Why learn French? Six Reasons
To paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy language learners resemble each other. They develop a passion for the language they are learning. Each unhappy language learner, on the other hand, finds his or her own reason to be turned off. I got turned on to French flair long ago and my passion for French has stayed with me for over 50 years.
I recognize that my reasons are subjective, but they need to be subjective. The “objective” reasons that induce people to try to learn, for example, Spanish because of the Hispanic market in the US, or Mandarin Chinese because of the rising economic power of China, or Arabic to work in intelligence, are usually not strong enough to enable someone to overcome the inevitable difficulties presented by a new language.
If the learner doesn’t cultivate a passion for one of those languages, an interest in some aspect of their culture, or some other personal emotional, sentimental, or intellectual connection, it will be a long ungrateful road with few successes and lots of frustration.
I learned French largely as a young man. It was the first language that I came to love, the first of 16 languages that I have committed myself to learning over the last fifty years. But French was the first and for that reason has a special place in my language heart.
We had French in school when I was growing up, but I had no real interest in it. My passion for French started with a course in the history of French civilization that I took as a 17 year old at McGill University, way back in 1962. As a result, I went to France to study for three years, became a Canadian diplomat, then an international businessman, and ended up speaking 17 languages.
Why learn French? Here are six reasons.
1. France is Europe in One Country
France was originally the land of the Franks, or at least ruled by the Franks, a Germanic tribe, which also ruled much of Germany and Northern Italy.
The greatest Frank king, Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 a.d., was a German speaker, but his subjects spoke many languages. A large number of his Western subjects were Celtic Gauls, who had been subjugated by the Romans and spoke a language derived from Latin, which was to become French.
The first written example of this language is to be found in the Serments de Strasbourg 842, where Charlemagne’s grandsons swore allegiance to each other in each other’s languages, one an early form of French, and the other an early form of German. This is a milestone in the evolution of France and the French language, even though the early French text seems to me to be closer to Latin or Italian than to modern French.
It might sound a bit stereotypical, but it is true to say that France, both geographically and culturally, combines the lighter, wine drinking, sun drenched culture of the Latin Mediterranean world with the heavier, beer guzzling, cloudier atmosphere of Northern Europe.
In the end, the northern barbarians conquered Rome, but the softer more sophisticated civilization of the south conquered them back, culturally. Out of this blend came France with its unique contribution to world culture.
2. French is the Language of Love and Chivalry
“Un troubadour est un homme qui chante au monde entier la grâce d’une femme inaccessible”
– Christian Bobin, French poet
A troubadour is “a man who sings to the world the graces of a woman whom he cannot have.” One of the earliest expressions of this Southern cultural influence in France was the flowering of the troubadour culture in Southwest France, where minstrels wandered from castle to castle singing their songs, idealizing courtly love. They sang in Occitan, or the language of Southwestern France.
In Northern France, meanwhile, troubadours were known as trouvères, in the dialect of Northern France, which became modern French. Love, “l’amour”, is a recurring theme not only in French literature, but in everyday life. Flirtatious banter, pretending to be seductive even when no seduction is really intended, the compulsory “bise” or kiss on both cheeks when men and women meet, these all create the feeling that Cupid is never far away. And French is a lovely language with which to express these amorous intentions, whether sincere or not.
Hollywood captured this mood in the film Gigi, with Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan and Maurice Chevalier. A little corny perhaps, but confirming the association of France with romance. There are many French singers and actors who represent this connection of French with love in a more authentic way. Yves Montand in his haunting rendition of “Sous le ciel de Paris”, Edith Piaf in “Hymne à l’amour”, and countless other songs by these and other French artists can be found on YouTube and the lyrics make wonderful language learning material.
One of my favourite French singers when I lived in Paris in the 1960s, was the poet and chansonnier Georges Brassens. He not only wrote and sang his own poetry, but also put great works of French poetry to song. His popular song, “Les Neiges d’Antan” (The Snows of Yesteryear), is a rendition of a 15th century poem by Francois Villon, “La Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis” (Ballad of the Ladies of Bygone Days).
Listening to Brassens sing this song is a treat, not just for the melodic flow of his southern French diction, but for the mood of languid nostalgia for something we never knew and can’t define. Life is fleeting, but as we listen, we fly through time and connect with bygone days. One of the great rewards of learning any language, is the opportunity to transport ourselves into another world, away from the humdrum of our everyday routines. French is a wonderful escape into lightness and intimations of love.
3. French is the Language of Reason
It is not only love that pervades French culture as a recurring theme, but also the classical worlds of Greece and Rome. On the buildings and monuments of Paris, and elsewhere in France, we see sculptures and styles that reflect France’s fascination with the ancient Mediterranean world. The worlds of Greece and Rome are in evidence in French thought, art, literary references, laws and traditions and of course in the language.
French is, after all, a Romance language, part of a group of languages that includes Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian and other variations of Latin, spoken by over 750 million people today. When the Renaissance burst upon Europe, it reconnected France with its cultural roots in the Mediterranean. The culture that grew out of the French Renaissance placed particular emphasis on logic and reason.
The Renaissance was a humanist countercurrent to the other worldly religiosity of the middle ages. It began in Italy in the late 14th century, where it is known in Italian as Il Rinascimento. Our English word, Renaissance, comes from French. The French Renaissance flowered under King Francois the first (1515-1547). Under his rule, many of magnificent chateaux of the Loire, as well as the Louvre, or royal residence, in Paris were embellished and renovated to reflect Renaissance styles. French Renaissance painters, such as the members of the Fontainebleau School, flourished.
The Renaissance began in Italy but the Gallic version had its own flavour. A famous poem by the French Renaissance poet Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560), known by most French school children, entitled “Heureux qui comme Ulysse a fait un beau voyage” captures this. Bellay’s poem, sung by Brassens, can be found on YouTube. What starts out as a voyage of discovery to the semi-mythical world of classical Greece and Rome returns, after some nostalgia, to the more familiar surroundings of home.
Happy, he who like Ulysses has returned successful from his travels,
Or like he who sought the Golden Fleece,
Then returned, wise to the world
To live amongst his family to the end of his days
The influence of the voyage remains, as the traveler is now “wise to the world”, but a new way of thinking emerges. So it was in France, as the Renaissance gave rise to a renewed interest in understanding this world, in science, and in logic and reason, rather than just relying on faith.
An example of this new Renaissance thinking in France is the philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Montaigne was a statesman who withdrew from the political world to the seclusion of his famous tower, where he devoted himself to writing on life, education and other subjects. His had a profoundly humanist view of the world, infused with the thoughts of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. He was a true Renaissance man who influenced generations of thinkers in France and elsewhere. He was a precursor to René Descartes (1596-1652), sometimes called the father of modern philosophy.
I have had the pleasure of visiting Michel de Montaigne in his tower, through the exquisite audio book version of his essays read by actor Michel Piccoli. The texts themselves are freely available online. If you find them difficult, you can import them into LingQ in order to learn the key words and phrases. Then you can indulge yourself in the pleasure of connecting to the France of the 16th century.
French writers have been dominant in the development of European and Western thought ever since. Montaigne, followed by the great Descartes (“je pense donc je suis”, “I think therefore I am”), enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, 20th century existentialists Camus and Sartre, and a host of post-modern French thinkers, to name but a few, have been giants on whose shoulders modern philosophy has developed. Their works are all there, in the original French, for us to explore and learn from.
The French love to discuss, and pride themselves on relying on logic and reason, rather than passion. The more you can learn about their history and culture, as you learn the language, the better you will be able to join in their discussions. Whether as a student in Paris in the 1960s, or much later doing business in France and sitting around a restaurant dinner table with my business partners, intellectual discussion has always been an important reason for my fondness for French culture and French people.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First let’s continue our journey to the time of the court of the sun king, Louis XIV.
4. France is Splendour and Luxury
Louis XIV ruled for 72 years, until 1715, from his magnificent and opulent palace at Versailles, built in 1685. In 1700 France was a true European superpower with a population of 24 million compared to 14 million for Russia and 5 million for England.
During Louis XIV’s reign the arts flourished. This was the period when the three famous classical playwrights, Moliere, Corneille and Racine wrote their works. I studied these at university and have enjoyed watching them performed. The comedies of Moliere are probably more accessible today than the tragedies of Corneille and Racine. But that depends on your taste. But, all are delightful examples of mastery in the use of the French language, and observation of the human condition. Today, we can easily explore these texts on the Internet, find audiobook versions of them, and even see video versions of the plays on YouTube, all free of charge.
Louis XIV was the arch symbol of the absolute monarch in Europe, and his reign a high point in terms of France’s power and influence in Europe. However, from the time of his death in 1715 France became an important hotbed of a movement that would eventually destroy the established order in the Europe of kings and princes. This was the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason. This was a Europe-wide phenomenon, with Italian and English thinkers playing a dominant role. But France became the crucible of a cultural revolution, where old conventions, especially religious dogma and the privileges of the powerful, were increasingly challenged.
Frenchmen D’Alembert and Diderot compiled the Encyclopedie “to change the way people think”. Rousseau, Montesquieu and Voltaire were important interpreters of this new wave of thinking which eventually led to the French revolution with its ideals of “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. Despite the terrible excesses of the French revolution, these ideals, the rights of the citizens over the rulers, are enshrined in most modern constitutions.
The glory days of the monarchy were over in France, and this was soon to be repeated elsewhere in Europe. It is worth noting, however, that during Louis XIV’s reign much of the production of the French economy had been dedicated to supplying the court with luxury goods. An enduring consequence has been the importance of the luxury industry to the French economy and the dominant position of France in that industry worldwide. France is associated with luxury and elegance like no other country.
Visitors from all over the world converge on Paris, city of light, to buy French handbags, fashion, perfumes, watches and other presumed symbols of elegance and good taste. Learning to speak French, however, is a more long lasting symbol of elegance and good taste.
5. French History is Fascinating
Why do I talk so much about history? Because when I study a language, as soon as I am past the beginner book stage, I want to get into something interesting. To me history is fascinating, not the kings and the wars, but how people lived, and what they were thinking. The history of a country gives us a better understanding of people today, and enables us to to engage more deeply with them. Fortunately there is an abundance of material, both written and spoken, available on the Internet. This combination of audio and text is especially suitable for language learners.
A good place to start learning about French history might be “L’Histoire de France Pour les Nuls” and its companion audiobook read by the author. “Pour les Nuls” is the French version of the “For Idiots” series. There are many others resources on French history available to suit different tastes. To make these books comprehensible language learning material, I suggest buying an audiobook listening to it as a companion to reading.
Converting ebooks into a format that enables the use of online dictionaries, or a system like LingQ, makes it easier to enjoy history as an important part of our language learning journey. Usually these books keep us busy for a long time. They are a good investment in our learning. Few countries have as many historical sites, cities, and monuments in as excellent condition as France. A knowledge of their history makes visiting them much more enjoyable.
Back to Napoleon… At the end of the French revolution, Napoleon took over a country ravaged by revolution, bloodshed, civil war and foreign incursions, and harnessed that energy to conquer much of Europe. In the end, he exhausted France, lost at Waterloo, and the ancient regime was restored, but not quite. The ideas of the French revolution led to movements of national revival and independence throughout the Europe of the 19th century. The Napoleonic wars also seem to have stimulated a current of thinking opposed to the age of reason known as the Romantic period.
France became a major colonial and industrial power during the 19th century, but not without experiencing more revolutions, uprisings, foreign wars, and foreign invasions. All the while, art, literature and architecture flourished.
I am particularly fond of 19th-century French literature which describes, in different ways, the lives of French people of that century. The texts of the works of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Balzac, Dumas and others are not only available free on the Internet, but we can usually find audiobook renditions of their works. If full length novels are a bit daunting, the short stories of Alphonse Daudet and Guy de Maupassant provide vivid descriptions of life in France towards the end of the 19th century.
Not everyone is interested in reading or listening to works of past centuries. The advantage of these works is that they are out of copyright and therefore the texts are available for free download on the Internet. I also happen to have a fondness for 19th century French literature. However, when learning other languages, I have paid for ebooks of modern literature and studied them on LingQ. The cost of these ebooks and audiobooks is small compared to the time we spend enjoying them. It is important to language learning success to find content of interest to learn from.
In some ways, the twentieth century was not kind to France. The first world war brought an end to the period of industrial and colonial expansion, often described as the Belle Epoque. This period is represented by the paintings of Toulouse Lautrec, and epitomized by the Paris Opera, the racy Moulin Rouge, Maxim’s restaurant with its Art Nouveau decor, the “grands boulevards” and many other landmarks of Paris.
France recovered slowly from the bloodletting of the first world war. Between the two world wars Paris was a beehive of activity for intellectuals, painters and writers from all over the world. The second world war was another tragic blow to a country already exhausted by its losses in the first world war, and riven by the ideological strife of the interwar period in Europe. France is sometimes criticized for not having put up much resistance to the Nazis, but in the first world war, it was the French who bore the brunt of the German assault on the Western front.
Owing to France’s historical importance in Europe, and its role as a colonial power, a knowledge of French was considered the sign of an educated person, not only in Europe, but elsewhere in the world for several centuries. The courts of Europe spoke French, even as Napoleon invaded them. French was the lingua franca of international relations and diplomacy for a long time.
This is no longer the case, of course. French remains, however, an important international language, at the United Nations, in the Olympic movement, and at international conferences, but it has lost the status it once enjoyed. To me, the attraction of the French language is not diminished because English and other languages have assumed more importance.
6. French is Really Not That Difficult
Roughly 60% of English words are either of French origin, or Latin origin words that also exist in French. You already have a large latent vocabulary in French. The biggest obstacle to learning a new language is vocabulary. With French the hurdle is not as great as with many other languages. Typically we don’t realize that these words come from French, but when we encounter them in our French reading, they are easily recognizable. On the other hand, there are countless loanwords from French that are of more recent origin and reflect the profound influence French culture has had on the world.
“Impressionnisme” – art
“art nouveau” – architecture and design
“existentialisme” – philosophy and literature
“haute couture” – fashion
“nouvelle vague” – films
“joie de vivre”, “chic”, “bon vivant”
The above are but a few examples of the continuing individuality, imagination, even irreverent independence of mind that have always characterized French culture, and which are represented by the language. To speak French is to be “in” on something elegant, creative, and exclusive.
Let’s take the word cuisine. “Cuisine” is a French word that we use in English, and many people don’t realize that it is just the French word for kitchen. What it encompasses, however, is much something more elegant and broader than just cooking and eating. It is the art of “gastronomie”. If we are interested in fine eating, we are automatically drawn to the French language.
French cuisine is not only concerned with food, but also with French wine from the many different producing regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Alsace, the Rhone valley or the Loire, and of course the Champagne region. These are not only wine producing areas, but also centres of gastronomy, and popular tourist destinations.
I can’t think of a more pleasant way to pursue the French language than through the medium of French food culture. Google “cuisine française podcast” and you will find an array of language learning content that will teach you French and introduce you to French cooking at the same time. One delightful example combining language instruction with cuisine is La Cuisine de Katy, where you will find recipes and a discussion about eating, in easy French, with both audio and text. The Internet is your world classroom for French.
Today France is a technically advanced country with a vibrant modern cultural scene, integrated into the European Community. France is one of the leading economies in the world. Contemporary French literature, thought, and mass media are available with the click of a mouse, or on our mobile apps today. TV5monde offers French instruction via the news, and that is only one example. The availability of French learning resources on the Internet is almost limitless.
There are podcasts, radio and TV programs either aimed at the French native speaker or designed specifically for learners. If we are stuck with an issue of grammar we can use some of the many grammar resources available on the Internet, such as le conjugueur, to tell us how to conjugate a verb we come across.
French grammar and pronunciation may present some problems initially, but these are most easily overcome by not putting them up front. My language learning strategy has always been to focus on comprehension, on immersing myself in compelling content, reading, listening, building up my familiarity with the sounds, words and structures of the language, before worrying about how well I can express myself. Forcing yourself to say things, and to say things correctly, before you have become accustomed to a language, is putting the cart before the horse.
As Stephen Krashen has said, the key to language learning is compelling content. Nowadays the Internet is full of a wide range of compelling French content, and online dictionaries make them easier to understand. If you are starting out in French, however, texts of history, literature and current events, as attractive as they might be, may seem out of reach, even with the help of online dictionaries and other resources. It is first necessary to get familiar with some of the basic vocabulary and structural patterns of French.
Few things are better for that than simple graded stories with lots of repetition. An example is the 100 mini-stories project that a group of roughly 60 language learners have been developing over the last few months for over 30 languages, including French. Each story consists of three parts, with the same vocabulary and structure repeating with minor changes, and it is recorded by a native speaker. There is even a place to attempt to answer questions if one wants to.
Repeatedly reading these stories, and listening to them, with the help of online dictionaries and flash card review systems, is surprisingly effective. I’m currently developing a mini stories course on LingQ, focused on the use of certain tenses. These kinds of learning materials are becoming increasingly available, making it easier to deal with some of the issues in French grammar that have held learners back in the past.
Start Learning French Now!
There are over 200 million speakers of French in the world today, in Europe, the Americas and most of all in Africa. Some people have predicted that there could be as many as 700 million French speakers by 2050, given the fact that half of the growth in the world’s population will be accounted for by Africa. There are, in fact, 29 countries where French is the official language. That puts French amongst the top four languages which enjoy official status around the world.
France happens to be the most visited country by international tourists in the world, year after year. If you end up visiting France you will enjoy yourself more if you speak French. I never get tired of visiting Paris. Recent visits with my wife to Brittany, Burgundy and the Southwest have been opportunities to rediscover the hidden jewels of the French countryside.
I don’t find French people impolite, as some people like to claim, quite the contrary. This is especially true if you speak their language. Maybe that is arrogance, or maybe they have legitimate reasons to feel pride in their language and some sense of nostalgia that it no longer has the same influence worldwide as it did even a century ago. Young French people are avidly learning English now, but I hope they don’t learn it too well.
Nothing can diminish for me the pleasure of being a French speaker, not native of course, but a speaker nevertheless. I consider it a privilege to be able to access, in the original language, the varied, stimulating and charming culture of France. I love traveling to Paris and other parts of France. I am sure that the elegance and intellectual effervescence that French culture has exhibited since the Serments de Strasbourg will continue to make major contributions to the world. France is undergoing a period of economic difficulty, some social unrest and self-doubt at the present time. I have absolutely no doubt that the French will overcome this and continue making unique contributions to the world in many areas of activity.
Language learning is a personal journey. It requires commitment and attachment. I have sketched out here what attracts me to the French language and no doubt dated myself in the process. It is up to each learner to find his or her own path to fluency in the language of their choice, which means searching for things that attract them, and then pursuing them with passion.