Culturally Relevant Photos of French Objects: Learning the Cultural Significance of Words

Following up on my recent post about cultural differences in photos, I have begun taking pictures of culturally relevant objects in France as an extension to my realia project that originally included written objects in French, such as signs, brochures, menus, receipts, etc. Now I want to add realia pertaining to visual differences among cultures and how a word in one language sometimes cannot translate exactly to another.

For example, the closest thing to a washcloth (that Americans know as a square piece of cloth) in France is actually un gant de toilette, which you can put your hand inside like a glove. Should we say that a washcloth = un gant de toilette even though they are not exactly the same thing?

How about approximations according to what is most common in each culture? In the US, most modern homes are heated by furnaces while in France most homes are heated by radiateurs, whether cast iron or electric.  Some homes even have underfloor heating. Even though Americans know what radiators are since they are still common in older houses, how would you go about translating the concept of a furnace into French? Simply use the culturally equivalent item? But then if you had only learned vocabulary by memorizing the spelling and pronunciation of the translation from your native language, how would you even know that French homes don’t have furnaces?

Here are a few other objects that are almost the same, but with slight differences.

Paper has grids, not lines, and more holes along the side

Milk is sold in one liter bottles, and most do not need to be refrigerated before opening

A wall outlet tends to be round with two circular holes for the prongs

Once again, language and culture cannot be separated. If you don’t learn them together, you will never have a full understanding of either. This is why I intend to add photos to the flashcards and I have added another page to the Realia section for this Cultural Realia of France.  All of the photos I take in France will be released under the same Creative Commons License that I used for the French Listening Resources mp3s so that other teachers and learners of French may use them in their classes or for self-study.

  • I don’t buy that milk, they also sell real milk in plastic bottles just like in the US … I think it’s less popular and more expensive but that UHT milk tastes like cheese! In Quebec milk comes in waxed cardboard.

    • Have you seen those milk distributeurs? There’s one in the parking lot of the LeClerc here. They deliver fresh milk every morning and you buy it directly from the machine. It’s a bit bizarre but at least it’s not UHT!

  • Mil

    This is a great idea! I’m gonna pass it along to my friend in the US who loves all things French.

  • Hugo

    Ces différences culturelles expliquent aussi les différences lexicales entre le Canada français et l’Europe francophone. Par exemple, nous n’utilisons pas (ou très peu) le gant de toilette, mais nous avons des « débarbouillettes » (du verbe « débarbouiller »).

  • Oh thank you, this is very practical stuff that may very well be useful to me. I’m planning a week in France this March – I’m so excited! But I’m also worried that I’ll be completely tongue-tied and unable to communicate…

  • Zhu

    This is funny because I had the reverse experience, discovering objects in North America that were similar but not quite! I miss the French paper though, I hate the grid one.

    • Isn’t it interesting to learn about all the differences? I love comparing France and Canada because even though they both speak French, their cultures are so different that you have to learn two different “languages” to really understand. Just like with US and UK English.

  • sparkling74

    My students never cease to be amazed by the dramatic difference in paper from the US and France. And as a student, it drove me crazy that my American binder wouldn’t fit the French paper!

    • I’m glad I found out that the paper was a different size before coming to France because I had been planning to bring binders too. It is really annoying (for OCD people like me) when the paper sizes don’t match and the holes aren’t where they’re supposed to be!

  • Interesting article. When I was living in London they had similar heater/radiateur. Many things that we take as granted in France are nowhere to be seen in Australia, like for example a normal “bol” to drink café au lait at breakfast. I find cultural differences fascinating!