Illustration by Grace Easton, courtesy of the Bright Agency.
How hard is it to learn French? It’s a good question, especially if you’re dying to have a tête à tête with that dishy French baker but the idea of verb conjugation makes you want to put your head in a bucket! Babbel’s expert linguists are here to serve up the easiest bits and guide you past the potential pitfalls of learning French. Superbe, you say? On y va! (Let’s go!)
The Easy Bits
The French Connection
You might not have noticed, but as an English speaker you also already speak quite a lot of French due to centuries of linguistic influence. Both Latin and French have had a huge impact on English, and because of this, we share an astonishing number of words. In fact, it’s estimated that around 45% of modern English comes from French — that’s around 80,000 words (that you don’t need to learn)!
If I said to you: “The exhibition about avant-garde literature was fantastic, but the croissants in the museum café were magnificent!” would you immediately spot that half of these words are cognates (meaning that they mean the same thing in both languages)? We use French words to describe nearly every aspect of our culture (yes, that’s French) — from economics and politics, to aviation, science, color, music, and architecture. This gives you a healthy head start as far as vocabulary is concerned.
Disclaimer! There are both true and false cognates — so although two words look similar, there may be subtle (if not huge) differences in meaning. Be attentive when using attendre (to wait), and don’t mix up your bras (arms) with your bra or your monnaie (loose change) with your money!
The Tough Parts
Tongue-Tied In Toulouse
But how are all these words pronounced? It’s likely that the very first hurdle you’re going to meet is the strange cacophony of sounds you hear when a French person opens their mouth. What’s worse is the horrifying speed that French people can speak at. It can be intimidating when you venture into a bar to get a drink and your innocent “Je voudrais un orangina” is met with a lengthy, unintelligible tirade that possibly covers the high price of petrol, the weather in the Dordogne, and the terrible state of the town hall. But who can be sure? You didn’t actually catch anything except “pfff“ and “bof.”
Then there’s the other, more common response: the blank stare and raised eyebrow.
Tips For Making Pronunciation Easier
Well, there are several strategies you can employ. One that’s popular with the British is repeating what you just said, only more loudly (if not indignantly). Another, far better idea, is to spend a little time working on your pronunciation skills before you march into a French café, parched and desperate. Because, honestly, it’s not that hard! As a native English speaker, you may not have ever considered how random English pronunciation is, but if you consider that the OU in “you,” “though,” “thou” and “rough” are all pronounced differently, you start to get the idea. If millions of people successfully learn our bizarrely spelled language every year, chances are you’ll work out the inconsistencies of French pronunciation.
Another tip is to increase your exposure to spoken French — and here you have a real advantage. France’s cultural output is énorme, so you’re spoiled for choice. Watching French films and TV with (French) subtitles, as well as listening to songs, podcasts and radio are all great ways to get your ears attuned to the melodies, cadences, and speed of French. And with so many native speakers worldwide, finding a tandem partner is easy! The Swiss French speak a bit slower than their cousins over the border, so it’s worth tuning in to Geneva Live online or even planning a trip to the Alps!
So yes, we do share an incroyable (guess what: incredible) amount of vocab with the French. But aside from pronunciation, there’s another little complication: All of those familiar looking nouns have a grammatical gender! It’s strange but true — French nouns are either masculine or feminine. “Why?” you may ask. The only answer we can think of is: “To make life difficile.”
Don’t be disheartened, it’s just a matter of learning the gender and definite article (le/la) when you learn the word — and remember that adjectives must agree with the gender of nouns. There are a few simple rules to follow, and then you’ve cracked it!
Conjugate, Conjugate, Conjugate!
This is the bit you’ve been dreading: verb conjugation (I can see you looking around now for a place to hide). It’s unfortunate, but French does have rather a lot of tenses. The good news is that some of these are rarely, if ever, used. It gets even easier in spoken French, where conjugated forms often sound the same. Take the present tense of danser (to dance), for example, where the verb forms in je danse / tu danses / il danse / ils dansent (I/you/he/they dance) are pronounced almost identically. If you concentrate on common patterns like this, it’ll be much easier to conjugate and pronounce French verbs.
How Long Before I Can Schmooze In Flawless Français?
So how long does it take to learn French? Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re going to need time and patience (so, not a week), and “how long” depends on a variety of factors. You will be able to learn a lot in a little time if you dedicate yourself solely to the task, and even more quickly if you move to a French-speaking country.
Neither Rome nor Paris were built in a day, however, and to be truly fluent is the task of years. Your best bet is to set yourself mini-goals, reward yourself for each small success, and use all the resources at your disposal: apps, classes, tandem partners, media, and so on. Immerse yourself in la vie française and if you’re lucky enough to have a French mother-in-law, give her a call!
So What Is ‘La Plume de Ma Tante’?
It turns out that this odd-sounding phrase, which literally means “the feather (quill or pen) of my aunt,” isn’t a secret greeting used by French resistance fighters, but rather was once used to teach and memorize the sounds of the French vowel [a]. It’s also the title of a 1950s Tony Award–winning musical comedy satirizing French society. The lyrics to its theme song are:
- The pen of my aunt
- Is on the bureau of my uncle,
- The paper of my uncle
- Is on the bureau of my aunt.
- If you don’t parlez vous français
- Then this will be Greek to you,
- If you can’t figure out what the words are all about
- Just sing la la la la loo
Start out by singing la la la la loo and before you know it you’ll be penning your own French satires!