The French Language: The Ultimate Guide to What It Is and How to Learn It
French is often called la belle langue (the beautiful language).
So what makes French so belle (beautiful)?
Is it its history, its culture, the wealth of literature written in its name?
What about its sound, its structure, its stature that is simultaneously global yet otherworldly?
In this post, we will explore all these things, because there is much more to la belle langue than meets the eye.
- What Is French?
- French Varieties and Dialects
- French Culture
- Why Learn French?
- FAQ About Learning French
What Is French?
A Brief History of the French Language
When the Romans invaded and conquered Gaul (modern-day France) in 58 B.C.E., the native inhabitants of the region spoke a language that was quite different than the Romans’ tongue.
In fact, they spoke Gaulish, a Celtic language related to Welsh, Gaelic and Breton.
During the five centuries that the Romans occupied Gaul and imposed their governance, religion and culture on the Gaulish people, they also inadvertently gave them their language. Vulgar Latin, a version of the Latin language used by everyday people, became the language of the land, but Gaulish elements were not entirely erased.
An invasion from the Germanic-speaking Franks (giving us the name France), brought even more linguistic diversity to the area, further influencing the local dialect. Over the course of 1500 years, the people of Gaul would begin to speak a form of Latin that is heavily impacted by the Germanic languages.
Today, modern French is seen as a marriage of all these influences: a base in Latin, but with distinct Gaulish and Germanic flairs. French continues to be changed by the people who speak it all around the world and now we see many different French-speaking cultures with different dialects.
French From a Linguistic Point of View
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the French language is its pronunciation. In fact, this is one of the biggest struggles for beginning learners.
French has four nasal vowels, meaning the sound is passed through the nasal cavity instead of through the mouth. This is exemplified by the French phrase un bon vin blanc (a good white wine) which uses all four nasal vowels. As you can guess, these vowel sounds don’t exist in English.
Speaking of strange sounds, the French r sound, as shown in the word “route” is also a sound that doesn’t exist in English.
But at least French is written with the Latin alphabet, right?
Well, yes, but French suffers from the same problem as English: spelling is illogical in some places. There are loads of silent letters and they don’t even seem to follow any logical rules (they do, though).
French also follows a word order pretty similar to English: most sentences are constructed using a subject-verb-object word order.
Like Spanish and Italian, French has masculine and feminine gender, and this impacts everything from articles to adjectives. Furthermore, French has 17 distinct verb tenses, moods, and aspects, all with their own conjugations..
Overall, you can see why French may seem tricky to a foreign speaker, but every language comes with its own quirks and French is no different!
Who Speaks French & Where
While French originates from continental Europe, colonization has spread the language to every corner of the world. In fact, it is estimated that some 80 million people speak French as their first or native language.
Check out this list of countries that have French as an official language:
- Burkina Faso
- The Central African Republic
- Republic of Congo
- Democratic Republic of Congo
- Ivory Coast
Below is a list of countries where French is not an official language, but there are significant numbers of French speakers:
- The United States of America has more than 2.1 million native French speakers, mostly in New England and Louisiana.
- Algeria has 27 million French speakers, but it is not an official language there.
- Mauritania has more than 700,000 speakers of French.
- In Morocco, French is spoken by 30% of the population.
- Tunisia boasts more than 6 million speakers of French.
- Both Laos and Cambodia have 3% of the population who speak French.
- Lebanon has 40% of their population who can speak French.
- Andorra has 9% of the population who can speak French.
Facts About French
French isn’t just the sum of its history, linguistic features and the people who speak it. It is a fascinating language in and of itself. Let’s look at some interesting facts about the language:
- French used to be the official language of England after the Norman Conquest in 1066.
- It is estimated that more than 30% of all English words are of French origin.
- In terms of total speakers, French has more than 220 million speakers, making it the sixth most spoken language in the world.
- French is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
- L’académie française (the French Academy) is an institution that regulates the French language. It is responsible for keeping the language “pure.” They maintain grammar rules and structures and decide if new words should be inducted. It is famously conservative.
French Varieties and Dialects
Like all languages, French has a number of varieties and dialects. While these varieties are technically still French, they can be tricky for untrained ears to understand. These varieties often have differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and even grammar from Standard French.
For our purposes, we are only talking about varieties and dialects of French. There are some sister languages of French sometimes referred to as “dialects” including: Picard, Limousin, Gascon, Occitan and Francoprovençal. These are all actually their own official, separate languages and will not be discussed in this post.
This is the dialect from which Standard French is derived. Metropolitan French originated from the Paris area, but it has become widespread throughout all of France, especially in the media and official and academic institutions. Metropolitan French is also the base for French taught to foreigners.
This is a dialect of French spoken predominantly in the south of France. It is strongly influenced by the Occitan language, and it differs from Metropolitan French due to a lack nasal vowels and differences in pronunciation and emphasis.
This is the variety of French spoken in Belgium. Other than some pronunciation and vocabulary differences, Belgian French does not differ too much from Metropolitan French.
Swiss French is the dialect of French spoken in Switzerland. Like Belgian French, Swiss French does not differ too much from Metropolitan French.
African French is not a single variety of French, but rather a collection of dialects of the language spoken in Africa. These dialects developed after French colonization in the continent. While they differ further depending on the country where the dialect is spoken, most African French varieties have a trilled r.
Like African French, Canadian French does not denote a single version of the French language in Canada. Some varieties of Canadian French include Quebec French, Newfoundland French and Métis French, all of which are pretty similar to Metropolitan French. Québécois is particularly notorious for having certain pronunciations and slang terms that are unique to the dialect.
Acadian French is said to be the original variety of French spoken in North America. It is currently spoken in the Atlantic provinces of Canada and in New England.
Louisiana French is a variety of French spoken primarily in Lower Louisiana in the United States of America. It is very similar to Acadian French, having developed in North America around the same time.
Haitian French is the variety of French spoken in the island nation of Haiti in the Caribbean. This variety is actually pretty close to Metropolitan French, but is not to be confused with Haitian Creole.
Believe it or not, there is something even more famous than the French language: French culture! French culture is often associated with Paris, but many varieties of French culture exist within different French speaking regions. This post will focus mostly on culture within France, but keep in mind that each Francophonic region has its own diverse cultures worth looking into.
Much of French humor hinges on political and social satire. The French are notorious for being politically engaged—so it makes sense that much of their humor includes mocking political ideas, figures and events.
This political satire comes largely in the form of bandes dessinées (comics). Political satire is also widely used in radio shows, late-night talk shows and comedic routines.
On an individual level, French humor is considered much less in your face than, say, American humor. The French focus less on slap-stick and vulgar jokes to be funny and rather enjoy puns, word play, sarcasm and wit. Not to say that the French don’t find humor in topics that are considered taboo, they are just much more subtle about it.
Most French jokes do tend to be directed towards others, but don’t be too quick to fret if you don’t understand the humor. With some experience, you will pick up on what the French find funny (or don’t).
I am sure that you have heard of the French la bise (the kiss), a greeting where two people mimic a kiss to both cheeks while pressing their cheeks to one another. This is customary when greeting someone in an informal setting (such as meeting up with a friend, family member, or a date). It is also typical for la bise to be exchanged when parting ways.
If things are a bit more formal, the French also use handshakes. Handshakes are firm and quick, and eye contact should be maintained. This is a common way to greet business partners and someone you are just meeting.
Hand gestures are used pretty widely in French as well. The thumbs-up and thumbs-down gesture are used as well as the stereotypical “Chef’s kiss” to show that something is délicieux (delicious). There are many others, and learning these gestures will be helpful to your understanding of the French language.
The French are pretty conservative when it comes to communication. They tend to speak quietly and have more reserved body language, creating quite the contrast between the native French and surrounding Italian, British, or American tourists.
French food is world-renowned, and for good reason. France (particularly Paris) has a long-held reputation for culinary art that uses fresh ingredients and expertly perfected techniques to create their dishes.
Popular traditional French dishes include French Onion Soup, coq au vin (chicken in a wine sauce), cassoulet (a bean and sausage stew) and salade niçoise (a salad originating from the south of France).
The French also love their desserts and baked goods! From fluffy macarons, to crispy baguettes, to their delectable croissants, the smell of baking is never in short supply in France.
Of course, a pastry or baguette cannot be had without some cheese and wine! While wandering any street in France, you are bound to come across a shop or two that radiate a pungent odor. Although it may be stinky, I highly encourage you to stop in and try some cheese! The French have certainly perfected their art of cheese-making and you are sure to love trying the many varieties.
Wine and champagne are also French staples and there are thousands of vineyards across the country that produce high quality beverages. Champagne is especially French as only producers who use grapes from the region of Champagne in France are allowed to call their bubbly beverage champagne.
The French are very proper and tend to pay attention to table manners. Some simple French dining etiquette includes always eating with a fork and knife. Even if it does not seem like a dish that requires cutting, it is pretty normal to still have a knife in hand to use for scooping food onto your fork.
Another dining mishap for many American tourists is to request a change in the menu. It is very normalized in the United States for people to ask for substitutions or request that something be removed, but this is a huge no-no in France (and Europe for the most part). If you don’t like something in the meal that you are hoping to order, it’s probably best to find something else.
It is also not common for French establishments to offer food to-go. If you haven’t finished your food on your plate, it’s normal to just leave it. Asking for a box to take your leftovers will likely get you a funny look, so it’s better to just let it go. French portions are typically smaller (for that reason), so this won’t be an issue all that often anyways.
When it comes to eating times, the French eat on a very different schedule. It is typical to have a very small breakfast (such as a coffee and a pastry) in the morning, a long and rather large lunch around noon, and a smaller dinner much later in the evening, around seven or eight at night.
Before dinner, it is typical that you would go for “apéritif,” or pre-dinner drinks. These beverages are supposed to cleanse the palate in preparation for eating. This time is a very common social hour, and most French will attend apéritif with company to unwind and share in conversation with friends.
Paris is often referred to as “the fashion capital of the world,” and for good reason. Fashion has long been a social statement in France, once setting royalty apart from the masses, but now more as a form of expression. You will find most French to be very well dressed, for all occasions.
You will likely never see a French person leave their residence in athleisure, pajamas, or even just shorts and a t-shirt. Even going to the grocery store, the French value presenting themselves as clean and put together. While they are careful about their appearance, French fashion also revolves around a simple kind of elegance.
It is rare to see a French person dress in any way that is too loud or extravagant. The French prefer simple colors and timeless pieces of quality, thus embodying the “chic” style.
French lifestyle is much less focused on work, and more so on experiencing life.
The French work-week is only 35 hours long, protected by French law. When the French do work, they have about two hours off in the middle of the day so they have time to go take those long lunches that they love so much.
The French are also very dedicated to time off. There are many holidays in which the French don’t have to work (I recommend you read up on Bastille Day), and they also receive five weeks of paid vacation time every year.
Overall, the French are adamant about their work-life balance, and definitely prioritize their well-being over their workload.
Popular culture in France is very similar to that of other Western nations, but there are some distinctions that make France unique.
For starters, France has a historic and modern love for les beaux arts (the beautiful arts). This includes visual art as well as performative art such as the theatre and the orchestra.
A different type of art, French literature is famous for its beautiful prose and different outlooks on life and love. Even texts that are hundreds of years old are still read by the French on a daily basis. Modern literature also holds a place of importance as French authors continue to earn awards for their skillful writings.
France also has a long history of cinema, being one of the first countries to produce films. France hosts famous film festivals such as the Festival de Cannes (Festival of Cannes), which draws thousands of attendees worldwide every year.
Like film, French music has been a huge influence on the world. Many French musicians are still listened to today, ranging from classical composers to historic and modern pop musicians such as Édith Piaf, David Guetta and Stromae.
As expected, the internet also contributes sizeably to modern French culture. The French are avid social media users, often sharing memes and posts related to French-speaking cultures.
Why Learn French?
Aside from the fact that French is a beautiful and complex language, there are also many practical reasons to learn French.
For starters, the sheer number of French speakers around the world holds a great number of professional and academic opportunities.
French speakers are literally all over the world, which paves the way for studying or taking a job in a French-speaking country. In fact, French gives you access to some of the biggest markets in the world: North America, Europe and even Africa, which is seen as the continent with some of the fastest growing economies on Earth.
French also gives you access to the many French cultures around the world. Every single French-speaking country brings its own unique flair to their culture. By speaking French, your knowledge of the world and some of its cultures will grow immensely.
Knowing French also opens doors for learning other languages as it gives you a basic understanding of how a Romance language works. Because French descended from Latin, it is similar to other languages in the Romance language family such as Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and (to a lesser extent) Romanian. This is beneficial as you would already have an idea of how vocabulary and grammar works, and will be able to pick up on those languages even faster.
FAQ About Learning French
Learning French is not always a walk in the park. Here are some answers to commonly asked questions to soothe your nerves.
Which Variety of French Should I Learn?
As a general rule, you should start with Standard French (the dialect based on Metropolitan French) when you are beginning to learn the language.
Standard French is the variety of French that all other varieties of French is based on, so you can start here and learn dialectal differences later. If you will be using French anywhere other than France, it is useful to learn a bit about the French spoken in your chosen location but I recommend doing this once you have already reached an intermediate level of understanding.
How Hard Is It to Learn French?
Believe it or not, French is one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn according to the United States Foreign Service Institute.
In fact, in its list of languages, the FSI has French as a Category 1 language, grouping it with other languages that are similar to English such as Dutch, Spanish and Norwegian.
Since 30% of English words are actually from French, English speakers will find learning the language rather familiar. There may be noticeable differences in the pronunciation of words and grammar structures, but even an untrained French learner should be able to read French and find a couple words that are similar, if not exactly the same as their English counterparts.
How Long Does It Take to Learn French?
As a category 1 language, it is estimated that it takes the average learner 30 weeks or 750 class hours to learn French.
This estimate is backed up by the timeline presented by Cambridge, which uses the levels presented by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). According to the CEFR, learners can attain a C1 or advanced level in a language after 700 to 800 hours of study.
Of course, these are just estimates, and they will depend entirely on the learner’s experiences and dedication to learning French. Certain factors may even speed up the process such as consistency or knowledge of another Romance language.
How Many French Words Do I Need to Know?
Learners often get hung up on how many French words they need to know in order to speak French well, and while I don’t recommend obsessing over it, it is useful to have a ballpark estimate.
According to Universe of Memory, learners tend to know a specific number of words depending on what CEFR level they are at, give or take about 20%.
For example, learners at the A2 level (pre-intermediate) know approximately 1000 words. While that doesn’t sound like a lot, knowing the most common 1000 words in French allows you to understand 85% of the written and spoken language. This is because 85% of everyday usage is comprised of the same 1000 French words.
According to this logic, knowing 5000 French words means you understand 98% of the French language, and knowing 10,000 French words means you would be able to understand 99%.
10,000 words is no easy feat, but remember that many of these words would be similar to their English counterpart.
Which Jobs Value or Require French?
There are many jobs that require French or would see the knowledge of French as a valuable asset.
For starters, to get a job in a French-speaking location, it would be necessary to have a high level of fluency in the language.
Some jobs such as a French teacher or a French translator would require a high level of French as an obvious entry point to the job itself.
Many jobs in the business and academia worlds would also benefit from French knowledge. Many large corporations are likely to have French-speaking clients or partners and seek out employees with language skills to help establish better business relations with said clients/partners.
Academically, many schools host international students and want to ensure that the students have the resources they need while they are at the school, opening jobs for French speakers in that setting. France and other French-speaking countries have top-rated academic institutions, so if you are searching for a more prestigious academic job, knowing French would create an opportunity at those institutions as well.
What’s the Best Way to Start Learning French?
The best way to start learning French will differ for everyone, depending on their past language learning as well as their unique learning styles.
It is safe to say that those looking to learn French should have a well-rounded learning regimen. Be sure to focus on all four major language learning skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. By developing all four skills from the beginning, you can ensure that you maximize your learning potential and that you can master French in all of these contexts.
If you learn best with a more rigid structure and a teacher, seek out a local or online class or tutor. If you want to take things at your own pace, there are hundreds of resources out there that will help you on your learning journey.
The best way to learn French is through immersion. Ideally, you would go to French-speaking country and dive into the language, but at-home immersion is also possible and very valuable.
There are several online programs that will allow you to immerse yourself in French from home. With FluentU you can watch authentic French videos and follow along with the subtitles to learn French with material that native French speakers use!
Also try to read French books, listen to French music and start speaking French with real French speakers from day one!
All-in-all, the best way to stick to your French lessons is to find your motivation, and remember it! It won’t always be easy, but if you remember your goals and why you are learning French, it will be worth it!
Who would have thought that la belle langue really does live up to its name? Now that you know a little bit more about this marvelous language, start learning and make la belle langue your own.