French was my first love when it comes to languages. In fact, there’s an expression in French: “On revient toujours a son premier amour.” It means you always go back to your first love. I love French; I love all the languages that I learn, but I have a special affection for French.
Though I studied French at school, I couldn’t speak it at the age of 16. Then I went to McGill University and had a professor who turned me on to French and to the French civilization. To learn a language you’ve got to really love the language, be committed to the language and want to be part of that community of people who speak it. That’s what happened to me. I got very keen and I ended up going to France for three years where I studied Political Science at L’institut d’études politiques in Paris.
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I highly recommend learning French. There’s a whole world that you can access so much better if you speak French. The language is spoken in other countries like Canada. It’s spoken in eastern Canada in Quebec and New Brunswick. It’s spoken in many countries in Africa. Not to mention Belgium and Switzerland. So it’s well worth the effort.
Here are some features of French for beginners about to set off on their language learning journey:
French is fairly difficult to pronounce. It isn’t like English, Swedish or the tonal languages. French tends to roll along in a fairly monotonous range of tones. Also, there are the nasal sounds and then the way the sound is carried on to the next word. These are things you have to get used to as a beginner.
One thing I recommend insofar as pronunciation is concerned is to get used to making the ‘ur’ sound. There are lots of ‘ur’ and ‘aw’ sounds in French, and you kind of have to pick up on that as soon as you can and have it flow through your pronunciation. It can be tough to pick up on these sounds in your listening. The French slur words together, as we do in all languages.
2. Positive statements, negative statements and questions
You have to get used to what in English we call the ‘w’ words: what, where, when, why, who, how: quoi,où , qui , quand , pourquoi , comment. You should get used to those at the beginning of your studies as they are essential for making statements and asking questions. Try google translate to see what the corresponding words and structures are in French.
You can save these on LingQ, which I very much recommend you do because the system will give you lots of examples. The examples come in two sections on LingQ, either from our library or from a lesson you have already studied. The advantage of looking at examples from lessons you have already studied is that you probably know the words. Very often, if you’re reading in a grammar book you look at examples, but you don’t know the words. That’s not so very helpful.
3. Gender and number
There are languages, like Japanese, that have no gender and no number. French has both. In French pronouns and adjectives have to agree, even verbs have to agree. This can be difficult to get used to, but we have to have the confidence that we will eventually.
Very soon you’ll discover that whereas in English we say I go, you go, he goes, only the ‘he goes’ changes, in French every form of the verb changes, depending on the person. You’ve just got to get used to it. It’s very difficult to remember these conjugations. You can spend all kinds of time pouring over conjugation tables. In my experience it’s a very unsatisfying thing to do because you forget them. You might remember them for tomorrow’s test and then you forget them, so you constantly have to refer to them and see them in context. If you’re on the computer, just Google “French conjugations” or “conjugation” of any verb and you will find what you are looking for. The same is true, by the way, with pronouns, adjectives. Anything you want to look at, you just Google and it will be there.
The big bugbear in French for beginners is the tenses. Like with all grammar, the key to “getting it” is to simplify. I own a series of grammar books published by Dover. None of them is longer than 100 pages; they’re very short descriptions of the grammar. That’s the kind of book you need to have so that you can refer to the grammar from time to time, because in most grammars there aren’t that many issues. In fact, I think there’s probably 10 or so.
There are things like the conditional which we also have in English: “I will go tomorrow”, “I would go if…” etc. The French do the same in their conditional. You have to learn the endings by regularly reviewing them in tables, seeing them in context and so forth.
Type some “if” “then” sentences in English into Google Translate and then grab those sentences and import them into LingQ. Then you can look for them in your regular listening and reading.
The subjunctive is also a bit of a bugbear in the romance languages. All that means is there are certain expressions that describe the speaker’s attitude, like “you have to go”, “I want you to go”, “although you went” etc. At first the subjunctive won’t make sense, but once you’ve seen enough examples, it will start to make sense and slowly you’ll develop the habit of using the subjunctive form of the verb at the appropriate time.
8. Relative clause
There are some things they do differently. The French are not hungry or cold, they have hunger and they have cold. There are a few other things like that. Largely, it’s a matter of getting used to it. Try using Google Translate and type in a few English sentences with relative clauses and you will see how it works. Google Translate is a valuable tool, especially where French for beginners is concerned. Use it!
Even though I went through very quickly some of the issues of grammar, the grammar can be a bit of a stumbling block. Don’t let it be, get past it. Go past the grammar, enjoy listening and reading. Build up your vocabulary using LingQ, which I recommend, and go back and visit the grammar from time to time. Once you have some experience with the language, you’ll find that gradually, with enough exposure, some of these things start to become natural.