And generally, when I respond to them, they say; “But why? It doesn’t make any sense.” Effectively, French is full of enigmas. And sometimes, I feel like an alien, speaking a dialect forgotten for millennia that human beings just cannot understand. But why French is so complicated? Well I will explainto you, but before that:
The good news:
First of all, before opening the gate of the illogicality’s kingdom, let’s talk about the easy parts of French. Indeed, there are some things that make French easier for English speakers. The better example is in the words’ similarity, in English almost half of the vocabulary comes from French, so when you are learning French, you already know quite of the words, they are often quite similar, and sometimes it’s just even the same word. The same goes for phonetic, even if the phonetic is one of the most complicated parts of French for English speakers, there are more sounds that are in common in the two languages than you think. The French language has 23 consonants and 16 vowels. It may seem like a lot, but in fact, as an English speaker, you already know 20 of those consonants and 6 of those vowels, so there are just 13 sounds to learn, 3 consonants and 10 vowels. And finally, the way to build sentences is quite similar, the two languages use the SVO system (Subject, Verb, Object) so it is quite simple to build some simple sentence at the beginning.
Ok now let’s see the difficult parts of French.
As I said before you’ll just have to learn 13 specific sounds to speak French, but be aware, those sounds are very specific, and it will be very difficult for you to reproduce them. Especially for the nasal sounds (On, En; In;) that we use very often, and that don’t exist at all in the English language. Also, as the French (r) and (u) that sound very unique Here is a link for an explanatory video about French phonology that you will have to refer to, for many examples.
French is written in the Latin alphabet, but in contrary to English, we use some different accents in French, here they are:
Acute accent: é
Grave accent: è à ù
Circumflex accent : â ê î ô û
Dieresis: ë ï ü
It looks too complicated? Too many different sounds? In fact, there are just two accents that change the letters’ sound, (é) and (è)* and also the cedilla, who change the (c) sound from (k) to (s) when followed by a, u or o (yes this is really accurate, but you’ll see, we are in a long-term relationship with accurate and complicated rules). It doesn’t mean that the other accents are useless of course, for circumflex accents and also the grave accents (specifically the a and the u) are used. Don’t be confused by two words written in the same way but with completely different meaning (yes, we also love to use totally similar words but with a completely different meaning, because why should it be simple when it can be complicated).
The main question that people have after asking me to read them a French word that they don’t really understand is: “- But why do you write this word with so much letters if you just pronounce half of them?! It does not make any sense!” All you foreigners are so cute to say that, if French was logic it would be known. Indeed, we like to put a lot of useless letters in our words, so even when you have a good knowledge about French phonology, you won’t be able to read them well. Also, we like to make diphthongs, we’ve put some of them everywhere, (ai, au, eau, œ, er, ez, oi, ou, ch, gn, ph(*)) especially to make nasals sounds (en, an, in, un, ein, ain, on(*)) let’s try with some example, try to read those words loudly:
Est Bats Eaux Août Doigts Hâlent
In fact, they are pronouncing like this: È (*) Ba O Ut Dwa Al
Welcome to hell.
The French grammar is very difficult, and very complete. To make a sentence in French, you have to know a thousand of rules. Every verb need to be conjugate, you have to know how to use the two auxiliary verbs “être” and “avoir” (to be and to have) you also have to learn the main French tenses (there are a lot of them) and their modes (there are also many) and like the orthography, there are many rules that has to be known to make a good sentence.
This is maybe the worst thing in French. As I mentioned to you, there are many complicated, accurate or even useless rules and illogic concepts. But it could be okay, there are many serious and motivated people who have enough motivation to be able to learn many complicated rules and concepts. BUT even if you learn all those rules by heart, you won’t be able to speak French correctly. Why? Because in French, almost all the rules have exceptions, you can’t just learn something and think that it is enough to avoid mistakes. It’s is quite rare to learn a rule that works all the time and for everything. I can totally understand how this can be discouraging. Note that sometimes in special cases, some exceptions can be canceled (yes, exceptions of exceptions, we are too far in the future for you).
And the last one; the formal/informal difference
All languages have a huge difference between formal and informal language, but the French is one of the worst. Young people speak really fast without articulate, with many specific words, especially in “Verlen” (I will talk about it one day). And I didn’t even mention all the regional accents.
To finish, I would like to say that even if the French language could be very complicated, it is still a beautiful language and even with all those rules, it is still interesting to learn French. Next time maybe I will explain you why.
Written by: Paul Knecht-Deyber