The French believe their language is the most beautiful in the world an in our podcast podcast episode How to speak French we talk about why that is. This is a summary of the episode for those that aren’t into podcasts!
We’ll share some key tips to help you get by in French that are really easy to remember – even if you’re not fluent. It’s a short language lesson and there will be no test at the end!
Why do the French think their language is the most beautiful, here’s an example:
If I ask you in English: “do you like cheese”. It sounds like a basic question right. I am just asking you if you like something. I am looking for a fact about you. That’s it. But now, if I say it in French: “aimes-tu le fromage”. That’s a completely different thing. When you hear that, you want to like cheese, you want to have cheese right now!
Also, French media (and only French media obviously) have been saying for some time now that the French language will be the most spoken language in the world by 2050! And of course it is hard to disagree with a French person because you can hardly get a word in as French people just love to talk and share their language!
The most important French words
So – the most important word in the French language is bonjour.
When you go into a shop in France – it’s polite to say bonjour. Even in my local supermarket, if I walk in and the people working on the checkouts are looking my way – we always say bonjour to each other. And you say it when you go into cafés and bars, pretty much everyone really. Except the train or metro or the bus – don’t say it when you go on public transport. Unless there is a driver – but not to the passengers! Seriously though you can’t say bonjour enough. If you don’t say bonjour when you meet someone in France, they’re likely to think you’re a bit rude.
I was in Dijon in Burgundy once , and since I can’t go past a bakery or a chocolate shop, or a cheese shop without going in. And in Dijon there are just so many delicious shops, even more since they opened the incredible gastronomy village at the International city of food and wine. So since I can’t pass any of these shops without a look at least, drooling at the window, or taking a photo – there’s a lot of scope to say bonjour. I counted my bonjours – including stopping for a hot chocolate, lunch, dinner and a glass of wine.
53 times in one day!
And in France if you already said bonjour to someone, what do you do? You simply say Re-bonjour which means: “hello again”. It’s quite casual though, don’t say that to someone you don’t know very well.
The next most important words are s’il vous plait – please. And merci – thank you.
Right, that’s the easy bit out the way. Let’s talk about homophones – French words that sound the same – but mean different things!
For example the French for sea – Mer (sounds like mare)
The French for mother – Mere (sounds like mare)
The French for Mayor, as in the Mayor of Paris – Maire (sounds like mare)
Yup, to me they all sound the same. And that is what makes learning French so much fun. Even French people admit it all sounds the same but ah, it’s all about the context they say.
Tu and Vous – a French conundrum
We need to talk about tu which means you, and vous – which means you. Tu is informal and/or singular and vous is formal – and/or plural. So how do you know which one to use?
It’s complicated, even for French people! Generally tu is what you use for friends. Vous is what you use for people you don’t know well, your boss, government officials, the President and royalty. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The parents of Olivier, my podcast partner, live in Nantes, west of France and they have a neighbour, whose been a neighbour for a long time, years in fact. When they first met, they called each other vous – comment allez vous, how are you, that sort of thing. Quite formal which is normal when you meet someone and when you are from an older generation. But somehow, they never got passed “vous” onto calling each other “tu”, despite seeing passing each other in the street most weeks and stopping to chat. And now, you know what? Olivier says “It’s too late, my parents can’t suddenly call their neighbour by “tu” – it wouldn’t seem right!” There is even a word in French ‘tutoyer’. A French person might say to you “on se tutoie?” ‘Shall we call each other “tu?” Yes really, and then you know you’re past the formal side of things.
If in doubt – use vous, not tu. Unless you’re talking to a child, or a friend, or family… ok let’s move on.
The letter H in France
Let’s talk about the letter h in French, which is silent, so you never ever hear a word beginning with ha. And amazingly French people don’t even laugh hahaha – they laugh ah ah ah…
Apparently the French don’t like the letter h! They say ‘and-ball, ‘amburger, ‘otel, ‘ockey and ’alloween!
I love it when the Bread Man delivers the bread to our village. I’m teaching him to speak English, and he’s helping me with my French. I try to get him to say his h’s and he says “ave a ‘appy weekend” and I say “non it’s have a happy weekend.” He tries so hard and he makes all these strange noises and my dogs love it. They jump around him as he’s going red in the face trying to ha ha ha. And after several years of trying, I’m resigned to the fact that it’s just never going to ‘appen..
French isn’t just about words
The French language isn’t just about words – it’s also about noises, and body language. If someone asks a question and you don’t know the answer, you can reply silently by shrugging your shoulders, which means “I don’t know” without saying it. That’s because French people are allergic to saying that they don’t know something.
When French people are bored, they make a “pfffff” noise. Or if something is really bad, like ‘ this movie is the worse movie in the world’ the sound bof escapes from them.
Bah, hop, tsst, blowing raspberries – they’re all part of the French language! .
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Janine Marsh is Author of My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream, My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life and Toujours la France: Living the Dream in Rural France all available as ebook, print & audio, on Amazon everywhere & all good bookshops online.