Learning the Language AND Cultural Vocabulary Online

How do you learn proper nouns, place names, brands, acronyms or other culture-specific vocabulary if you aren’t immersed in the culture? Before I moved to France, I knew that Carrefour was one of the largest stores and so I used their online ads to learn vocabulary for everyday objects that I would need when I arrived. But then it got me thinking about other stores in France and how I would even go about finding out their names and what they sell. What if Carrefour didn’t have what I wanted? Where else could I go?

Most countries have their own version of the yellow pages, so I started with pagesjaunes.fr and typed in magasin de + whatever I was looking for to find the names of stores that would hopefully have websites. And by visiting their websites, I could learn more vocabulary instead of just the generic words that are found in books. There are more than sofas (canapés) and chairs (chaises) to sit on, and thanks to sites like Conforama or But I was able to learn several new words for types of furniture that I didn’t even know in English. Clic-clac, banquette, BZ, pouf, chauffeuse, poire?

Sitting on a poire doesn’t seem like a good idea… but when referring to furniture and not fruit, it’s actually a bean bag chair.

Once I moved to France and started receiving ads for local businesses (whether I wanted them or not), I could also learn the names of stores and new vocabulary that way. For restaurants and prepared dishes, it was slightly harder. Again, I could find local restaurants on pagesjaunes.fr but not many had websites or put their menus online and few sent out ads, unlike the major stores. So I just resorted to taking pictures of the menus and translating them all when I got home. (This is what inspired me to create the Realia page.)

However, finding this cultural vocabulary for household items or food was only half the battle. What about proper nouns, like places, peoples’ names, abbreviations, acronyms, metonyms, etc. and most importantly, how to pronounce them?  I had a hard time understanding my students’ names when I first started teaching English here because there were so many names that I had never heard before and half the time I didn’t even know if the name referred to a man or a woman. Listening to the news is a good way to hear names of countries or cities, but of course, it will only be those places that are constantly in the news. French absolutely loves to use acronyms and abbreviations in everyday speech but the string of letters didn’t mean much to me until someone said the full name.

Cultural vocabulary isn’t usually included in books because it is too location-dependent and it does change over time just like slang. People in Quebec talk about the Sears catalog, but here in France it’s LaRedoute or 3Suisses. If you travel by train in France, the national company is called the SNCF, while in Belgium it’s the SNCB and in Switzerland it’s the CFF. In Quebec, people buy books, DVDs and music from Archambault; but in France, people shop at FNAC.

So how do we learn to pronounce and recognize this extremely important cultural vocabulary? Listening to authentic language as much as possible and asking native speakers for their input is the obvious answer. But if you aren’t yet in the country and you don’t have access to native speakers whenever you want, you can use the internet:

  • Wikipedia has good articles on generalized brand names (propietary eponyms) in several languages so you can discover what people actually say beyond the well-known ones from English (Kleenex, Frisbee, Xerox , etc.)
  • Search each country’s Google page or Yellow pages to find names of certain stores selling clothes, shoes, sports gear, furniture, etc. I guarantee the vocabulary used on those sites will include many, many words than those found in textbooks. If the sites don’t include pictures, then use each country’s images.google page to find out what exactly it is.
  • For pronunciation, you can try Forvo because they have categories such as brands, geography and internet.
  • Get a native speaker to record target words for you at Rhinospike.
  • Or you can try your luck with Acapela, computer-generated speech which is surprisingly accurate (at least for the French proper nouns I tried.)
  • If you know the IPA, LaRousse dictionaries includes a lot of metonyms and eponyms, such as Elysée and Sopalin and some do have audio included, like Matignon and Photomaton.

Pronunciation dictionaries exist in English, but I can’t seem to find any in French that include proper nouns and vocabulary from more than one country that uses the language. Insiders’ French is a good dictionary of this vocabulary but it only refers to France and doesn’t include pronunciation. The online Dictionary of Modern France is very helpful too, but again, limited to France.  The books that do include cultural vocabulary are usually written for advanced learners and so are completely in French, but even beginning learners need to know certain cultural concepts, especially if they are living in the country with limited knowledge of the language. Culture needs to be taught along with the basics of the language from the very beginning. This is my biggest problem with textbooks and even social language learning sites. They all present bland, generic vocabulary that no one really uses and create fake situations and dialogs from it instead of just using authentic materials and the words that people actually say in everyday language.

I’ve tried to help learners with France-based vocabulary and included pronunciation of common acronyms and regions/cities in France but there are many more proper nouns that I need to add, especially names.

  • Zhu

    Very interesting! I never thought of it really but you are right, it is important to learn this kind of vocabulary. I was clueless when I first came to Canada and heard words such as DUI, Xeroxing, “Sev'” (for 7/11 stores) etc. I guess I learned little by little.

    I love using Wikipedia for cultural references I have no clue about. A lot of “famous people” in North America are unknown in France, i.e. the OJ Simpson story.

  • Interesting post! You’re absolutely right on with the need to learn from authentic language. You’ll find lots of authentic language audio with transcript at LingQ (www.lingq.com). Check it out if you haven’t already.

  • Jennie, I just found your site via Anne's wonderful 'Posted in Paris' — I feel like I've discovered an amazing goldmine of wonderful, expert information and am excited to explore ielanguages and your blog further!
    Congratulations on your move to France and university teaching there — I'm so impressed with your background and CV and know I will learn a lot from your site.
    Cheers from Sydney (and sometimes Paris) – and Go Blue 🙂

  • The proprietary eponym thing got me wondering… do French people in need of their daily fix go looking for a cafe, coffeeshop, or a “Starbucks”? I'm aware that cafe simply means “coffee,” but what does one in France call a coffeehouse? I don't recall there being a straightforward translation, so I wonder if Starbucks is beginning to provide one (at least in greater Paris), now that it's infected America.

  • biraualexandra

    If you want to discover more funny furniture names you shoud try the dicount shops like http://www.lefaillitaire.com/produits/accueil-p… (“meubles d'appoint” it took me a long time to discover what that really means) or http://www.meubles-opportunites.com/ (bonnetier – i think it's hilarious). Anyway all's good when it ends good…so now i don't have any more problems with french pronunciation…i just have a cute accent.

  • ielanguages

    Café is used for coffee and the place to buy coffee. Starbucks is pretty much only in Paris so not many people know about it. I think most people would just use café or even bar.

  • ielanguages

    Thanks Carolyn! Glad you like the blog! 🙂

  • Emily

    Hi Jennie- Since returning to Alaska from France my French has dwindled (to put it lightly) when I wanted it to improve for my career/personal enjoyment. I’m strongly considering buying the 12-month subscription to Rosetta Stone’s online version, but I don’t know much about the program except what is advertised. Do you have any thoughts on Rosetta Stone? Have you come across any good self-study schedules for working adults learning new languages?

    • If you’re going to pay for a language learning website, I’d suggest Yabla since it’s authentic language. Unfortunately most commercial programs are too artificial and don’t teach enough vocabulary or the vocabulary that is actually used in real life.