Category Archives: Learning French

More Beginning French Songs

By   March 23, 2012

More French songs for beginners! I like quirky (ok, weird) repetitive songs that make the vocabulary stick.


Comment tu t’appelles ?

Les prénoms

Ça va (there is no actual video for this song but I love the Muppets!)

Mind the Word extension for Chrome: Learn languages as you browse the web

By   March 15, 2012

If you use Google Chrome as your web browser, Mind the Word is a useful extension to help you learn vocabulary in another language while you browse the web.

From the description: “In every webpage visited, it randomly translates a few words into the language that you would like to learn. By exposing you to only a few new words at a time and keeping them within context, it makes it easy for you to infer and memorize their meaning. If you need, you can hover the mouse over the translated word and the original word will be shown to you.”

Here’s my last blog post with the extension set to translate to Dutch and with the cursor hovering over meer:

Obviously it doesn’t do idioms well since it simply offers translation of single words, and you can’t really choose which words it will translate or not, but it is an easy way to make sure you integrate some language learning into your everyday internet routine.

Thanks to for bringing this to my attention.

International Women’s Day and Encouraging Women to Learn Languages

By   March 8, 2012

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.

Improving the lives of women is very important to me, especially since women continue to be oppressed all over the world – including in my own country. I truly believe education is the key to empowerment and equality for all human beings, but more specifically, the knowledge of foreign languages is essential.

So how can we encourage more women to not only learn foreign languages, but also to show their skills to the rest of the world in order to encourage even more women to learn? Here is a conversation among three female polyglots, Susanna, Jana and Fasulye on this topic. I wasn’t able to participate, but I did send some research on the issue of gender in language learning which Susanna mentions, though sadly there is very little to no research on gender in language learning in independent settings, i.e. self-study instead of classes.

Beginning French Songs and Videos

By   February 29, 2012

I am teaching beginning French this semester and since all of the classrooms are equipped with computers and projectors, I have been delighting my students with weird songs and videos to reinforce the vocabulary they are learning. So for beginning learners of French or other French teachers who want to use videos in class, here are some examples of what I’ve been using:


A bonus in this video is showing how the French count on their hands, starting with the thumb.

What is your name?

Français Interactif’s chansons français has PDF exercises you can download.

I believe I will also introduce them to the love of my life, Pierre Capretz.

But I haven’t decided yet if I will terrify them with Téléfrançais or not.

I use the site to download the videos so I don’t have to rely on a working internet connection in the classroom. Windows Live Movie Maker and VirtualDub are free and easy to use programs for editing the videos if you want to cut some parts out or repeat certain sections.

Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking

By   February 4, 2012

Anna Wierzbicka is a Polish-Australian linguist who has extensively researched intercultural linguistics, semantics and pragmatics. I have been reading many of her books and articles for my PhD research because she is interested in how language reflects ways of living and thinking, and more specifically, how the lexicon or words of a language can provide valuable clues to understanding culture.

Linguistic relativity, better known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, has been debated for quite a while by certain researchers who argue that human thought and language are completely separate and independent. Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, is probably the most popular denier. However, Pinker was attempting to describe human thought and cognition on the basis of English alone.  Wierzbicka, among others, has rightly criticized Pinker for his views on the link between language and thought. Here are a few quotes from the introduction to her book, Understanding Cultures through their Key Words:

“To people with an intimate knowledge of two (or more) different languages and cultures, it is usually self-evident that language and patterns of thought are interlinked… Monolingual popular opinion, as well as the opinion of some cognitive scientists with little interest in languages and cultures, can be quite emphatic in their denial of the existence of such links and differences.”

“The grip of people’s native language on their thinking habits is so strong that they are no more aware of the conventions to which they are party than they are of the air they breathe; and when others try to draw attention to these conventions they may even go on with a seemingly unshakable self-assurance to deny their existence.”

“The conviction that one can understand human cognition, and human psychology in general, on the basis of English alone seems shortsighted, if not downright ethnocentric.”

The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that language constrains thought and prevents users of a language from thinking about certain concepts – is indeed wrong. The weak version of the hypothesis, which Guy Deutscher attempted to explain in his popular article Does Your Language Shape How You Think? and his book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, is generally accepted by most linguists. Deutscher, however, insists on stating that language creates thought when in fact it may be more accurate to say that culture influences thought, which is then expressed through language. Personally, I believe that language reflects and describes ways of living and thinking, but it does not necessarily shape or determine how you live or think.

This is precisely John McWhorter’s criticism of Deutscher’s book, though I do have to disagree with his assertion that color perception as evidence of linguistic relativity is “dull.” If someone does not think cultural elaboration through the lexicon, such as the famous words for snow example, is interesting or relevant, then why does that person bother researching languages and cultures in the first place? Besides, as Wierzbicka explains, “once the principle of cultural elaboration has been established as valid on the basis of ‘boring’ examples, it can then be applied to areas whose patterning is less obvious to the naked eye.”

Here’s an interesting experiment you can try with color perception. It will be very easy to choose which square is a different color in the image below.


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


However, it will probably be a tiny bit harder to find which square is different in the second image. (If you’ve seen these circles before, beware that I did change the location of the different square!)


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


Yet the Himba of northern Namibia have the exact opposite problem. They are able to detect the different square quite easily in the second image, but took longer for the first image, because their culture, and therefore language, has a different way of categorizing shades of colors. Not every human being thinks in terms of  ROYGBIV. Because English speakers do not normally classify colors based on slightly different shades (or at least what we perceive as slightly different shades) of green in the second image, it is harder for English speakers to see it at first glance, but the absence of that word does not mean that English speakers cannot see it at all or do not have the ability to form the concept in their minds.

My native language does not have a word for Schadenfreude but I certainly know what it is and can understand the concept. The fact that German has one word for this concept and English does not simply means that the concept is perhaps more salient for users of German, but it does not mean that users of other languages cannot conceive of what it is. There are countless “untranslatable” words such as saudade, hyggelig, or litost that express the values and thoughts of the people who use these words. They provide insights into the life of the society and culture to which the language belongs. We cannot even begin to understand a different culture if we do not know the words because it is through language that culture and ways of living and thinking are expressed.


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


Another book by Wierzbicka I recommend, Translating Lives: Living with Two Languages and Cultures, includes the experiences of twelve Australians who speak more than one language. Their stories and their lives show how language, culture and identity cannot be separated and what it is like to live with, and between, multiple languages and cultures. For anyone who is a speaker of another language, the idea that you are a different person and that you interact with other human beings in a different way when using different languages seems a bit obvious. But most monolinguals are not aware that their worldview is shaped by their native, and only, culture and language. They tend to assume that the every human being thinks in the same way but simply uses different words for concepts, objects, ideas, etc. Even if they know a few words in another language, they believe that translations found in dictionaries are sufficient. Dictionaries may list freedom as the translation for French liberté, but are they really the same thing? How about truth and Russian pravda? Anger and Italian rabbia?

To quote Sapir: “The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.”

When I speak French, I am fully aware that I am not the same person as when I speak English. I do not interact with other French speakers in the same manner as I do with English speakers while I’m speaking English. There are certain concepts that I find easier to express in French, and yet others that do not have a strong enough emphasis or connotation for me if I use French rather than English. When I hear the word milk in English, I have a different concept of what it is compared to when I hear lait in French. I’ve explored some of these cultural differences before (Cultural Differences in Photos & Culturally Relevant Photos), but they are not limited to separate languages. There are, of course, differences among dialects of the same language. Whenever Australians say the word thongs, I picture a very different article of clothing than they do!

That is not to say that all words in a language are culture-specific. If they were, cultural differences couldn’t really be explored. Linguistic relativity is actually combined with linguistic universality. Wierzbicka is also the lead researcher on Natural Semantic Metalanguage, an approach to cultural analysis that is based on the idea that there are, in fact, a few universal meanings expressed by words (semantic primes) shared by all human languages and that using these primes can help eliminate cross-cultural miscommunication. Listen to/read her interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for more information.

I’d love to hear your opinions on this! Do you believe that how we speak shapes how we think OR that how we think shapes how we speak? Or are language and thought so interlinked that we cannot separate them?

French Books Giveaway: Win a FREE Autographed Copy of Say it in French or Great French Short Stories of the Twentieth Century

By   January 10, 2012

My second book published by Dover Publications, Great French Short Stories of the Twentieth Century: A Dual-Language Book, is now available!

The original French stories are on the left page and literal English translations are on the right page. There are 15 stories representing authors and settings from France and other French-speaking areas such as Quebec, Guadeloupe, Mauritius and Senegal. This book is designed for intermediate/advanced learners of French to increase their vocabulary and learn more about the literature of the Francophone world.

For beginners of French or those interested in traveling to a French-speaking country, my Say it in French phrasebook (+ Food and Wine supplement and 2,500 English-French dictionary) is also available.

To celebrate the release of my second book, I’m doing another giveaway! If you would like a FREE autographed copy of either my Say it in French phrasebook OR my Great French Short Stories dual-language book, all you need to do is:

  • send me an e-mail at ielanguages (at) gmail (dot) com or comment on this blog post,
  • let me know which book you would like,
  • and what country you are located in (I will send it from either the US or Australia depending on where you are located)


I will choose two winners at random; one for each book. Giveaway is open to residents of planet Earth. One entry per book per human being.

Good luck!

UPDATE: Congratulations to the four winners! The books have been sent to you!

Quebecois Christmas Songs

By   December 23, 2011

Some of these are obviously rather comédique rather than folklorique. Enjoy!

23 décembre by Beau Dommage

La valse de Noël by Fernand Gignac

La toune de Noël by Crampe en Masse

C’est Noël, il neige dans ma tête by Paul et Paul

Le Père Noël c’t’un Québécois by Les Cowboys Fringants

More Christmas Songs in French

By   December 13, 2011

More Christmas songs in French! Most of these videos have lyrics so you can learn the words and all of them are French versions of English songs you probably already know. Don’t forget the five songs I posted two years ago: French Christmas Songs

La Promenade en Traîneau (Sleigh ride)

Le Petit Renne au nez rouge (Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer)

Le Père Noël arrive ce soir (Santa Claus is comin’ to town)

Les anges dans nos campagnes (Angels we have heard on high)

C’est l’hiver (Let it snow)

Quebecois French and Australian Christmas songs to come!

Subject Pronouns in Textbooks: Written vs. Spoken French

By   November 5, 2011

Thanks to corpus linguistics, the differences between written and spoken French are easier to describe and analyze. Since I am particularly interested in how textbooks treat both types of French, I was happy to see research comparing corpus linguistics data to textbook representations of the subject pronouns by Waugh and Fonseca-Greber at the University of Arizona. Their data confirms that textbooks teach the written form of French, but that the spoken form is still largely ignored.

The pronouns that they analyzed were tu, nous, vous, ils, and on. In written French, the pronouns mean:

  • tu : you (singular and familiar)
  • nous : we
  • vous : you (plural and formal)
  • ils : they
  • on : one / you / they (indefinite)

However, their data shows that these labels are inadequate for spoken French. In their corpus of 194,000 words, nous meaning we was only used 1% of the time, on was used much more often to mean we (76.3%) than in the indefinite sense, and there was almost a 50/50 split of both tu and ils being used in the indefinite sense rather than just meaning you and they, while vous was also used in the indefinite sense in a few cases. Statistically, vous used in the indefinite sense is not very significant (only 1.3%), but it does prove that this use of the pronoun is possible in spoken French. The most interesting to me was comparing on and tu used as indefinites, as tu was used more than twice as often as on!

Therefore, in spoken French, the subject pronouns are:

  • tu : you (singular and familiar) AND one / you (indefinite)
  • nous : very rarely we
  • vous : you (plural and formal) AND very rarely one / you (indefinite)
  • ils : they AND one / they (indefinite)
  • on : we AND sometimes one / you / they (indefinite)

In a few ways, learning the spoken pronouns is easier. Both tu and ils in the indefinite sense correspond to the English usage of you and they in the indefinite. On is not used as often in the indefinite sense much like one is not used all that often in English. And since nous is rarely used, the verb conjugation of first person plural is also rarely needed.

I remember many of my textbooks emphasizing that you cannot use tu in the indefinite and that it is incorrect and bad French. But many times what is considered wrong in written French is not, in fact, incorrect in spoken French. It’s simply the notion of appropriateness within the context, and textbooks need to make this distinction clear AND teach both forms. However, textbooks still seem to be written according to intuition and not corpus data.

Linguistics is concerned with how people actually use language, as opposed to how people should use language. Linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive, and the teaching of languages should be as well.

Waugh and Fonseca-Geber’s article “Authentic Materials for Everyday Spoken French: Corpus linguistics vs. French textbooks” is available for free if you’d like to see examples and the full statistics.

English and “Correct” Words in French

By   October 14, 2011

L’Académie française has once again called for more “defense” of the French language against incorrect use of the language, especially with regards to Anglicisms. I do not agree with l’Académie’s prescriptivist ideas on vocabulary use and trying to force the formal (often written) language onto the spoken form. It is one thing to determine if a sentence is grammatically correct concerning function words, verb conjugations, word order, etc. but it is completely different to proclaim that certain content words are incorrect since vocabulary choice is highly dependent on the topic, context, medium (speech/writing) and audience. As long as the meaning of the words are similar (such as formal vs. informal variants), there is no correct or incorrect use of a word over another. It is merely what is appropriate or not to that particular situation. Saying “Hey, what’s up?” to the president is not incorrect – because that would imply that it would never be used at all by native speakers, when in fact it is used quite often – but it is inappropriate to use an informal variant in a formal situation.

Telegraph has a recent article on L’Académie’s fight against English words in French. Their website includes a new page called “Dire, Ne pas dire” which includes les fautes, les tics de langage et les ridicules qui s’observent le plus fréquemment dans le français contemporain. Jean-Matthieu Pasqualini of the Académie said “We want to restore courage to all those in France and outside France who endeavour to defend and enrich the language. Let French remain a great language of communication and culture.” But what does he mean by enrich? Claiming that some words in contemporary French (that aren’t even Anglicisms) are absurd or wrong doesn’t exactly seem like a good start.

France’s culture ministry also has a new website for people to propose French words in place of the borrowed English words at which states “il ne s’agit nullement de déclarer la guerre aux mots étrangers, anglais en particulier, qui sont passés dans la langue courante – pas question de toucher au week-end et au sandwich – mais d’anticiper l’utilité d’un terme étranger qui pourrait s’installer en français.” (Telegraph’s translation: “This is in no way about declaring war on foreign terms, English in particular, that have entered into common usage like sandwich or weekend. It is about anticipating the usefulness of a foreign term that could be settling into the French language.”) While I’m happy to see that they acknowledge the natural state of constant evolution and change that occurs in all human languages, the fact that they are trying to propose French translations for Anglicisms that have yet to become so entrenched in the language seems a bit suspect. There is nothing wrong with wanting to use the French translations, of course, but why is it considered ok to use sandwich and week-end but not casting or email? Just because sandwich and week-end have been used in French for longer, that somehow makes them more acceptable?

I know I have expressed my annoyance at the use of English words in French in the past, but I am not frustrated because of the existence of the borrowings, which are natural and normal in any language. I am frustrated that language learning materials do not include the borrowings or other aspects of contemporary French vocabulary. They only tend to include the standardized form of the language, or what people should say (dictated by l’Académie) instead of what people actually say, which is not useful for students who need to comprehend the various dialects and styles and which leaves them with an inaccurate and stereotypical portrayal of the French language.

Another reason that resistance to borrowings is a bit unreasonable is that certain words in English are actually borrowings from old French, which then have later been re-borrowed back into French in the newer Anglicized form. Toast in English comes from old French toster, whereas modern French stopped using toster in favor of pain grillé, but has also borrowed toast from modern English. So is le toast really an Anglicism if it was originally French?

Are you French or English, Mr. Toast?

When it comes to Anglicisms, many people like to point out that Quebecois French has more English borrowings than French in France (which isn’t true) to justify their prejudiced view that Quebecois French isn’t “real” French. That’s just as ridiculous as saying American English isn’t real English or Mexican Spanish isn’t real Spanish simply because it is not spoken in the “mother country” where the language originated. I do not understand the colonialistic attitudes about language use, just as I do not understand why some people make a connection between the older form of a language and a supposed superiority of the variety that is closest to the old form. A dialect that is more conservative with change is somehow more desirable than the others, yet many people believe that the mother country dialect is also the most conservative which is not true. Quebecois French contains many aspects of Old French that speakers in France no longer use, which some wrongly assume are Anglicisms when in fact they are Old French.

In Quebecois, Belgian and Swiss French the three meals of the day are le déjeuner, le dîner, and le souper whereas most areas of France nowadays use le petit déjeuner, le déjeuner and le dîner.* Quebec French did not borrow le souper from English supper; English borrowed it from Old French soper which turned into souper in modern French. In France, le souper is another meal even later than dinner and is usually associated with rural areas or an older generation. The words dinner and supper in English have also changed meaning somewhat over time. In my dialect of English, dinner and supper are synonyms for the evening meal, but in other forms of English, dinner is the midday meal (instead of lunch) and supper is the evening meal (instead of dinner) so the older French, current Quebec and English meals were parallels at one time: déjeuner = breakfast (dé + jeûne: undo or break fast), dîner = dinner and souper = supper. has a thread on the names of the meals where native speakers contribute what they say in their region. Looking at posts #2 and #6, you can see how far the idea of bon usage and correct French (i.e. what l’Académie says is correct) has spread. I quote from the forum:

De manière correcte et quelles que soient les régions de France :
on déjeune à midi
on dîne ou on soupe le soir (plus utilisé en milieu rural)

and the post that made me nearly cry, which refers to the above post:

Tout-à-fait d’accord. Mais chez nous (sud-est), on continue à parler de “dîner” à midi. Chez moi, quand j’étais petite, on se simplifiait encore plus la vie : dîner, midi et soir . Le “déjeuner” c’était le petit déj’. Quand je suis sortie dans le monde, j’ai été très étonnée qu’on l’appelle “petit” !

Maintenant, grâce aux médias, la langue s’uniformise et on respecte de plus en plus le bon usage français.

I wonder if the millions of people in France who don’t use déjeuner and dîner in the same manner as the first poster know that they do not speak “correct” French. As for the second poster, I feel sorry that she thinks that her native dialect is not correct while at the same time praising the effects of standardization, which lead to her dialect being considered incorrect in the first place.

These are issues of geographic variation, but using one word instead of the other is not incorrect. Compare the use of pop vs. soda vs. coke in the US. I’m from Michigan so I say pop, but I don’t consider the use of soda or coke to be wrong or incorrect. They are simply different ways of saying the same thing depending on where you are from or where you are currently located. All dialects of a language should be seen as equals but the standardized form used in most writing, and which is generally based on the upper classes, is often considered the only correct variety. There is a place for the standardized form, especially for communication purposes and even teaching students how to produce language, but the other varieties are also just as valid as human languages and should not be reduced to incorrect deviations of the prestige form.

* Even more confusing is the spoken/informal use of déjeuner to mean “to eat breakfast” even in areas where the three meals are le petit déjeuner, le déjeuner and le dîner!