A Look at the French Language

From here. A look at the French language from the viewpoint of an English speaker trying to learn the language. French is one of the hardest Romance languages to learn. French is pretty easy to learn at a simple level, but it’s not easy to get to an advanced level. For instance, the language is full of idioms, many more than your average language, and it’s often hard to figure them out. One problem is pronunciation. There are many nasal vowels, similar to Portuguese. The eu, u and all of the nasal vowels can be Hell for the learner. There is also a strange uvular r. The dictionary does not necessarily help you, as the pronunciation stated in the dictionary is often at odds with what you will find on the street. There is a phenomenon called liaisons, or enchantainment in French, which is similar to sandhi in which vowels elide between words in fast speech. There are actually rules for this sort of thing, but the rules are complicated, and at any rate, the liaisons themselves are either obligatory, permitted or forbidden depending on the nature of the words being run together, and it is hard to remember which category various word combinations fall under. The orthography is also difficult since there are many sounds that are written but no longer pronounced, as in English. Also similar to English, orthography does not line up with pronunciation. For instance, there are 13 different ways to spell the o sound: o, ot, ots, os, ocs, au, aux, aud, auds, eau, eaux, ho and ö. In addition, spoken French and written French can be quite different. Spoken French uses words and phrases such as c’est foututhe job will not be done, and on which you might never see in written French. The English language, having no Language Committee, at least has an excuse for the frequently irrational nature of its spelling. The French have no excuse, since they have a committee that is set up in part to keep the language as orthographically irrational as possible. One of their passions is refusing to change the spelling of words even as pronunciation changes, which is the opposite of what occurs in any sane spelling reform. So French is, like English, frozen in time, and each one has probably gone as long as the other with no spelling reform. Furthermore, to make matters worse, the French are almost as prickly about writing properly as they are about speaking properly, and you know how they are about foreigners mangling their language. Despite the many problems of French orthography, there are actually some rules running under the whole mess, and it is quite a bit more sensible than English orthography, which is much more chaotic. French has a language committee that is always inventing new native French words to keep out the flood of English loans. They have a website up with an official French dictionary showing the proper native coinages to use. Another one for computer technology only is here. On the plus side, French has a grammar that is neither simple nor difficult; that, combined with a syntax is pretty straightforward and a Latin alphabet make it relatively easy to learn for most Westerners. In addition, the English speaker will probably find more instantly recognizable cognates in French than in any other language. A good case can be made that French is harder to learn than English. Verbs change much more, and it has grammatical gender. There are 15 tenses in the verb, 18 if you include the pluperfect and the Conditional Perfect 2 (now used only in Literary French) and the past imperative (now rarely used). That is quite a few tenses to learn, but Spanish and Portuguese have similar situations. French is one of the toughest languages to learn in the Romance family. In many Internet threads about the hardest language to learn, many language learners list French as their most problematic language. A good case can be made that French is harder to learn than Italian in that French children do not learn to write French properly until age 12-13, six years after Italian children. This is due to the illogical nature of French spelling discussed above such that the spelling of many French words must be memorized as opposed to applying a general sound-symbol correspondence rule. In addition, French uses both acute and grave accents – `´. French gets a 3 rating for average difficulty.

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0 thoughts on “A Look at the French Language”

  1. Dear Robert
    Actually, the French had a spelling reform a few years ago, but most people seem to be ignoring it. It wasn’t major anyway, but certainly a step in the right direction.
    I think that you are a bit confused about liaison. There are 3 ways in French in which a word starting with a vowel or with an unaspirated h can influence the pronunciation of the preceding word: élision, liaison and enchainement.
    Élision is the process whereby the final vowel of a monosyllabic word is dropped so that the consonant becomes the first sound of the following word. It occurs with ce, de, je, le, la, me, ne, que, se te and si when followed by il.
    le garçon – l’homme
    la semaine – l’heure
    le chien de Jeannette – le chien d’Annette
    il me voit – il m’écoute
    elle se lave – elle s’exprime
    je chante – j’aime
    Liaison is the phenomenon in which a silent final consonant, usually an s, becomes pronounced as the first sound of the following word.
    les jours = le jours – les heures = le zeures
    nous sommes = nou sommes – nous avons = nou zavons
    mes copains = me copains – mes amis = me zamis.
    trois femmes = troi femmes – trois hommes = troi zommes
    Enchainement is the practice by which a pronounced final consonant becomes the first sound of the following word.
    elle travaile – elle a = e la
    douze jours – douze ans = dou zans
    seize semaines – seize amis = sei zamis
    As you can see, it takes a bit of practice. Cheers. James

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