Look away now if you don't want to hear the bad news.

Picture of a French grapesSOME OF THE BAD NEWS

  1. Gender, different order of sentence construction, consonants that aren't pronounced, different pronunciation of most syllables, and again, gender, to name but a few of the many hurdles.
  2. A lot of French people speak very fast.
  3. Even when you've got past the stage of only being able to ask for a drink or a hotel room to the point where you've learned enough to start a conversation with a French person, chosing words from your limited vocabulary and maybe using circumlocations when you don't know the right word, THEY TALK BACK TO YOU! and of course, unlike you, they have got the whole of the French vocabulary to draw from.
    If you add to this 2 above you can see that you're in trouble. I've had several conversations with people on the road outside our French house that went a bit like this:
    ME "Good day"
    THEM "Good day, it's a nice day today."
    ME (I'm understanding fine at this point) "Ah yes, the sunshine."
    THEM "It appears that in England they have had floods."
    ME (now I'm struggling, trying to remember what pareil means I completely miss the rest of the sentence, but grasp at the word Angleterre and just about get away with) "Yes, we arrived here from England yesterday."
    THEM (speaking more quickly now, they're revving up a gear as the conversation gets going) "Did you know that the woman who lives in the tall thin house across the road from you who used to work in the bakery died yesterday."
    ME (totally baffled) "Ah good, I think we will go to the beach today." By this time they are looking at me very strangely and we hastily part company.

I could add some more but I think that's enough bad news.


Without getting too involved in the historical detail, after the Norman invasion of 1066, England had a French King, William the Conquerer, and French was actually the official language of England for a period ending in the latter half of the fourteenth century. During the course of the Hundred Years War, England ruled over large parts of France. At one point the King of England was actually the ruler of more territory in France than the King of France. Perhaps more importantly, at a much earlier period of history, the Romans ruled over both Britain and France. These factors mean that there are actually many more similarities between the two languages than is immediately apparent. Once you have got past the basics and started to aquire the correct pronunciation, you can use this in conversation to have a stab at a word that isn't in your French vocabulary, you can in fact improvise.

Picture of French ChateauPRONUNCIATION

This really is the key to getting yourself understood. Of course the pronunciation will vary from region to region, but getting the basics right is a good start.
To illustrate, here are a couple of the faux pas I have made.

Many years ago, at the age of eighteen whilst on my first trip to Paris, I had practised hard how to say, "Une boîte d'allumettes s'il vous plâit." Having run out of matches to light my roll ups, I stopped at a kiosk and delivered my carefully prepared line. I was feeling a bit full of myself when the attractive young lady serving got a box for me with no hesitation. "Merci beaucoup" I said, whereupon she fell about in hysterics. She was laughing so much that she had difficulty in telling me how much I owed. Having paid her, I slunk away thoroughly deflated, wondering what had been so funny. Perhaps the reason that this incident has stuck in my memory for so long was because it remained an unsolved puzzle for over thirty years, until now that is....
I came across, on a French related forum, a post by someone who had had the same experience, and had the answer explained to them. In my hesitation, I had made beaucoup into two words, i.e. beau coup. That, and probably my pronunciation, had rendered my answer as:
'Thank you.' ...'Nice bottom!'

Some years later on a camping trip in France with my future wife, our tent had started leaking at the seams. With the help of the trusty English French Dictionary we concocted the phrase "avez vous quelque chose rendre ma tente imperméable à l'eau?" Later in a huge department store I caught the eye of one of the assistants in the hardware department and as he approached I stumbled out my question. He came to a halt, transfixed me with a haughty stare for several seconds, and without bothering to reply, turned his back and stalked off, every part of his posture radiating absolute distain. I waited for a while thinking that maybe he had gone to fetch something appropriate but he never appeared again. I suppose he could be forgiven. We decided later that I had asked him if he had anything I could use to waterproof my aunt. To this day I still am not sure how one should pronounce tente to differentiate it from tante.

Anyway, as I'm sure my accent is absolutely atrocious, I'm not going to give any advice save to offer one word which is great for practicing french pronunciation. The word is climatisation (air conditioning). My neighbour in France taught me how to say it and it goes something like this: CLEEM ATEES ASEEONG. Both the 'a's are pronounced like the a in cat, the 's' is soft as in sea, and the 'g' I've put at the end is swallowed almost before it begins, its sort of implied rather than pronounced. But its the way the 'i's are mostly pronounced like double 'e's that is the nub of it. If you can bring yourself to say french words with 'i's pronounced like that, and its not easy because it feels like you are doing a parody of a french accent, you will be halfway there to speaking like a frenchman*. (That may not be too clever if you're actually a woman mind you.)
I practised saying climatisation constantly for about a week until I felt comfortable with it. The French residents of my local town must have been thinking, "Here comes that crazy Englishman again muttering, - "Air conditioning, air conditioning ..." - For Pete's sake, somebody give him some air conditioning and shut him up." After this I found a huge improvement in the number of French people who actually understood what I was talking about - especially when I was talking about air conditioning.

(*NOTE: generally 'i' is pronounced like 'ee' in the middle of words, there are other cases, as for example when starting a word like ''intéresser', where the pronunciation is completely different.)


Acknowledgements: images used on the left in the text area are mainly from, my thanks to biberta, missyredboots, rosevita, doctor_bob, cohdra, mconners, kairily, clarita, scott. m. liddel, and anyone else from morguefile whose image appears here. All the images in the right hand column on each page have been taken by me during my various travels in France and are copyright of