstin); Memory (la mémoire); Gaiety (la gaiété); Innocent (innocent); Cathedral (une cathédrale); Horrible (horrible) etc, etc, etc. So the rule here is : if it's a long, sophisticated, posh, fancy word, it most likely comes from Latin, via French.

In the year 1066 the Duke Of Normandy, Guillaume, led his army across the English Channel to seize the English crown. He claimed that he had been promised the throne by the recently deceased King of England, Edward the Confessor. Though the Anglo Saxons didn't want this French Norman Viking descendant (whom they called a 'bastard' since his mother was not acknowledged even by much of the French nobility) to take their precious crown and tried to resist him. He beat their armies at the famous battle of Hastings and became 'William the Conqueror', Duke of Normandy and King of England. William didn't just import into England the Norman-French fuedal system, customs and legal framework and French fries, he also was responsible for bringing in the French language, or at least the dialect that dominated in Normandy at that time. For a long period of time Norman French was the language of the court, the church, the justice system and of education in England. The rough, uncouth, ragged Anglo-Saxons however, stubbornly continued to speak their coarse Germanic dialect called Englisch. The legendary stories of Robin Hood and Ivanhoe date from this time when the good, kind-hearted, decent folk, hard-working, Little-House-On-The-Prairie-style peasants were all Anglo-Saxons and the nasty, evil, cold-hearted oppressors where all Normans. This continued for around two hundred years before finally the two languages merged into what we now call English. The heritage left by French and the extent of French words in our vocabulary is often underestimated. The French, being obsessed with food of course, gave us words like beef (le boeuf) whereas the Anglo Saxons gave us the word for the animal (Oxen), Pork comes from French (le porc), but swine comes from German (schwein).

It's kind of ironic to think that, today, the roles have been completely reversed; now the French language is adopting more and more English words and expressions: le weekend; le meeting: le parking: le pressing (the dry cleaner's); le marketing; le management; le turnover; le rock and roll. Funny that all of them take the masculine gender; I only noticed that while writing this piece.

(Carol Huskinson) #2

I never learnt any French at school but have been taking lessons here for two years, scored 9 in your test, so some of it must ge getting through! Keep the lessons coming Padraig!

(Catharine Higginson) #3

Excellent - thanks for posting!

(neil whitehead) #4

I’m signing up as my level is 3. I have not had time to have any lessons and my wife can speak the lingo very well hence my laziness. I can understand a fair amount but have an a bad memory

(Hilary Newhall) #5

Nicely done Padraig!

(Mark Johnston) #6

Thank you Padraig, that made me smile.

With regard to the rhyming question, no. 6, where I live in the Tarn the 6a words are pronounced "veng" "vang" and "vain" as in English.

Where I lived in England though was near the Forest of Dean, so getting used to incomprehensible accents is now second nature.