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14 Fascinating French Language Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

You might think you know what makes the French language unique.

There are tons of silent letters. For some unknown reason, nouns have genders. And there are many non-optional French contractions.

What else is there to know?

Actually, a lot! There are tons of interesting, strange and fun facts about the French language and how it’s used across the world.

In this post, I’ll share my 14 favorite French language facts to show just how unique the language really is.

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1. French is the official language of 29 countries.

You may know that French is the official language of France, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada.

But did you know it’s also the official language of Senegal? And Djibouti? How about Madagascar and Vanuatu, a group of islands in the South Pacific? 

Not to mention, there are several dependent entities all over the world where locals speak French.

For example, French Guiana in South America is a department of France with representation in the French government, similar to how Hawaii is a U.S. state. That’s right—the French language has made its way to South America!

2. French wasn’t the first language spoken in France.

French is a romance language, which means it’s derived from Latin. So can you guess what language they spoke in France before French?

Yep, Latin! During the Iron Age, France was part of the region of Gaul, where people spoke Latin.

L’académie française (The French Academy), a council for the French language, was established in the 1600s, which was a huge step forward in developing the French language.

However, most locals didn’t speak French until after the French Revolution. Different regions spoke their own patois (dialects), resulting in confusion and lack of communication.

After the revolution, the government stepped in and decided French would be the common language.

3. There are no genuinely French words that use the letter “w.”

I know, I know, when you learn the alphabet in the first week of French class, you learn the letter “w.” It’s hard to forget that sound! 

But have you noticed the letter “w” doesn’t appear in a single French word? There are borrowed words like wagon (the French use it as the normal word for a train car) and western, but no genuinely French words with a “w.”

Think about proper nouns in English that begin with the letter “w.” Now translate them to French. Wales is le pays de Galles. Warsaw is Varsovie. The French have successfully avoided the letter “w!”

4. Many common English words are actually French.

You may be aware that certain words you use when speaking English are actually French. For example, café, bourgeois and hors d’oeuvre

However, there’s a slew of common words you probably never realized are actually French.

Do you see that woman’s silhouette?

Do you like being brunette?

Are you going to R.S.V.P. to that party? R.S.V.P. stands for répondez s’il vous plaît (please respond).

How about the word depot? Office Depot, The Home Depot… It’s everywhere!

5. You can find native French speakers all over America.

Growing up in the United States, I’ve met way more Francophones (French speakers) around the country than I ever expected to.

You may not be surprised to hear that some Louisianians speak a dialect of French. But how about locals of North Dakota? And Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont? Oh, and Missouri and Michigan?

That’s right, there are people from all these states who speak various vernaculars of French.

While surprising, it actually makes sense. Several of those states were founded by the French. And New England French is a spin-off of Canadian French because Canada is those states’ upstairs neighbor.

6. Some of the most famous stories were originally written in French.Les Miserables (Penguin Classics)

I’ve always adored the musical Les Misérables, and the 2012 movie remake rekindled the entire world’s love for the show. As amazing as the film is, the story was originally a freakishly long book by French author Victor Hugo.

Remember the epic film “The Count of Monte Cristo?” That movie was originally a book by Alexandre Dumas, the title in French being “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo.”

Those are a couple classics you might have already known were written in French. There are more surprising stories, though.

How about “Beauty and the Beast?” And “The Tales of Mother Goose?” Those came as a bit of a shock to me!

7. Not all similar words in French and English mean the same thing.

Yes, there are many English words that are French. But there are also plenty of French words that sound like they should translate to a certain English word, but they don’t.

These terms are known as faux amis (false friends).

The false friend that always makes me laugh is le bras (arm, not bra). I once witnessed a French keynote speaker confuse these words when he told the audience to raise their bras instead of raise their hands!

Some other common false friends are la librairie (bookstore, not library), gentil (kind, not gentle) and actuel (current, not actual). And that’s just the beginning!

8. It’s one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn.

I know learning French seems challenging sometimes. Especially with all those false friends!

But actually, if English is your native language, French is one of the easiest languages to pick up. Both languages have Latin roots, so there are a number of similarities.

You don’t have the added challenge of learning characters when you write, as you do with many Asian languages. And you don’t have to learn tones when you speak as you would with, say, Mandarin.

Because French is relatively easy to learn, it’s a good choice for your second language if you’re trying to be multilingual. Once you’ve mastered an easier language, you can transition into learning something like Russian or Japanese as your third or fourth language!

9. Many well-known celebrities speak French.

You know may Bradley Cooper as a talented actor, but did you know he also speaks French?

So does Joseph Gordon-Levitt, aka Tom from “(500) Days of Summer” and Arthur from “Inception.” 

The tennis star Serena Williams also speaks the language! She once said in an interview that she learned French because she wanted to be able to speak the language when she won the French Open. And because in most African countries, French is one of the main languages spoken. 

10. Counting in French involves a lot of math.

Counting in French seems simple enough. Until you hit the number 70, which translates to soixante-dix (sixty-ten). Then you keep counting up. For example, 74 is soixante-quatorze (sixty-fourteen).

Eighty translates to quatre-vingts (four-twenties). Eighty-five? Quatre-vingt-cinq (four-twenty-five).

Ninety? Quatre-vingt-dix (four-twenty-ten). Ninety-seven is quatre-vingt-dix-sept (four-twenty-seventeen).

I’m not sure why the French decided to make numbers this difficult. Maybe they wanted to keep their math skills sharp.

11. French pronunciation is different all around France.

It’s easy to think of French pronunciation as splitting into three main groups: European French, Canadian French and African French.

But it isn’t that simple. In reality, even within France, not all French dialects are alike!

Just as people from Mississippi speak differently than those from New Jersey. Or someone from London sounds different than their friend from Liverpool.

For example, in Lyon, you’ll hear what’s considered to be the classic French accent. In Marseille, you’ll hear a thick twang. Of course, the Parisian accent is quite posh.

12. Learning French will help you take standardized tests.

Whether you’re taking the SAT, ACT or GRE, you might want to learn a little French beforehand.

Learning a foreign language, especially a Latin-based one, helps you become aware of language. As a result, you’re more likely to crush the reading, writing and vocabulary sections of standardized tests.

Watch out, college, here you come!

13. French letter names don’t sound like their pronunciation in words.

Think about the letter “h” in French. When you say it by itself, it sounds like “ahsh.” It’s definitely one of the most fun French letters to sing in the alphabet song!

But when you say the letter “h” in a word, it’s usually silent.

The letter “z”  is another good example. The letter itself sounds like “zedd.” But in a word, it’s usually pronounced the same way we say it in English unless it’s used in a verb conjugation.

This distinction occurs in most languages, but with each new tongue you learn, it’s still surprising and tricky to master.

14. “E” is the most common letter in French.

It makes sense that “e” is the most used letter in the language, like in English. Think about all the common words with this letter.

Je (I), elle (she), au revoir (goodbye), merci (thank you). “E” is everywhere!

Not to mention, four of the language’s five accent marks can be used with the letter “e,” more than any other letter in the French alphabet. That’s a lot of opportunities to use “e!”

Try having a complete conversation in French without using the letter “e.” Can you do it?

 

I hope these interesting French language facts will boost your motivation to keep learning the language.

Share some with your friends or your French language exchange partner and see if you can shock them!

And one more thing...

If you like learning French on your own time and from the comfort of your smart device, then I'd be remiss to not tell you about FluentU.

FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews, documentary excerpts and web series, as you can see here:

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FluentU brings native French videos with reach. With interactive captions, you can tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.

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For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:

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Practice and reinforce all the vocabulary you've learned in a given video with learn mode. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning, and play the mini-games found in our dynamic flashcards, like "fill in the blank."

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All throughout, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a totally personalized experience. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.

Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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