The French Language

The French language, considered by some to be the most romantic in the world, is currently spoken by approximately 350 million people world wide, as a first or second language. The language which finds its origins in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxemburg today is the official language of 31 different countries and is spoken informally in many more. Native French speakers can be found all over the world, from Europe to Africa and even parts of America and Canada. It is one of the main Romance Languages, meaning that it developed from Rome, and therefore shares many of its characteristics with other Romance languages, such as Spanish and Italian, for example all nouns are either masculine or feminine. There are undeniably some similarities between the French and English languages however, which may be surprising considering that English is a Germanic language. After the invasion of France by Germanic Western Europe in the third century AD, some of the invaders settled in Gaul (now Brittany). Inevitably some of their Germanic language was interjected into the French of the time, and so today there are certain French words which are reminiscent of their English equivalents. It is still hotly contested however, whether the English words influenced the French, or vice versa.

The French are fiercely proud of the quality and beauty of their language, and have not responded well to the recent ‘English invasion’ of their tongue. The mainstream nature of British and American films and television has sidelined French art house cinema and meant that French speakers have started to pick up English catchphrases and slogans. What began as the slight use of a few English words gradually developed into what the French considered to be a significant problem. This led to pre-existing associations concerned with protecting the French language being given a new lease of life both in France, and in other countries such as Quebec. There are official rules in place regarding the correct use of accents and grammar, as well as how many English or American words can be used in certain literature. Some have regarded this move as too extreme, but the French do not want to see their language become more and more dilute in years to come. Their language is as important to them as their good food and wine, and it is something which will always be staunchly protected. Indeed, this was an issue as far back as 1634, when Richelieu set up the Acadamie Française, whose purpose was to keep the French language as pure as possible and to guard its many intricacies. Due to the desire to unify the French language, not many dialects are found in the France of today. In the south west of France, towards the Pyrenees, some people speak Catalan as their mother tongue, and some people in rural Brittany still speak the Breton dialect, which remains from the time when the north-west of France was owned by England. However, as French is the official language, and bearing in mind the existence of the Acadamie Française, it is almost inevitable that French schools are bound to conduct lessons in French. Added to this, the fact that in the world today, some 72 million people living in Francophone countries do not speak French regularly due to not being familiar enough with the language makes it unsurprising that native speakers are profusely defensive of the language they love.

In terms of learning French as a second language, there are many formulaic rules to follow, and a great many tenses to master. A tense which is often used is the subjunctive, which is something that native English speakers often struggle to understand, as the equivalent is no longer used in everyday English. In terms of attempting to explain the subjunctive, pupils are not told much more than it is a mood, used to express uncertainties or beliefs, and there are certain times when you have to use it. For example, the French phrase il faut que is ALWAYS followed by the subjunctive. That is not something that will mean much to anybody who only speaks English, and there is no easy way to explain it. It is just one of many complexities within the French language which takes time to understand and to fine tune, and as a person’s knowledge of the language grows, so too will their understanding of the fact that what makes the it so romantic is its irregularities and nuances. This means that rather than try to struggle which complicated concepts such as the subjunctive, pupils end up just accepting that they exist.

Another way in which the French language distinguishes itself from the English language across The Channel is in the continued use of accents. It is pleasantly surprising that even in the age of text message abbreviations, French accents have not been compromised. This is probably because of the effect an accent has on the sound of the word. For example, ending a word with an é rather than an e changes it from a silent letter to one which is pronounced. Similarly, using a ç rather than a c makes the sound more like an English s. This might prompt the question as to why the language hasn’t evolved over time to substitute theç with an s, but this question can be answered by highlighting that a French s is often a silent s, unless it is at the beginning of a word. French speech is very fluid, and voice intonation is extremely important. The pronunciation guide below will shed some light on the way the French speak.

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