Did you know you already use French words every day?
And we’re not just talking about the obvious ones like cliché and à la carte.
We’re talking about essential, everyday vocabulary that you can pick up from English and plop right down in your French language studies.
It’s all thanks to cognates.
Cognates are similar words between two languages, and they can be a goldmine for language learners—especially English speakers learning French.
It’s no secret that languages often exchange words. But French and English take this to a new level in the sheer number of words they share.
But just what are cognates, anyways, and why do they help you learn French?
Read on to find out!
What Makes a Cognate?
Cognate is one of those words you hear thrown around in language classes. Maybe you know that it has something to do with similar words… but beyond that?
Cognates are words that have the same linguistic origin. Generally speaking, they look similar and have the same or similar meanings. As we’ll discuss more below, French and English share many roots, leading to tons of cognates.
Cognates don’t have to be identical. It’s often assumed that cognates are written exactly the same in two languages. This doesn’t have to be the case. Here’s just a sampling of recognizable-but-not-identical cognates in French and English: analytique (analytic), tomate (tomato), créatif (creative) and banque (bank).
Although these words are different, English or French speakers won’t have trouble figuring out their meanings.
Myth debunking: Many people believe that cognates have to share all of their meanings. But according to Rubén Morán, Academic Director of the Benedict Schools of Languages, it’s possible for cognates to share only one meaning and not the rest.
Not All Familiar Words Are Cognates
Faux amis (false cognates — literally “false friends”) look the same as words in another language, but aren’t. Be aware of faux amis, so you don’t assume a familiar-looking word is a cognate without checking a dictionary first.
Not doing this in most cases will lead to a slight chuckle, but sometimes can lead to very embarrassing situations. For example, below are a few faux amis you’ll definitely want to memorize!
Préservatif — Condom, not preserves
Bras — Arm, not bra
Douche — Shower, not the medical device, nor an obnoxious person
The best way to get comfortable with these unfriendly little words (we’ll show you several more at the end of this post) is to incorporate authentic French materials into your language studies.
FluentU is a great resource for this type of practice—it offers real-world French videos, like movie trailers, music videos, inspiring talks and more, where you can build your vocabulary while absorbing native speech.
Each video comes with interactive captions providing instant definitions of the words in the video. So if you think you recognize one, just click and check whether it’s a cognate or a false friend! There are also flashcards and exercises to help with more general vocabulary building. Check out the free trial and watch how quickly your vocabulary expands.
Why Do French and English Share So Many Cognates?
French and English share an amazing number of words. From my experience with other Romance languages, like Spanish, I’ve noticed more French cognates with English. But why is this?
- Both English and French are Indo-European languages. If we want to get technical, French and English both trace their origins to an extinct proto-language spoken some 4,500 years ago.
- French speakers invaded and dominated England for centuries. It was after the Norman invasion of 1066 that English and French really started sharing words in earnest. The French invaders basically replaced the English nobility, as well as a plethora of words (up to 45 percent of current English words). For centuries, English-speaking servants served French-speaking masters. This is why many English words that predate 1066 have a French-derived synonym.
- As neighbors, England and France have exchanged words. France is the closest mainland European country to England, separated by a narrow channel. It’s no surprise that, even after the English nobility stopped speaking French, the two languages continued influencing each other until the present.
Today, with English as the world’s lingua franca, many new words have been added to the French lexicon, including week-end, shopping, jogging, marketing and fast-food.
Ce week-end nous allons faire du shopping. (This weekend we are going to go shopping.)
Je fais du jogging tous les matins. (I go jogging every morning.)
Although this is franglais (a combination of French and English), technically these words meet the definition of cognates.
60+ French Cognates You Can Use to Your Advantage
Okay, so now we know a little more about cognates. If you think about it, you speak French every day! Or at least you use French words… a lot of them.
Let’s take a look at some of them below, followed by some common faux amis to watch out for.
What Is It? Cognate Nouns
Many cognates are nouns, because something’s name doesn’t depend on grammar—languages can exchange these words easily.
What’s It Like? Cognate Adjectives
What’s Happening? Cognate Verbs
During their time in England, the French managed to fundamentally change English, including many of its verbs. What are some examples of French cognate verbs you use every day?
Be Careful! Common Faux Amis
For French learners, the best approach isn’t an academic study of the minutiae of false cognates but simply memorizing the most common ones. Check these out:
Blesser (To hurt, not to bless)
Pain (Bread, not pain)
Journée (Day, not journey)
J’ai passé toute ma journée au bureau. (I spent my whole day in the office.)
Habit (Article of clothing, not habit)
Librairie (Bookstore, not library)
Coin (Corner, not coin)
Monnaie (Coin, not money)
Location (Rent, not location)
Actuellement (Presently, not actually)
Il y a actuellement 50 etoiles sur le drapeau americain. (There are presently 50 stars on the American flag.)
Éventuellement (Possibly, not eventually)
Elle va eventuellement venir. (She is possibly going to come.)
Déception (Disappointment, not deception)
Aimer (To like, not to aim)
Attendre (To wait, not to attend)
Tu peux m’attendre dans l’église? (Can you wait for me in the church?)
Chair (Flesh, not chair)
Personne (Nobody, not person — used with ne)
Personne ne veut aller avec moi. (Nobody wants to go with me.)
Cognates are tools that help you learn French. But like any tool, you have to know how to use it. Fortunately, the similarity between English and French vocabulary, thanks to their cognates, is one of the reasons why French is very accessible to English speakers.
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