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.

Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.