Category Archives: Learning French

For the France & French Lovers in America (and Elsewhere)

It’s too hot for me to stay at the computer and do a real update. It was about 37° C / 98.6° F here today and it’s still not that cool at 10 PM. The Tour de France started in Chambéry this afternoon before heading down to Gap and I feel sorry for the cyclists who had to deal with this heat. Unlike the rest of France, it has not rained here at all. Normally I love the heat but without air conditioning or a pool, I’m a little over it.

As today is la fête nationale in France (NOT Bastille Day! French people have no idea what that is), here are some new resources for gaining exposure to French language and culture, especially for my fellow Americans:

  • The news channel France 24 is now available everywhere in the United States on the DISH network in its original French version. Previously, only a few states had access to the English version.
  • TV5Monde (also available on DISH network) has a new program dedicated to Francophone related events throughout America: Rendez-vous d’Amérique
  • France finally created an official tourism website for the entire country, www.france.fr, that was officially launched today. It also includes information for residents of France who are studying or working here instead of just visiting as a tourist, available in 5 languages: French, English, German, Italian and Spanish. Unfortunately the servers have already crashed because so many people were accessing the site so it is currently down. Hopefully it will be back online soon!

Non-French French and Why Am I Just Now Learning This?

I studied French for 3 years in high school and another 3 years at university between 1997 and 2003. Then I took some time off from languages while I was doing my Master’s in Linguistics and ended up moving to France in late 2006. So I guess you could say that I’ve been learning French for 10 years, though those first 6 years were just grammar and literature and not so much useful stuff like comprehension and conversational skills. Granted, I haven’t actually been “studying” French while living in France because I’ve been teaching English most of the time. Nevertheless, after all that time I am still learning new things about the French language that I can’t believe I didn’t learn years ago.

Some French books make a tiny effort to teach you other varieties of French instead of focusing solely on Parisian French. They may mention that Belgian and Swiss French use septante and nonante for 70 and 90 instead of soixante-dix or quatre-vingt-dix. They may also mention that in Quebec, the meals are déjeuner, dîner and souper instead of petit déjeuner, déjeuner and dîner. And that’s about it.

What they forget to tell you is that octante was also once used in Belgium and Switzerland for 80 instead of quatre-vingts – though it’s rarely said nowadays, you can still find it in literature – and that some parts of Switzerland (Vaud, Valais and Fribourg) use huitante. In addition, Belgium and Switzerland both use the same words as Quebec to designate the three meals of the day. I just learned that yesterday. Seriously, I’ve been learning French for years & years and I just now learn that?!?

Obviously I don’t live or work in Belgium or Switzerland or unfortunately don’t regularly talk to Belgians or the Swiss so I understand why it’s harder to pick up the vocabulary differences. I’ve studied in Quebec and still watch Quebecois shows and read blogs written by Quebecois people so I’m familiar with chum, blonde, char, magasiner, dépanneur, vidanges, piastre, niasieux, etc. and I definitely know NOT to use gosses*.

But when it comes to le français belge or suisse, I’m lost. I can’t even detect a Belgian or Swiss accent because I have such little exposure to them. David’s super scientific explanation opinion is that Belgians sound too guttural and the Swiss talk too slow. I love guttural sounds (I think Dutch is the coolest-sounding language EVER) and a slower rhythm would be nice since French people talk way too fast sometimes. Maybe I need to watch some Belgian and Swiss movies. Anyone have any recommendations?

Here are some websites for learning other varieties of French:

Quebecois

Swiss

Belgian

*Gosses means testicles in Quebec, not kids!

Multilingual Goodness of the Eurovision Song Contest

The Eurovision Song Contest is going on this week in Oslo and even though I’m not watching it, I am using the unofficial website to learn languages through song lyrics. It is called the Diggiloo Thrush and it includes the lyrics and translations into English of almost all of the songs ever performed for the contest. This year there are 39 participating countries, but far fewer languages are represented since countries are not required to choose a song in their official language. Nevertheless, the collection of lyrics starts in 1956 so there is plenty of material available to help you learn languages.

The quality of the songs isn’t always great but Eurovision always motivates me to learn more about my European neighbors and their languages. There are even a few countries outside of Europe that participate, such as Israel, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. The official site has a webcast if you want to watch live (or on-demand later), or you can find some songs on YouTube or Spotify (if you live in a country that has access to it).

Using Realia Resources in Language Teaching & Learning

Realia resources are everyday, authentic objects, such as photographs, menus, brochures, receipts, maps, movies, television shows, commercials, etc. that are used to teach and learn languages. Some researchers include any items that can be used to prompt conversations or role-play, such as telephones, but those are generally meant to be employed in the classroom with other learners. For self-study, the most helpful realia illustrates how the language is actually used in the country where it is spoken. Visiting the country to experience the language is obviously the best way to learn, but in the absence of the time and money necessary for travel, the internet can provide much of the realia needed.


Online ad showing informal French: Yapamieux = Il n’y a pas mieux

The lack of authentic language in language learning materials was most striking to me upon arriving in France and realizing that what I had learned in my classes was not how people actually spoke. I still recall the dialog in my textbook for buying train tickets, which consisted of a mere 4 lines and completely lacked any cultural clues as to what country it was referring to. Most textbooks default to France and teach a little about the rail system, the SNCF, but they neglect to include the specific names of trains. It is very important to know the difference between the TGV and TER, or what types of trains Lunéa, Téoz and Intercités are, or what the Carte 12-25 or Carte Escapades are used for. And as soon as you cross the border into Switzerland or Belgium, there is a new list of names and acronyms for the rail systems and trains to deal with: CFF, SNCB, ICT, ICN, etc.

Realia Resources for learning languagesProbably need to find out what composter means before getting on the train…

So why didn’t my textbook (or teacher) provide us with an actual train ticket and schedule, or at least a copy of one? Why did I never see a real menu from an actual restaurant while we were learning food vocabulary? I realized it may be a little difficult for North American teachers to have access to these types of realia, which is why I started scanning my old train tickets and receipts. Then I started taking pictures of menus and signs; anything with the written language that I thought would be useful for learners. Currently my realia collection includes French, German, Croatian and Danish, and I will be adding Dutch and Italian in the next few months. Every time I travel, I make sure to gather as much visual realia as possible, as well as website addresses of stores, restaurants, museums, and public transportation companies since many offer downloads of catalogs or menus or schedules.

Authentic Language Realia Resources

You don’t necessarily have to be in the country in order to experience and learn its language. The internet allows you to get very close without leaving your home. I certainly wish I would have been able to look at menus before arriving. I would have known that everyone says cookie instead of biscuit and ice tea instead of thé glacé (the latter being the only words my books ever taught me). And if Youtube had been around when I was in school, I could have watched plenty of videos and listened to spoken, informal French instead of relying on scripted dialogs from a textbook. This is yet another reason why I started the Informal French and Listening Resources pages. Getting as much exposure to the real language as possible is now a priority for me when first learning a language (I learned my lesson with French!) and so I find myself using the internet much more often than any of my books, unless I specifically want to focus on grammar.

 

The Loom of Language: An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages

The Loom of Language: An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages by Frederick Bodmer has always been my favorite book about learning languages. I first discovered it on F.X. Micheloud’s Learning Languages site about 9 or 10 years ago when I was still an undergrad and much more interested in learning languages on my own rather than taking boring classes at university. I wanted to learn useful vocabulary and focus more on understanding and speaking the language while my classes wanted me to analyze Zola or Sand with very limited knowledge of French. Or my classes were cancelled because not enough students signed up for German or because there were no teachers available for Italian. My language books (all 500 of them) and later the internet became the main resources I used in studying, but I always went back to The Loom of Language because it explained everything so well.

It is the only book that actually teaches languages instead of simply teaching how to learn languages. There are several books and resources available for that already. I was specifically looking for something that compared European languages and gave me the rules and words needed to learn the languages – not to learn about the languages. Originally written in the 1940’s, it is obviously outdated in some parts – the quote “1,800 million people on this globe speak approximately 1,500 different languages” is so very wrong today – but it’s still the best book for multilingual learners to get an overview of Latin and Germanic grammar and vocabulary.

The first part of the book starts with the history of human language and alphabets and leads into morphology and syntax of several languages, and ends with the classification of languages throughout the world. The second part focuses on learning vocabulary (from the given lists) taking advantage of similarities among languages and sound shifts that cause predictable changes from one language to another. What I always found most important, however, was the assertion that you should learn certain words first, such as personal pronouns, auxiliary verbs, demonstratives, prepositions, conjunctions, etc. (essentially function words) because they are the most common and least recognizable when they change cases.

Many nouns, adjectives and verbs should come after the function words because they are more likely to be recognized thanks to common affixes among similar languages and “international” words such as telephone or taxi, and also because these concrete words are highly dependent on the situation. Bodmer’s example of a Dane who learns the word rabbit in one of his first English lessons but who may never talk about rodents of any kind for 10 years really illustrates the need to learn the function and abstract words first, or at least to focus immediately on the words that you will need depending on why you are learning the language.

Bodmer also encourages learners to “get a bird’s-eye view of the grammatical peculiarities of a language before trying to memorize anything” and to not waste time on memorizing case endings of nouns or adjectives until a reading knowledge of the language is achieved. Most textbooks don’t agree with this as they introduce cases and declensions early on so that students are supposed to memorize the endings before they even learn many nouns or adjectives. Bodmer’s method is based on recognition and input of useful vocabulary first, and later intensive reading and writing to perfect the grammar, which seems to be the opposite of certain books.

He also states “If you learn only ten new words of the group which includes particles, pronouns, and pointer words every day for a fortnight, you will have at your disposal at least 25 per cent of the total number of words you use when you write a letter. When you have done this, it is important to have a small vocabulary of essential nouns, adjectives, and verbs ready for use.” All of this essential vocabulary he is referring to is included at the back of the book in several lists that compare English, French, Spanish, Portuguese & Italian and English, Swedish, Danish, Dutch & German. Sound familiar? These “basic vocabularies” were the inspiration for creating my own multilingual lists and lead to the Romance and Germanic Vocabulary & Verbs pages that I am still working on.

The third part of the book gives information on other languages in more detail, including non-Indo-European and constructed languages and leads into a discussion on language planning and a “true Interlingua” that would be “a passport to a wider international culture.” The last paragraph is still relevant today, though written during WWII.

“Of itself, no such change can bring the age-long calamity of war to an end; and it is a dangerous error to conceive that it can do so. We cannot hope to reach a remedy for the language obstacles to international co-operation on a democratic footing, while predatory finance capital, intrigues or armament manufacturers, and the vested interest of a rentier class in the misery of colonial peoples continue to stifle the impulse to a world-wide enterprise for the common wealth of mankind. No language reform can abolish war, while social agencies far more powerful than mere linguistic misunderstandings furnish fresh occasion for it. What intelligent language planning can do is to forge a new instrument for human collaboration on a planetary scale, when social institutions propitious to international strife no longer thwart the constructive task of planning health, leisure and plenty for all.”

Language, culture and politics always have been connected and probably always will be. The government of Belgium just collapsed (again!) because of tensions between French and Flemish speakers and the French-English tensions in Quebec has a long history as well. Hispanics in the US are discriminated against because they do not speak English well enough or not at all even though the US has no official language. Montenegro calls its language Montenegrin though it is actually another dialect of the now defunct Serbo-Croatian language that also includes Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian because the Balkan states must have their own “standardized” language in order to be eligible for EU membership.

Interestingly, WWII and the Balkan wars in the 90’s were what encouraged me to start learning languages in the first place. I wanted to read the original documents and journals and newspapers and try to understand why wars happen and where the hatred for other human beings comes from. There are still several armed conflicts happening all over the world, and the racist propaganda against immigrants in several countries, including both my home and adopted countries, is what keeps me learning languages – so that one day I can help those immigrants, and especially refugees, adjust to their new lives and fight against the discrimination. Perhaps I am a bleeding-heart liberal when it comes to the underprivileged (especially the poor who  are usually immigrants) but rampant inequality among groups of people is heart-breaking to me; and even though it sounds trite and clichéd, I still believe that learning foreign languages plays a large part in making the world a better place.

Update: Also check out Quotes from The Loom of Language on Classroom Learning and the Direct Method

Learning French Slang with Les Simpson

Watching French TV with the subtitles on was the fastest way for me to learn common French slang words. Back in 2006 when I barely understood spoken French, I spent a lot of time watching TV and writing down the words that I didn’t understand. Unfortunately, French TV shows aren’t all that great, so I resorted to watching American shows dubbed in French. Normally I wouldn’t recommend this because the voice acting is ridiculously bad and the lips don’t match the words, which is extremely important in understanding the front rounded vowels of French.

However, in the case of Les Simpson, I made an exception because the voices are very close to the original and after a while I didn’t even realize that I was watching it in French. I also found The Simpsons Park website that has almost all of the scripts in French so I could go back and read them if I missed something in the subtitles. These scripts, similar to the subtitles, are also written in informal French so that it closely reflects the pronunciation and of course, the French translations are full of slang words that you should really know in order to understand everyday conversations.

Si t’es ici alors qui c’est qu’est là-dedans ? (t’es = tu es; qui c’est qui = qui est-ce qui)

Te biles pas, fiston. (te biles pas = ne t’en fais pas; fiston = fils)

T’as raison Milhouse, se marrer c’est marrant ! (t’as = tu as; se marrer = rire; marrant = drôle)

Ouais, on a rencard de l’autre côté du lac avec des meufs ! (ouais = oui; rencard = rendez-vous; meufs = femmes)

For those who live in the US  & Canada, the region 1 DVDs do have French audio, but it is Quebecois French. As much as I love Quebec and the accent, I have to say the European French version of Les Simpson is far superior to the Quebecois one. Plus, learners of French are more likely to understand the cultural references for France rather than Quebec. Nevertheless, The Simpsons Park does include a few scripts (about 20) in Quebecois French. North Americans who want to watch the European French version will have to buy region 2 (Europe/Middle East/South Africa) or 4 (Latin America/Oceania) DVDs and a region-free player, or try using VLC Media Player. Subtitles in French are also available from several sites (subsmax.comopensubtitles.org, allsubs.org, TVSubtitles.net) if the DVDs don’t have them.

I have tried doing the same with Friends because the Fan Club français de Friends has all of the transcripts in French and English, but watching Friends dubbed in French is torture. The voice acting and sound editing are beyond awful and even the voice actors themselves admit it. I’m not talking about reality TV awful, but more like The Room awful. Sometimes I still watch Friends on French TV when I’m nostalgic for New York, but at other times I’d rather stick a nail in my ear.

As for actual French series, Kaamelott, Samantha Oups !, Scènes de Ménage, Bref, Les Bleus, and Un Gars, Une Fille come to mind, but many DVDs do not have subtitles because laws on subtitling for the deaf and hard-of-hearing population are just now being enforced. Previously, it wasn’t really required for TV series or even movies to have subtitles available. I know Kaamelott and Bref do include subtitles, but I’m not sure about the others.

The Frenchified English of McDonald’s in France

I had the misfortune of eating at McDonald’s last Sunday when David and I decided to go on a drive to Chanaz, at the other end of Lac du Bourget. Unfortunately, we arrived at 2pm, when every restaurant in Europe closes because no one can possibly still be hungry at that time, so it was either starve (I normally eat breakfast at 11 and lunch at 2, I’m so unFrench!) or go to the only “restaurant” in this area that serves “food” after 2pm. So McDonald’s it was, though I think I should have chosen to just starve for a while longer.

I always have to laugh at fast food places in France because they try so hard to be American. Most of their menu is in English, though Frenchified English, because everyone associates fast food with the US, so of course you have to order in English to make the experience more authentic; and I’m sure it’s supposed to attract the Americans abroad. I got bored waiting at the drive-thru (that’s le drive in French) so I took a picture of their menu so I could see what ridiculous names they give the food. There’s the Big Tasty (Europe dropped the N’), the CBO (Chicken Bacon Oignons – why it’s 2/3 in English and 1/3 in French nobody knows!), Le P’tit Wrap Cheese & Sauce Ranch, and the value meals are called Best Of, though most burgers/sandwiches and the Happy Meal kept the same names.

Even though the spelling may be the same, the pronunciation is radically different, which basically means Americans who can’t speak Frenchified English can’t order at McDonald’s in France even though the menu is in English. Shortly after my arrival in France, the boulanger didn’t understand me when I tried to order un cookie because I pronounced it /ˈkʊki/ instead of /kuˈki/ and the whole time I was wondering why can’t it just be called un biscuit like I learned in French class. One little vowel and stress pattern changed and the word becomes incomprehensible. Though perhaps this should serve as a lesson why learning proper pronunciation of a foreign language is so important – especially the pronunciation of loan words that are deceptively similar to the original.

When we got home, I decided to look at McDonald’s French website for more “translations” – I highly recommend you don’t because the site is incredibly flash-heavy like most French sites – and came across this:

So I’m a little confused. Which is the English and which is the French? I’m pretty sure this is called a double cheeseburger in the US, but the translation seems to imply that Double Cheese is the English and that Double Cheeseburger is an appropriate translation into French. Why not just leave it as Double Cheeseburger and therefore have no need for that super helpful translation at the bottom?

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.