Saturday, 31 January 2009

Pronunciation is important

There are some French words that do not translate in a way that you would expect. One such word is un photographe. You would expect this to be a photograph but it is a photographer. If you talk about une photographie or une photo it is a photograph. The verb to photograph is photographier.

I was in Caen in Normandy and there are two abbeys, deux abbayes (where abbayes has three syllables), l’abbaye des hommes and l’abbaye des femmes. They are well worth a visit and Guillaume le Bâtard (better known to us as William the Conqueror) is buried in l’abbaye des hommes. However if you ask to visit un abbé (two syllables) then you will be asking to visit the abbot.

These words show just how important it is to get to grips with the correct pronunciation. Start with the simple words and make sure you get them right. You will find them useful when the words are more complicated.

A bientôt

Friday, 30 January 2009

More gestures

On the subject of gestures, you can raise your hand to your eyes as if you are shading your eyes from the sun. Keep your fingers straight, palm down, and slide your hand across your head at the level of your forehead. If you use your right hand the direction of the movement is towards the right and vice-versa. I hope that you didn't get fed up with this explanation of the gesture but if you did then you can use it because it means j'en ai ras le bol, j'en ai marre or j'en ai assez.

If you want things to be a little quieter then don't put your finger to your lip, but raise your index finger as if you wanted to indicate the number one. Don't forget to look stern as this will help.

Finally have you seen Peter Kay talk about the phone? You can also use this gesture in France.

A bientôt

Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Gallic Shrug

If you want to communicate then sometimes non-verbal communication is much more powerful. I tend to think non-verbal is more important than verbal communication in English as well as French.

Perhaps the most important gesture is the Gallic shrug. Tip your head to the left or the right and shrug your shoulders. If you do this quickly it is a sign of indifference - as if you were saying bof. In fact practice the gesture and say bof at the same time. A slow shrug suggests uncertainty.

If you really want to get to grips with the Gallic shrug you also need to raise your eyebrows and stick out your bottom lip. You can get away with your hands in your pockets but the final element of the shrug should be to raise both hands to shoulder level.

Should there be more French words in today's French blog? Bof (I don't know and I don't care).

A bientôt

Wednesday, 28 January 2009


Amélie is a great French film from 2001. It is about a Parisian waitress who decides to do good for others. You see many of the Paris sites and you too can walk where Amélie walked.

If you watch a French film you get to hear the language, you can enjoy the story, and get to know something about French culture. You may also pick up some vocabulary. The French title is “Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain. So now you know two extra words unless you are used to talking about fabulous destinies.

You may also remember some of the citations. Vous au moins vous ne risquez pas d’être un légume puisque même un artichaut a du cœur! At the Sacré Cœur the boy says “Monsieur, quand le doigt montre le ciel, l’imbécile regarde le doigt.” This reminds me of the quote from Waiting for Godot "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”

A bientôt

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Les Conjonctions

Conjunctions are really quite nice words. They are words that link words or phrases together like 'and', and 'but', and 'because'. They are good words to know because they transform your sentences to a higher level. Not only are you saying what has happened but you are saying why, or you are giving an opinion.

There are coordinating conjunctions that link words and phrases like ‘I get out of bed and brush my teeth. He had to wait for the bus, but I could walk home at once. Subordinating conjunctions don’t just link words, they introduce a dependent clause and establish a relationship between the main sentence and the dependent clause. Although he is at school, he doesn’t answer any questions.

Some French conjunctions are not easy to use. They may require the subjunctive bien que which means "although", or à moins que, which means "unless". Although they are not as straightforward to use it is well worth learning some examples so that you can astound an examiner. Don’t be like this student - Bien qu’il soit à l’école, il ne répond pas aux questions.

A bientôt

Monday, 26 January 2009

Il faut etc

It is nice to do what you are told, so recognising signs is fairly important. Défense de, il est défendu du, il est interdit de, and interdiction de all mean you can’t do something. Il est interdit de cracher sur la pelouse is one of my memories of a trip to Versailles as a teenager. I wasn’t even thinking of spitting on the lawn, and it is not a sign that I have seen in England.

You can also be told that you have to do something. The easiest way of telling someone is just saying the sentence. Vous tournez à droite. You can also say vous devez tourner à droite if you have to do it or il faut tourner à droite.

A bientôt

Sunday, 25 January 2009


About three years ago I met David Shayler, the former MI5 officer. I asked him if he spoke French. If you say 'est-ce qu'on peut parler français?' the people who say they speak French usually make their excuses and you continue to speak English. In David's case he spoke French very well. I asked him how he had learned and he said he was taught at school and he also picked up his French from prison in France. We didn't go into detail about his time in prison but it just shows that every cloud...

I met him again about a year later on the Champs Elysées. I introduced myself and told him where we had met. He didn't seem too interested in taking up our previously enthralling conversation. In fact I only heard hein. This is a very common French noise and sounds like vin without the v. Hein can mean eh? (It was David Shayler). It can also be the equivalent of n'est-ce pas?

Vous étudiez le français hein?

A bientôt

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Faux Amis

I will let you know about more words ending in ion but keep thinking about them, and use your gumption!

I like false friends. They are words that look or sound the same in the two languages but they have different meanings. According to one famous teacher of French, 60% of English comes from French so we can guess a lot of French words; however there are these faux amis. If you see the word Christian in French it is a masculine name. If you want to translate the word "Christian" into French it is un chrétien. Another example is la monnaie. It is not "money" but literally means "silver". La monnaie usually means the change that you get back when you have paid for something or it can mean "currency".

Vous avez de la chance means "you are lucky". If you want to talk about "a chance" then you have to use the word un hasard, une possibilité, or une occasion, for example if you want to say "I didn't have a chance to..."

Why do I like faux amis? They make you think about the words that you are using and so you will remember them.

A bientôt

Friday, 23 January 2009

Where do you live?

Keep learning things that mean something to you. It is fairly easy to say that you live in a town. J’habite à Preston or wherever you live. It is fairly straightforward for countries. J’habite en Angleterre. However did you know that when you live in a county it is j’habite dans le Lancashire.

Of course life is not this easy. You live en feminine countries but au masculine countries. There are not that many masculine countries but if you have Welsh connections then you have to learn au pays de Galles and you may even need to know aux États-Unis.

It is nice to know that ils ont débarqué au Havre. It tells you that sometimes you have to change the Le in Le Havre, but almost always the word to translates with à - je vais à Londres.

A bientôt

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Des Chiffres et Des Lettres.

Countdown was the first programme to be seen on Channel Four way back in 1982. If you think that is a long time then compare it to the original French version that has been running since 1965. The French version is called Des Chiffres et Des Lettres. You can guess the words for letters and because of the French links with English there are thousands of other French words that you can guess. You may not know that chiffre means "digit" or "number" but you could have guessed if you know what they do on Countdown.

So you can have un chiffre which means "a number" but so too does un nombre . When do you use one and when do you use the other? There are so many ways that we can say the word number, so the best answer is to go and live in France and experience these words. This is what a language is all about. If this is not an option then take a look in a dictionary and you will see dozens of translations for number depending on what you want to say.

We are back to learning peu à peu. If you want to write out a number in figures then you want to write un nombre en chiffres. Un nombre de six chiffres is "a six-figure number". You could also guess the translation of les chiffres officiels and les chiffres de chômage. We are also back to learning the things that mean something to you. If you are not going to speak about the unemployment figures then it is not something that you need to learn. Go and find the words that mean something to you.

If you are wondering what "countdown" is in French it is compter à rebours which also means "to count backwards", but you remember the translation for the programme Countdown - Des Chiffres et Des Lettres.

A bientôt

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Expressions idiomatiques

The idiom to kill two birds with one stone got me thinking about les expressions idiomatiques and how often the literal meaning does not explain the sentence. I once heard a nurse talk to a Spanish doctor (in England) and she spoke about a patient with a nasty bug. The doctor may have understood the words but he certainly didn't understand what she was saying. Knowing the literal meaning can help but I'm afraid that with idioms very often you have to be told what they mean.

There are some expressions that you can work out like 'entre chien et loup'. Dogs are awake during the day and wolves are awake at night. So when you talk about between the two you are talking about dusk or twilight. If you call a cat a cat, it is like calling a spade a spade.

My favourite is 'ce n'est pas la mer à boire' which literally means it is not the sea to drink. Drinking the sea would be an impossible task so you are telling someone that it is not as bad as it seems. If you really want to sound French then just say c'est pas la mer à boire. Just like in English, there are shorter easier ways to communicate. If in doubt always give the full sentence, but nobody will have a problem losing the ne in this sentence.

If you want to kill two birds with one stone in French you have to faire d'une pierre deux coups, to hit twice with the same stone.

Finally for today, the expression 'sauter du coq à l’âne' means to jump from cock to donkey and this means to jump from one subject to another - sounds like this blog.

A bientôt

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

To be or not to be employed

In English we say I go, and he goes. The change in the word go is called agreement, and just like English, French verbs have to agree too. There are many verbs that follow regular patterns but one of the most important verbs is also one that changes the most - to be. It is worth knowing all parts of this verb, but the best way to learn it is with words that mean something to you. For example, think of jobs. I am a civil servant (fonctionairre) or you are a journalist (journaliste).

If you are talking about jobs the French don't use the word 'a'. I am a dentist is je suis dentiste. If he is unemployed it is slightly different. Il est au chômage.

Learn the verb and learn it with people that you know and add their jobs. This will help you remember the verb and the name of the job. You can kill two birds with one stone.

A bientôt

Monday, 19 January 2009

Accents help

Accents help

French has accents that either help with pronunciation or help distinguish words. So they are helpful. Today I will write about the grave accent and the dieresis.

The grave accent (accent grave) occurs on the letters a e and u making à è and ù, and in most cases makes no difference to the pronunciation but does help distinguish words. The word la (the) becomes (there). Ou (or) becomes (where). Au delà means beyond. There is a great song from Johnny Hallyday called 'Sang pour Sang'. Try to listen to it if you can. One line is au delà de nos differences...

The dieresis is commonly known as an umlaut and in French is called a tréma. It is two dots placed over the second of two vowels that are together and makes you pronounce the two vowels. So it makes a huge difference to pronunciation. If you ask for a citron you will get a lemon. If you ask for a Citroën you will get a car.

A bientöt

Sunday, 18 January 2009


Whenever you learn a French word, don't forget to learn the gender. It is either masculine or feminine. It is le or la. It is un or une. When a child grows up in France they are told to put something on the table. The word 'the' naturally occurs and the French child knows it is la table not le table.

One simple way in which you can improve your confidence in speaking French is to learn the difference in pronunciation between un and une. Un is pronounced with just a hint of an N, whereas the N is definitely pronounced with une. Use the internet. There are many sites where you can hear these words. Very often people find speaking the hardest of the language skills so get these words right and you will get a few words right in every sentence that you say.

A common question is why do the French make their language so complicated with two genders? The question should be why has English lost its gender? Old English words had gender which was lost in the Middle Ages. We are lucky that we don't have to learn different words for the or a, but English is complicated enough. Be grateful that you speak English already and don't knock the French for any complications, as French is relatively easy.

A bientôt

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Peu à Peu

Welcome to the first entry in this blog on how to learn French. If you want to speak a language you have to learn little by little. There are no lesson plans, no tests, no homework, but you may learn something that will add to your knowledge of French.

According to one famous teacher of French there are three words in English that end with the letters ion that do not translate into French. All the others do. So if you say the word nation in a French accent then you are talking in French. The three exceptions are vacation which is vacances, translation which is traduction, and explanation which is explication. Now this gives you a vocabulary of well over a thousand French words - except it doesn't as there are quite a few more exceptions. However in general you will be able to use your knowledge of English to help your French.

I'll let you know some other exceptions at a later date. In the meantime try to discover them for yourself. To learn anything you have to enjoy the learning process. So I am not going to give out any detentions or make you write any lines.

If you want to say something in French that everyone will agree with and will make you sound clever then try 'je crois qu'on apprend le français peu à peu'. If you don't know what this means try a dictionary and enjoy using it.

A bientôt