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French Language Profile
Home > Languages > French

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Fascinating language spoken across the world and access to a great country - France. As Barry Farber says :"No matter your other language achievement, you will be judged by your French"
Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦ Schools ¦


French is highly useful for any activities involving travel to France: whatever great minds the French have, they are poor polyglots. If you go to France and want to understand something of the country, speaking French is a must. Speaking a few words will help considerably, but don't expect people to applaude just because you mumbled a heavily accented Bonjour Monsieur. The French can be extremely demanding and even rude, especially in Paris, to people who do not speak French well.

Speaking French will be very useful in many countries besides France, such as North Africa, Québec, and in many "black" African countries. Unless you wish to learn the local dialects, French will often be the only language widely understood (see below for more details about each country).

Chic factor

French is one of the most chic languages you can learn. It is associated with haute cuisine, fine wines, culture, philosophy and a stunningly beautiful country.

But be aware that to be chic, you need to speak French correctly. It is a not a good idea to start showing off your French if all you know is a couple words and you make mistakes in every phrase. The French themselves do not take kindly mistakes in their language, even from foreigners. I read a lot in English and it seems almost every French word in italics I encounter in English texts, especially from the US, contain mistakes. I am not sure who these people are trying to impress, but they certainly miss the mark for anybody who speaks French.


French is an official language of : France, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Canada, Madagascar, Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Belgium, Rwanda, Haiti, Switzerland, Burundi, Togo, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Comoros, Djibouti, Luxembourg, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mauritius, Vanuatu, Seychelles.

It is also widely understood in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon. You will also find small communities of speakers in a dozen other countries.

SpeakersAbout 75 mio speak French as their mother tongue, but a further 55 mio know it as a communication language.
Economic importance

French will open you one of the world's largest economies, France, and allow you to do business in various North African countries where French is the lingua franca of the business intelligentsia.

If you do business in France and are selling anything, a knowledge of the French language is almost indispensible. French businessmen often speak little or no English, and feel much more confortable dealing with a business partner they can adress in French.


France is the most visited country on earth. I believe there is something attractive to do in France for anybody at any stage of his life. More than 20,000 castles. Some of the nicest beaches you can find. A food used as a reference for fine cooking all over the world. Wines. Truffles. Amazing landscapes, hiking trails and outdoor pursuits. Incredible museums. I have visited France several times a year for over 20 years and can see it from my bedroom (I live on the Swiss side of Lake Geneva) and still it captivates me.

The language considerably help travel in France. The French are often quite chauvinists, especially with non-white, non-French speaking tourists. It's sad but that's the way it is. If you speak French well and understand a bit of the culture people's values, you can bring back amazing memories of interacting with the French. This makes for more vivid recollections than the monuments - trust me.

Travellers who visit the Maghreb (Tunisia, Algery and Morroco) report that a knowledge of French can get you anywhere in those countries, whereas learning Modern Standard Arabic does not.


Good news for the learner - if you speak French you can travel the world over and only encounter mostly cosmetic variations. The French will say quatre-vingt when they mean "eighty", whereas the Swiss will say huitante. In the South of France the accent is much more musical and some words are pronounced differently, like année (year) pronounced like an-née. People from Quebec will use about a hundred special words, such as piasse, boisson, demeurer, chum, blonde, which are great fun to learn and do not pose any problem for mutual intelligibility after a few hours. Variations in accent can be downright hilarious and are indeed an attractive feature of the language. Besides the small vocabulary differences, they are similar to the differences in accent between a middle class person from London, a farmer from Virginia and a surfer from California.

If you need to choose an accent to learn, for example when planning a study trip, I encourage you to go for the Paris accent if you can. I am myself a Swiss and do have a different accent (very pleasant!), so you will get it straight from the horse's mouth. If you learn French in Africa, or Québec, Switzerland or Belgium, your accent will always be noticed wherever you go. If, however, you speak with a mainstream France accent, people will just notice you speak French and are from out of town.


French culture is seen as the epitome of refinement in several domains, litterature, philosophy, architecture, arts and cuisine. You will have no lack of intellectual pursuits to maintain your French, be through films, television, books or newspapers.

There some excellent French movies - often available on DVD with subtitles. Please note that many French movies are done on subsidies and would probably not get a theatrical release in other countries. The proper euphemism for those movies in France is films confidentiels.

French non fiction books are not always very user-centered and practical. French authors, when given a choice, seem to prefer trying to impress the reader with their culture and intelligence rather than trying to get understood. French fiction is terrific, and there are enough wonderful books in French to last you for several lifetimes.

French TV is sometimes very good, with some excellent documentaries. People who do not live in Western Europe will probably not get the mainstream French channels but can rely on TV5, an international TV channel with programs from French, Canadian and Swiss televisions. Talk shows are very Parisian and require a detailed knowledge of the latest local celebrities to be understood.

French newspapers can provide you with a continuous flow of interesting reading material, most of which can be accessed for free over the Internet. The most important dailies include Le Monde, Le Figaro and Libération. For weeklies look out for Paris Match, not an intellectual publication but which ususally comes with the best photos of the week's international events and with quality articles. These newspapers can be quite partisan and self-centered, but so are the French.

French popular music is very good. The three most famous singers of chansons à textes (songs appreciated as much for their words as for the music) are Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg, but there are many other French singers with a high quality production. Try to look for Barbara, Michel Sardou, Boby Lapointe, Noir Désir or Bérurier Noir.

Bande dessinée. The French speaking Belgians have created a form of art know as Le Neuvième Art which has no real equivalents outside France, Switzerland and Belgium. The bande dessinée is nothing like Comic books although it uses the same device of little boxes with drawings and bubbles filled with texts to tell a story. Bande dessinées are read by children and adults alike, and tell complex stories with incredibly creative drawings.

Paris is the best city I know for shopping. New York is filled with soulless chain stores. London is expensive and has rude and underpaid shopping attendants. But Paris - ah Paris. Sure the shopping attendants are rude, but if you speak French, you can get back at them. And the more you do, the nicer they become. Just try. Paris has thousands of shops for every budget. Many of those shops are unique. This means you can find stuff you would never find anywhere else in the world. I buy jams from Le Furet, a jam-maker in the business since the 17th century. The owner has only one shop, refuses to sell to supermarkets as he would not be sure to be able to keep the quality up for every batch. He supervises the fruit picking himself to guarantee that only the best fruits will make it into his jams. My teas come from Mariage Frères, a century old tea trading house with a handful of shops in Paris and two in Japan. That's right, French people selling tea to the Japanese. They stock more than 450 teas of the highest order. I regularly spend an hour discussing the merits of various types of white tea or the latest harvet of Darjeeling. All in a beautiful shop in a picturesque street. Even if shopping in Paris is not an option for you right now, you have to keep this amazing possibility in mind when learning French.

Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦ Schools ¦
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I rate this language as - of average learning difficulty, at least for people who do not speak other romance languages. Orthograph is difficult, conjugation and phonetics not very easy, but vocabulary acquisition can be quite fast. Also, the French do not forgive errors easily, so the level you must reach before you can speak French is higher than, for instance, for Russian.


French is not very difficult to pronounce, but it has some difficulties, however, that you should adress from the start. The most obvious are the numerous nasal sounds also found in Brazilian Portuguese such as bain, mince, d'un, aucun, paon, pont, etc... Most students have a hard time pronouncing them correctly.

French phonetic difficulties for English speakers include:

  • The sound u like in mur, mû or pur
  • The French r or j (jeu, peu, veut)
  • The sound r and t occuring at the end of a word (port, bord, mort)
  • The monotone rythm of the French phrase, which never sings like in English, and the equality of each vowel in words, which are never pronounced with great variations like in English elevator (elevator). Other than that, French is not too demanding.


French grammar is not hugely complicated. The main difficulties are the two word genders, the complex conjugation system shared by all Romance languages and the orthograph.

There are quite a few irregularities to the many French grammatical rules, but not more than in English.

Two French adverbial pronouns (en and y) have no equivalent in English and take some time to get used to unless you speak Italian. They are used in phrases such as J'en ai un (=I [of it] have one) and Nous y allons demain (We [there] go tomorrow).

You absolutely need to master the subjonctive if you do not want to sound like a moron. This tense is used in all Romance languages to denote possibility or doubt, and if you replace by anything else, which some locals do, you will sound like a moron. It is easy to understand and use if you study it for a couple days and rehearse some drills.

French congugation can be tricky for the French themselves, especially when using rare imparfait du subjonctif forms. Although a native French, Georges Marchais, the former leader of the French Communist Party, was famous for making many mistakes when speaking French. These are made fun of in a famous Thierry Le Luron sketch which I hope to be able to post here.


French vocabulary is largely derived from latin origin and shares many words with other Romance languages. Speakers of English will recognize many familiar words. Even if you just speak another Indo-European language, you will get at least 15% discount on vocabulary acquisition in French.

Make sure you learn the gender of nouns or at least try to remember everytime you hear it. If the French language was "redesigned" to make it easier for the student, we would certainly get rid of the gender system. But this will not happen, so you need to learn it unless you want to sound like a child. The French have sharp tongues to make fun of people who make gender mistakes in French.


French is very close to other Romance languages such as Spanish, Portuguese and especially Italian. If you know one of these four languages, you can learn the other one in 6 months of intensive study (I did it).

All Romance languages share a very similar vocabulary derived from Latin and a similar conjugation system. There are many cosmetic differences in vocabulary and pronunciation but those languages are almost mutually intelligible.

People who studied latin will have a field day learning French, whose grammar is much simpler than latin grammar.

Click for a list of languages related to French with percentage of lexical similarity and relative grammatical difficulty.

French spelling is difficult and riddled with irregularities, even more so than English. Other romance languages such as Spanish have a much easier spelling system. But French uses an antiquated system preserved in formaldehyde by a body of 70 year olds known as the Académie Française, who rules on how French should be written and spoken. Set up under Louis XIV, this institution has frozen the language in an illogical orthograph where you can spell a given sound a 3, 4 or more different ways depending on the whims of history.

French orthograph is difficult for French people too. Every year, a competition is created called La Dictée where a text written with highly unusual words is dictated to hundreds of participants from all over the country who try to write it with as few errors as possible. The competition is showed on TV.

Serge Gainsbourg, one of France's best singers, made a humorous song that revolves on this difficulties of French spelling.

Do not make typos in French. If you think that you can write as you you wish as long as people understand, think again. This the country where people watch the Dictée on TV ! Typos in French are not taken kindly, and using modern spellchecking softwares, there is no reason why you should not be able to write flawless French.

Time needed

If you study an hour every day there is no reason why you should not be able to read a newspaper with a dictionary after a 12 months of study. Speaking and writing simple texts without errors should be reachable after 18 to 24 months.

Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦ Schools ¦
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There is a lot of learning material for the student of French, some very good. Among the best, although not the cheapest:

Pimsleur Speak and Read Essential French , 3 volumes, 90 lessons, 45 hours. sells them cheaper than the publisher, Simon and Schuster.

FSI Basic French , published by Barron's Educational Series for about $55 through the link below, cheaper than anywhere else I know :

(I have tested these methods for other languages with great success).


If you wish to get a diploma in French, the one you should get is the "Alliance Française", which comes in three different levels and is offered in language schools all over the world.

Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦ Schools ¦
 Back to top ¦ Languages Profiles

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