"Conques" by Howard Somerville is licensed under CC BY 4.0
You already know a lot of French!
Le mots apparentés
Cognates - or mots apparentés - are words that have a similar spelling, pronunciation, and meaning across two languages. French and English share many cognates because they have a shared history. After the Norman Invasion in 1066, French became the language of law, religion, government and administration in England. By the end of the middle ages, around 45% of English was of French origin. Today, it makes up 29% of all English vocabulary. You can learn more about the ways French has influenced and changed English here.
Modern French language has also adopted an enormous amount of English vocabulary and expressions. This long tradition of borrowing vocabulary from each other is alive and kicking. Take for example, the French word mél which was acquired from the English word email.
Cognates are particularly helpful for students who speak Latin-based languages like Spanish. Recognizing cognates can help English and Spanish speakers understand common French words that are also common in English, like différence, classe, montagne, acteur and résultat. At the same time, French becomes a resource for understanding English words you may not normally use, such as commence, travail, emolument, pince-nez, and bouffant. Click here to explore more English words of French origin.
Study the Quizlet vocabulary flashcards. Listen and repeat the French pronunciation.
See if you can guess the English equivalents of the following words:
- identique = _____________.
- plaisir = _____________.
- employé = _____________.
- étudiant = _____________.
- tourner = _____________.
- couleur = _____________.
- tragédie = _____________.
- carotte = _____________.
- pingouin = _____________.
- général = _____________.
- plante = _____________.
- tigre = _____________.
The biggest difference between these French and English words is their pronunciation, even when they are spelled the same. For example, compare the way we pronounce the word different in English to différent in French.
As you can see with these examples, you already know a lot more French than you realize. Your first challenge is to recognize them when you hear and read them. Then you will need to learn how to pronounce them. It's very common for an English speaker to pronounce a word in English when it looks the same in French, so take some time to get acquainted with French pronunciation (see below).
Les faux amis
Some cognates are NOT equivalent in meaning. They are called False cognates, or faux amis (false friends). They may be related historically, but they have taken on different meanings in each language. In most cases, some similarities still exist, but the differences outweigh the similarities. For example:
|ancient||≠||ancien||=||old (man, house, etc.)|
|to attend||≠||attendre||=||to wait|
|to rest||≠||rester||=||to stay|
Study the Quizlet vocabulary flashcards. Listen and repeat the French pronunciation.
You can download a Glossary of French/English cognates prepared by The University of the State of New York and made available at the New York University website.
There are many French words that we use in English that have retained their original French spelling and pronunciation (more or less). (Words like: déja vu, mirage, façade, pot-pourri, hors d'œuvre, cul-de-sac, matinée, encore, cliché, faux pas, R.S.V.P., souvenir, fiancé, risqué, coup de grâce, coup d'état, etc.). Visit this site for a description of 15 French words that we already use often in English. Here are 99 French words we use all the time in English.
Exploring the historical relationship between English, French and other languages can be fun. You may be surprised to discover connections you may otherwise have missed. For example, the distress signal mayday! was derived from the French m'aider, a shortened version of venez m'aider! which means come help me!
The Importance of Context
There are many words and expressions that have no direct translation to English. We will learn some of these later. For example, the French expression L’esprit de l’escalier (French) means the act of thinking of a clever comeback when it is too late to deliver it. We don't have a common translation for this. A word by word translation of this would be mind of the staircase, but that clearly doesn't make sense. To solve this problem, some English speakers have translated it as staircase wit. In this course you will see common expressions like avoir soif. A word-by-word translation of this would be I have thirst, but the correct translation is I am thirsty. An even more difficult phrase to translate is avoir envie de (= to feel like... doing something). Each of these three words (avoir, envie, & de) have many different English equivalents depending on the context and situation in which they appear, but their combination in this particular order creates a very specific meaning (to feel like...) for which there is no single word.
We can see the same translation problem going from English to French. For example, how can we translate the expression It's raining cats and dogs to French? Would a French speaker think cats and dogs are falling from the sky? Instead, we need to learn the expressions that a French person might say, for example, Il pleut des cordes (It's raining ropes) or Il pleut comme une vache qui pisse (It's raining like a pissing cow). Because we can't always rely on a word by word translation, we need to learn formulaic clusters of words, also known as idiomatic expressions.
The most important thing to remember is that context is the key to understanding and speaking French. Context means the words, phrases and texts that come before and after a word. Words don't have any inherent meaning in and of themselves. Rather their meanings depend on the contexts in which they occur. For example, the clause Je l'aime could mean I love him, I love her or I love it, depending on who or what we are talking about. If we add the word bien to this clause we change the meaning in a socially important way:
Je l'aime I love her (as a romantic partner)
Je l'aime bien I like her (as a friend)
Of course, additional context will allow for more nuanced meaning.
So remember: It is always the combination of words that determines what each word actually means. One look at a dictionary in any language will prove this point. The word love, for example, will have a long list of possible meanings in English as well as a myriad of translations into French.
In addition to the linguistic context, we must always be aware of the social situation or practice in which we are engaged. For example, in English, we are more likely to say yeah in a casual situation (like with friends) and yes in a more formal situation (like a job interview). But this is not a strict rule. These are social norms. Knowing how to speak French appropriately in a given situation is another key to success.
Using a dictionary
A dictionary is primarily a written collection of words in a given language, yet language is not made out of words. Rather it is made of texts, of conversations, of readings, and so on. On the one hand, we know that we cannot translate everything word by word. For every English word, there are many possible translations, and vice versa. On the other hand, French and English are always changing. Words and expressions are created, acquired from other languages, and lost everyday. A dictionary is our way of keeping a record of it. It is not record of how things are supposed to be, but rather how things are at a given moment in history.
With this in mind, here are some suggestions for using dictionaries efficiently:
- Don't just rely on one dictionary, whether online or in print. Consult different ones regularly.
- Always look at examples of how the word is used in context to make sure it's the right meaning you are looking for. Most dictionaries will provide examples of how words are used in sentences. Be sure to read them.
- Read the dictionary in both directions. When you look up a simple word like car, for example, you will find around 10 or more French equivalents (voiture, bagnole, automobile, caisse, char, wagon, etc.). In addition to looking for examples of how to use them in context, you should also look up each of those words individually to see how they are translated back into English. This will help you zero in on the meaning you wish to convey.
Here are some useful online dictionaries:
You can also search for the translation of entire phrases and sentences with sites like these:
Practice, practice, practice
In order to become fluent in French you need to practice it as much as possible. Here are some important things to remember:
- Repetition is key. You need to hear a word or expression many times before you actually remember it. You should try to listen to as much French as possible by talking to people, watching videos and films, and listening to music. Try reading out loud often and repeating after native French speakers in online tutorials.
- Language is inseparable from our social life and therefore requires an understanding of social and cultural norms. We have all learned our native language because we were immersed in it from the day we were born. We can't learn a second language in a vacuum, so you need to immerse yourself in the French language as much as possible in order to learn how to speak French appropriately from one situation to the next. Remember that what we say always depends on the person we address, the time and place, and the social activity in which we are participating.