Here’s the thing to understand about French learners: They are legion. Beyond the sheer scale of French-speaking countries in the world (it’s an official language in 29 of them), French is also the second most-studied language in the world, after English. And it’s only expected to keep growing at a rate that outpaces most others.
And yet — just because there are a lot of people in the same boat doesn’t mean that the boat doesn’t occasionally wobble and capsize. French learners understand what it is to struggle through strange vowel sounds that are inexplicable in their spelling. French learners know the pain of never-ending lessons in grammatical gender. And they certainly get what it means to stumble through copy-cat words that sound exactly the same but have totally different spellings and meanings.
If this is you, surely you can relate.
7 Battles French Learners Must Wage
1. Suddenly, double negatives are correct
Your English teacher growing up was all, “Don’t use double negatives.” Your French teacher is all, “You can’t properly negate a sentence unless you use two negative terms.” Usually, this requires a combination of ne (placed after the subject) and another negative after the verb, which is most often pas but can also be plus, rien, etc. Anyway, this one probably messed with your head when you first learned it.
2. False cognates can be a world of pain
It’s estimated that around 30 percent of English words come from French. You would think that would make things easier for someone with an English background. And in a sense, it does. But this is one of those cases where “easier” becomes a lesson in “be careful what you wish for.”
As English speakers, we’re constantly using words with French origins like “etiquette,” “sabotage” and “dentist.” But this can also lull you into a sense of false security as a French learner. Not every word that looks familiar is familiar for the reasons you think they are. The word envie means something closer to “desire” than “envy,” and journée is not a “journey,” but rather a “day” (then again, is not each day a journey unto itself?).
On top of that, you’ll probably also have to dig past an additional layer of unlearning all the Franglais you casually absorbed growing up. A lot of the French you think is French isn’t actually French, and that brings confusion.
3. The agony of accent marks
The first time you really have to interrogate what it means for a word like déjà vu to be spelled that way, your head might spin a bit. It might spin a bit the second time you interrogate it too. Why does the accent grave have the same effect as the circumflex? What even is the point? And on top of the fact that accent marks change how letters are pronounced, there’s also the matter of stress to consider, which is a separate matter and will probably result in even fewer French people understanding you if you get it wrong.
4. Half the letters aren’t even pronounced
There’s a joke about French that’s basically like, “Don’t worry about the spelling, you really only need to pronounce the first half of the word anyway.” French is notorious for its silent but deadly minefields of silent letters, but it’s not trolling French learners on purpose. At one time, those letters actually were pronounced. The spelling you’re learning is mostly a reflection of what the language looked like at the time of standardization, given a few spelling reforms here and there. Pronunciation evolves on a separate and faster track, however, and a big part of that has involved dropping letters at the ends of words.
5. Verb conjugations are barely pronounced, either
Okay, this one might be a bit of an exaggeration and arguably, this lets you get away with not always knowing your verb conjugations on the fly. French is confusing in that it both has a lot of verb tenses and also doesn’t really express them in spoken language because a lot of the conjugated forms sound sort of the same. Je danse, tu danses, il danse, ils dansent — we all danse.
6. The spelling is…unkind
The flip side of having a language where the spoken language plays loose with the written language? The written language makes the spoken language look like child’s play. French spelling doesn’t follow a phonetic pattern. If you thought it was confusing that you drop half the letters when you’re speaking out loud, wait until you have to actually learn what order all the vowels in hors d’oeuvres go in.
On top of that, homophones. Homophones are two or more words that sound the same but are spelled differently and mean something totally different, like date and datte. May the odds be ever in your favor!
7. Having a nose but still not understanding nasal sounds
French is full of sounds that may not exist in your native language, and this is certainly true for English speakers. Take, for instance, nasal sounds. When vowels are followed by an m or n, they are pronounced, well, nasally. This means you have to form the sound further back in the mouth, such that air flows through both the mouth and nose. Instead of sounding delicate and suave, you’re just out there honking like a goose for no good reason. Everyone has an awkward stage, but some awkward stages are more painful. French learners would know.