Category Archives: Learning French

Listen to the Languages of France & French around the World

Corpus de la Parole is a great site for anyone interested in the languages spoken in France and the DOM-TOMs. If you’ve ever wanted to hear what Alsacien, Basque, Breton, Francoprovençal, Picard, Occitan, or Reunion creole sounds like, there are audio files and some transcripts available.  There is also a lot of information on the various languages and creoles spoken throughout the territoire of France, especially in Guyana, Tahiti and New Caledonia. The site is written entirely in French, of course, and designed more for linguists because of the terminology used.

A link on Corpus de la Parole led me to the Phonologie du français contemporain site, which includes a teaching French section with several extraits of French speakers reading texts and having conversations, all with transcripts (but no translations.) Most of the material is designed for the advanced level and includes several accents of authentic language in Europe, Africa, and North America. I wish I had found this site earlier!

For beginning learners of French, TUFS Language Modules offers 40 dialogs in either standard French or Quebecois French with options for French and/or English subtitles.  They are scripted and rehearsed so not quite as authentic as other resources, but still helpful for those who are just starting out in French, and especially for those who need help with the Quebecois accent.  The Swiss French version should be online around June 2011.

Languages of the European Union, Traveling in the Schengen Area, and Using the Euro (or Not)

The European Union’s official web portal,, is translated into the 23 official languages: Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish. Each page on the site has the same layout regardless of language so you can easily compare them side by side, as I mentioned in my previous post on multilingualism.

In the next few years, Croatian and Icelandic will be added as Croatia and Iceland finish their accession negotiations and officially join the EU. Macedonia and Turkey are the other current candidate countries, while the rest of the Balkan states – Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia – are potential candidates, which would put the number of languages over 30. Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Andorra and the city-states of Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City are not in the EU.

Naturally all of these languages was the reason I loved the idea of the EU, and being an EU citizen is the golden ticket since you can live and work in any other EU country just as if you were a citizen of that country, with some exceptions. Imagine having the right to work in 27 countries, plus any other countries that eventually join the Union. For someone who needs to be surrounded by languages, becoming an EU citizen would be like winning the language lottery. The Schengen Area (making traveling easier) and the Eurozone (making money issues easier) also contributed to my desire to live in Europe, but in the end, these three entities make the idea of “Europe” even more complicated, whether you live/work here or are just visiting as a tourist.

The Schengen Area includes most of the EU members, except the UK and Ireland, plus Norway, Switzerland, and the city-states; while Liechtenstein, Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus have yet to implement the Schengen rules. For tourists who don’t need a visa to visit Europe anyway, there are no more passport checks at every border, but there are still random checks on trains and buses. It makes crossing the border faster, but that’s about it. Personally, I really miss getting stamps in my passport. And neither the EU nor Schengen Area actually means that European countries are united together like Americans would probably think of. It still costs a LOT of money to leave a rental car in a different country, even if the distance is rather short between the two agencies. We paid 350€ to leave a car in Lyon when we picked it up in Turin (3.5 hour drive), though leaving that same car in Naples (8 hour drive) would have only cost 75€. Flying between European countries sometimes also requires you to go through security and passport control again at airports when you have layovers. In theory, flying within the Schengen Area is supposed to be flying “domestically” but in four years and dozens of flights later, I have yet to experience anything similar to “domestic” flying in the US where you get off one plane directly at the gate and wander over to a different gate to get on another plane. Your departure, arrival, as well as transfer airports must all be in the Schengen Area, but that’s actually difficult since most transfers go through London and some airports require everyone to go through passport control & security again anyway because they don’t have Schengen vs. non-Schengen zones.

The Eurozone currently includes only 16 out of the 27 EU members, though Estonia will adopt the euro in 2011. Some non-EU countries use it as well, such as the city-states and Andorra, Kosovo and Montenegro. The UK, Denmark, Sweden and most of the eastern countries do not use the euro. Honestly I don’t understand why the UK, Denmark and Sweden have gotten away with not using it when the newer members (Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) must eventually adopt it. What’s the point of the EU is there are opt-outs to certain laws and regulations? It’s just as unfair as states in the same country having different laws (talking about you, not-so-United States.)

I would love if the EU and Schengen Space were the same – I really wish Norway and Switzerland would join the EU! – but I’m not so keen on the euro. For tourists, it is great to not have to exchange money all the time. But when you live here, it just makes the cost of living ridiculously high and it’s very unfair when one country has higher salaries and a lower cost of living, but the next country over has the exact opposite (ahem, Germany and France). If you’re all going to use the same currency, why can’t prices and salaries be the same too? The euro has been in the news a lot lately because of the economic problems in Greece and Spain, and every French person I know complains about how expensive everything is with the euro. Ten years ago a baguette cost 2.50 francs (or 0.38€) and today it costs 0.85€ while salaries have barely increased, unless you’re the lucky ones who work in Luxembourg or Switzerland.

I suppose all of these differences depend on what union is supposed to mean. I know there is no real United States of Europe, and in any case, I would not want something similar to the United States of America. I have a lot of problems with states having more control than the federal government in a country that is supposedly rather homogeneous (in what world is it fair that some human beings can marry who they want but other human beings cannot depending on what state they live in, even if they are citizens of the same country???) yet at the same time, I would not want a strong federal government controlling states in Europe that are so diverse because of history, culture and language. Of course, I’m more of an observer and outsider since I am not an EU citizen. I can’t imagine what it would be like for my country to join a union of other countries, change its currency, and no longer have control over its own borders. Perhaps EU citizens can enlighten me on your feelings about it?

Thank you Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland for your Multilingualism

The other main countries in Europe that speak French are Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland; however, they do not just have French as an official language. Belgium also has Dutch and German; Luxembourg has German and Luxembourgish; and Switzerland has German, Italian, and Romansh. What that means for language lovers is that certain websites have multiple translations and you can use one language to learn another as well as learn about the culture of the country at the same time.

If you like art, the Museum of Modern Art Grand-Duc Jean (MUDAM)’s website is in French and German.  Maybe you’d like to know train vocabulary in German, French and Italian. Try Switzerland’s official rail company. Need to learn words for various food and grocery items so you know what to ask for at the store? is available in French and Dutch thanks to Belgium. (Just choose a store that is on the border, such as Leers.) Then just use two browsers and put the windows side by side to compare the vocabulary.

Of course there are many other websites that provide translations into other languages, such as Wikipedia, but the content isn’t always the same so it’s much harder to compare. Another reason to use websites based in multilingual countries is so you can be sure (well, almost) that the translations are correct. Multilingual countries make much more of an effort to ensure quality translations by hiring professional translators – and not using computer translations – so that all of their citizens can have access to information in their native language(s).

Even though France is a monolingual country, a lot of resources are translated into English for tourists, but I’ve come across too many French websites with English translations that were obviously copied from Google Translate. The official tourism website,, does offer translations in four languages and even though I haven’t seen any mistakes in the English translations so far, the content is not exactly the same or even in the same place on each version so it’s difficult to compare and use it properly as a learning tool.

The French Language Outside of France

The Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) just published La Langue française dans le monde 2010, its most recent report on the state of the French language in the world today. It will be in bookstores October 21 (éd. Nathan, 26€), just a day before the XIIIème Sommet de la Francophonie takes place this weekend, October 22-24, in Montreux, Switzerland.

Some statistics on the French language:

  • 220 million people speak French in the world, either as a first or second language (20 million more than just 3 years ago!)
  • 116 million people are learning French as a second or third language
  • most native speakers of French live in Europe, eastern Canada and the US (Maine and Louisiana)
  • most second language speakers of French live in West & Central Africa
  • 67% of people who speak French or who are learning French are located in Africa (compared to 23% in Europe, 8% in the Americas, and 2% in Asia/Oceania)
  • French is the 8th most used language on the internet
  • French is the 4th most spoken language in the United States (after English, Spanish, and Chinese)
  • French is the 3rd most spoken language in the European Union (after German and English)
  • French is the official language in 29 countries and commonly used in 7 other countries
  • the OIF includes 56 member states and 14 observer states who promote the French language (excluding Algeria, Israel, Aosta Valley in Italy, and the US, where French is also spoken by a large number of people)

Over 60 million people speak French as a native language in France, but this include the DOM-TOMS, so remember that there are many places all over the world that are “France” but are not located in Europe, whether they are départements, territories or have a somewhat independent status:

  • Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, and St. Barthélemy in the Caribbean
  • French Guiana in South America
  • St. Pierre et Miquelon in North America
  • La Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean
  • New Caledonia, Wallis et Futuna, and French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean

Members of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie

So if you want to learn the French language, but do not want to study in or visit France in Europe, you can always go to a DOM-TOM or one of these countries where French is either an official language or a commonly used language (ranked according to number of French speakers):

  1. Algeria
  2. Côte d’Ivoire
  3. Canada
  4. Tunisia
  5. Democratic Republic of the Congo
  6. Haiti
  7. Belgium
  8. Morocco
  9. Cameroon
  10. Mauritania
  11. Guinea
  12. Togo
  13. Chad
  14. Switzerland
  15. Niger
  16. Republic of the Congo
  17. Gabon
  18. Senegal
  19. Mali
  20. Central African Republic
  21. Madagascar
  22. Benin
  23. Burkina Faso
  24. Lebanon
  25. Rwanda
  26. Luxembourg
  27. Burundi
  28. Comoros
  29. Mauritius
  30. Djibouti
  31. Equatorial Guinea
  32. Vanuatu
  33. Andorra
  34. Monaco
  35. Seychelles

You can download a 26 page summary of La Langue française dans le Monde 2010 in PDF format.

And OIF is now on Twitter: @OIFfrancophonie

Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning Online and Teaching (MERLOT)

The MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning Online and Teaching) website is a great collection of online materials for students and teachers across all disciplines, ranging from agriculture to world languages. If you’re looking for resources to use in your classroom or for self-study, I recommend starting with MERLOT before doing a general internet search because the materials are peer-reviewed, under a Creative Commons license, and the results are not influenced by certain companies who are promoting a product.

From their About page: “MERLOT is a free and open online community of resources designed primarily for faculty, staff and students of higher education from around the world to share their learning materials and pedagogy. MERLOT is a leading edge, user-centered, collection of peer reviewed higher education, online learning materials, catalogued by registered members and a set of faculty development support services.”

I am proud to announce that my French Listening Resources mp3s are now included in the French materials and that they are available under a Creative Commons Attribution – Non-Commercial – Share Alike license, meaning that you can copy, distribute, and modify the mp3s as long as you attribute me as the creator, do not make money off of them, and share your adapted works under the same or a similar license.

After a short summer break, I have started updating the podcast once again with another eavesdropping mp3. I plan to continue adding a new mp3 each week, recorded by various native speakers in France and hopefully other Francophone countries as well.

French Listening Resources Podcast

You can subscribe to the French Listening Resources podcast through iTunes, regular RSS, or e-mail and the accompanying webpage is available as a regular blog or as an html page, the latter being where you can also find the transcripts and online listening exercises (and eventually the English translations).

Pragmatics: Knowing what to say in certain situations

The Foreign Language Teaching Methods modules from the University of Texas-Austin includes a section on pragmatics – how context and situation affect meaning – which is extremely important for language students to learn, yet remains difficult to master. Learning what to say and when to say it, the appropriate use of language, varies significantly among cultures and languages and if students are not even aware of these differences, they risk offending or confusing others or misunderstanding what is said to them. Textbooks do address pragmatics, but in a limited way, such as offering possible ways to accept a compliment, agreeing/disagreeing, or sharing opinions. They do not, and probably cannot, provide all of the possible responses found in native speech.

As pragmatics encompasses all aspects of language, it is not good enough to simply know the grammar and vocabulary; students must also have the cultural knowledge to understand and respond appropriately according to social norms. However, at the beginning stages of language learning, pragmatics may have to take a back seat to basic vocabulary acquisition. If students can’t even produce a coherent sentence in the target language, they certainly won’t be able to focus on the pragmatic aspect of the utterance as well. Nevertheless, we can teach some pragmatic information to beginning students.

One example from my classes is the constant misuse of excuse me and I’m sorry by my French students. In American English, we use excuse me when we want to get someone’s attention or need to get through in a crowded space; whereas we use I’m sorry to apologize for having done something or to express sympathy for someone who has experienced something sad or disappointing. In addition, we may also say Sorry? when we don’t understand or haven’t heard something. Yet my students would constantly say “excuse me” when they had done something wrong  (such as throwing pencils across the room… and yes, I taught at a university) because excuse-moi is what they would have said in French. Then they would start with I’m sorry when they wanted to get my attention. I tried to teach them the differences between the two phrases, and in which situation they should use each, but their habit of translating literally from French into English always interfered until I specifically pointed out the context, like a mother trying to teach her child good manners: If you’re apologizing because you did something wrong, what do you say?

In a different context, this wouldn’t be funny

An example of Americans learning foreign languages is the overuse of I’m sorry in the target language. In some languages, such as French, saying I’m sorry should not be used to express sympathy. If you need to send flowers because your friend’s grandfather just died, you should definitely not write Je suis désolé on the card, because then you would be apologizing for having done something, i.e. causing the death. A standard phrase such as Veuillez accepter toutes mes condoléances would be appropriate in this situation, instead of a literal translation of Sorry for your loss or My thoughts are with you. Pardon is used to apologize for something (accidentally bumping into someone) or to ask someone to repeat what they said (compare I beg your pardon? in English) in addition to meaning excuse me when trying to get someone’s attention, just as excusez-moi is used, especially in restaurants to get the server’s attention. Excusez-moi is also found in the set phrase excusez-moi de vous déranger – sorry for bothering you – so there are several translations for I’m sorry in French depending on the context.

The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota has a nice site on Pragmatics and Speech Acts, including interactive units on Japanese and Spanish. I’m still looking for a site that focuses on pragmatics in French. Anybody know of any sites like this?

Reprise and Detachment in Dislocated Sentences of Spoken French

Grammar books teach us that pronouns replace nouns, but a very common feature of spoken French is reprise, where a noun and the pronoun that refers to it exist in the same sentence. In addition, the noun or noun phrase is moved to the beginning or end of the sentence (detachment) and the resulting sentence is called dislocated. Dislocations in spoken French can be as high as 50%, according to Rodney Ball’s Colloquial French Grammar, so anyone wanting to comprehend spoken French needs to be able to understand this frequent word order.

1. Instead of this textbook sentence:

Jean est médecin.

In spoken French, you are more likely to hear either:

Jean, il est médecin.
Il est médecin, Jean.

2. Instead of:

Où est la poubelle ?

You will probably hear:

Elle est où, la poubelle ?
or perhaps:
La poubelle, elle est où ?

3. Instead of:

Elle parle plus à son père.

You might hear:

Elle lui parle plus, à son père.
or even:
A son père, elle lui parle plus.

Ball provides some more statistics on detachment: “Subject noun phrases undergo detachment much more often than direct objects, and direct objects more often than indirect objects. Left detachment is about a third more frequent than right detachment for subjects, but right is more frequent than left for direct and indirect objects.” In the examples above, 1. is a subject, 2. is a direct object, and 3. is an indirect object. Number 1. is more likely to be left detached (at the beginning of the sentence) since it is a subject, and 2. and 3. are more likely to be right detached (at the end of the sentence) since they are objects.

I wish word order were this easy…

Joel Walz’s article on oral proficiency and French textbooks also mentions the lack of dislocations in educational materials. Traditional textbooks teach tonic pronouns, such as moi, toi, lui, etc. but not how they are used in dislocated sentences. The explanations are limited to subjects and detachment at the beginning of the sentence (or left detachment) as in Moi, je préfère le bleu. However, reprise of object pronouns is also possible as is right detachment. Therefore, common sentences in spoken French such as Lui, je l’ai pas vu or Je le connais pas, moi are not even considered.

For the nerds linguists, there’s a 320 page book all about dislocation in French!

As I’ve mentioned before thanks to reading numerous articles on grammar in language textbooks, textbook authors should be turning towards corpus linguistics so that students have a more accurate and authentic portrayal of the language, including written vs. spoken and formal vs. informal. Even the most recent studies on French textbooks (from 2009) indicate that they still do not teach enough stylistic variation and they do not represent what is most frequently used in the French language today.

Collection of Articles & Sites Related to Languages, Learning, Education, etc. (from Twitter)

It’s been six months since I posted the last collection of links to language-related articles and sites from @ielanguages on Twitter. Here’s what I’ve been tweeting about recently:

Tomorrow is the European Day of Languages (September 26)

Studies on Language Learning & Acquisition
Education & Teaching / In the Classroom
Language in Society
In French / About French
General Language Learning
I’m also tweeting a colloquial French word/phrase of the day each weekday, so don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and/or “like” the Facebook page – and subscribe to the YouTube account for informal French videos and Flickr for travel photos of Europe.

French in Action Reunion at Yale

Many university students taking French, as well as frequent viewers of PBS, have probably seen an episode or two of French in Action. It’s a 52 part video series written by Pierre Capretz that covers two years of university level courses. The series was filmed in Paris in 1985 and thanks to, they are having a 25th anniversary celebration this October at Yale.

The actors who played Mireille (Valérie Allain) and Robert (Charles Mayer) will definitely be there in addition to Pierre Capretz. I wish I could go! Someone please go for me!

FIA resources:

Watch all 52 videos online (US & Canada only)

All 52 transcripts (Scribd document)

Mystères et boules de gomme ! (

FIA Fans Wiki (vocabulary and notes for half of the episodes)

FIA for Teachers (resource for teachers using FIA in class)

A Day in Geneva and Learning Swiss French

My sister and her husband came to visit last week, and we spent a day in Geneva, Switzerland. I had been there numerous times before, but usually it was only to go to the airport to fly somewhere else. This was the first time I was actually a tourist wandering around the old town and so of course I finally took pictures.


Lac Léman and the jet d’eau

Switzerland, and particularly Geneva, is known for being an expensive place. Even the bathrooms at Cornavin train station cost 2 CHF or 1.55€ – and since the Swiss Franc and US dollar are nearly the same nowadays, everything seemed astronomically expensive to my sister and brother-in-law. Needless to say, the only thing they bought was chocolate.


Looks similar to Savoie – sometimes I forgot I was in a different country

Switzerland is not in the European Union, but it is a part of the Schengen space so there are no more passport checks when traveling. A lot of French people work in the Geneva area because Swiss salaries are 3-4 times higher than French salaries. This also means that the border areas in Ain and Haute-Savoie in France have drastically increased their prices, so more and more people have to live further from Geneva and commute even longer to go to work.


Flags of Switzerland and canton of Geneva

Swiss French is similar to Belgian French in that they use déjeuner, dîner and souper as the three meals instead of petit déjeuner, déjeuner and dîner. Septante and nonante are used in place of the cumbersome soixante-dix and quatre-vingt-dix, while a few cantons (Vaud, Valais and Fribourg) use huitante instead of quatre-vingts. No one really uses octante anymore, but you will still find it in literature. A hairdryer is not un sèche-cheveux, but un föhn (borrowed from German, though originally a brand name) and a cell phone is un natel rather than un portable.  A mop is une panosse, not une serpillière, and fromage blanc in France becomes the much shorter séré in Switzerland. One of the most noticeable differences is the use of excepté on traffic signs. France uses sauf, though excepté is also common on Belgian traffic signs.

Learn Swiss French:

You can view all of my Geneva photos on Flickr.