Just how foreign is French for English speakers?

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French teacher Valerie de la Rochette tells us just how French the English language is, but that there are a few traps hidden in that familiarity too.

When I’m teaching French to students who are new to the language I like to point out that about 30 percent of modern English is inherited from French and it’s not as foreign to them as they may have first thought.

Of course, the English language comes from many different sources: Celtic, German from the tribes (Angles, Jutes and Saxons) who settled in Britain around 450 AD, Latin and Old Norse (Scandinavian).

French, after the Norman conquest of 1066, took over as the language of the court, administration and culture. The British Crown still has a Royal coat of arms carrying not just one but two French mottos: Honi soit qui mal y pense (evil to him who evil thinks) and Dieu et Mon Droit (God and my Right) sending a clear signal that these distant Norman cousins have still a place here.

 French connections to English

So although French became the language of  government, law, culture – including cooking (or cuisine, shall I say), English was a more popular and simple language.

For example, here are some words of French origin and their English equivalent:

French English
Continue Go on
Encounter Meet
Purchase Buy
Justice Fairness
Discover Find

The French version is the more complex and less frequently used, while the English is more common and simple.

Anglo Saxon English was ignored by those in authority, allowing it to develop through everyday use to become a straightforward, practical language.

As Middle English developed, eventually becoming the modern English we recognise today, it absorbed much from the French language it had once ignored.

This made the English language very rich with lots of different and nuanced forms of expression. For a student learning French, this provides plenty of opportunities to guess some of the words and meanings.

When my students encounter such words, I ask them to see if there’s a similar word in English that may help them to understand the meaning of the particular word.

For example, in a recent class with a beginner, I asked her what she thought this sentence meant: Découvrez gratuitement plus de 30 langues

It only took her a few seconds to understand all the main words:

  • découvrez = discover
  • gratuitement = gratis
  • langues = languages

For many, the links between French and English are clear, but not everyone gets the connections:

"The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur".

Allegedly said George W. Bush, unaware that entrepreneur is in fact a French word, from the verb entreprendre which can be translated as ‘to start up’, a particularly fashionable way to describe entrepreneurial endeavours these days.

Listening and speaking French

Although it may be relatively easy for most English speakers to recognise the connection between French and English when it’s written down, it’s often a different story when it comes to speaking and listening.

Pronunciation in French is a tricky business. Sometimes you hear sounds that aren’t written and you don’t hear some letters though they are in front of you.

Just a few examples include words like protection, superstition, révolution, télévision, capitalisme, justice.In these cases the meaning is easy enough to figure out, but the sound is different.

French teachers spend a lot of time making students, repeat theseencore et encore. Be patient, as once you have mastered these intricate syllables and ‘u’ and ‘e’ sounds, it will be like removing ear plugs from muffled sounds hardly intelligible, it’ll feel like high definition speakers!

False friends in French

There are also many French words that look like English words, but the meaning is different. These faux amisor false friends can be fun to uncoverand you’ll learn two new words in the process.

One I come across regularly is ‘a library’ and une librairie. Library is bibliothèque, et librairie is bookshop. Rather than giving the translation straightaway, I ask the students if in a library you buy or borrow books. The question instantly highlights that the word in question may not be what it seems.

There is one faux amis I only discovered through my English speaking students: formidable. Until recently, I never knew that in English it has a negative connotation, while in French we use it to express that a person or thing is fantastic.

This sense of déjà-vu (already seen) should start making you feel at home. In my experience, this familiarity helps to build the confidence of students new to the French language.

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Our teachers speak French and get you using the language from the very start of your course through role play, games and problem-solving activities. You also work on grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, enabling you to use French independently in a wide range of situations.

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