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French grammar check: what makes French words hard to learn for native English speakers?

From Sonia, published on 13/03/2018 Blog > Languages > French > What Are The Differences Between English and French grammar?

Bonjour! Have you toiled long hours trying to learn the language of love, despairing of ever becoming fluent in the French language? You are not alone! French schoolchildren have grammar lessons until their penultimate year at school and even then don’t always get it right.
Learning a second or a new language is hard. But you, like thousands of other Britons (or Scots) will manage it. You can buy grammar books to learn French at home, do online French vocabulary exercises, use pronunciation apps to help improve your French accent. And while you are at it, here are a few of the most difficult aspects of learning French as a foreign language, so you know where to study hardest!

The French Alphabet

Fortunately, the French alphabet looks a lot like the English alphabet. Which as a beginner can be reassuring as you begin to learn the language. In fact, they learn their 26-letter ABCs just like we do. But in your French class, you will soon learn that when writing French, there are some special additions and ligatures you need to learn.

How to learn the French accents

The accents on French vowels have nothing to do with whether you come from Marseilles or Paris. Instead, they change the value of the vowel. What does that mean? The type of accent indicates the right pronunciation, you’ll soon pick this up as you learn how to speak French.

The French “e” can be pronounce “eu” (like “uh”, but round your mouth as though for an “o”), or more like “eh” or even “eeeeh” (pronounced like “eh”, but close your throat a bit more). Putting an accent on the “e”, however, tells you exactly how it should be pronounced.
Here are the three types of accents and the diaeresis used in French and how to type them on a normal QWERTY Windows keyboard (press the “alt” key while typing the number on the NUM pad):

  • The accent aigu (sharp) is used only on the “e”: é (alt+130). It sharpens the sound, closing your throat more when you pronounce it.
  • The accent grave is used with “e”, “a” or “u”: è (alt + 138), à (alt + 133), ù ( alt + 151).
  • The accent circonflexe is used with “e”, “a”, “i”, “o” and “u”: ê (alt + 136), â (alt + 131), ô (alt + 147), î (alt + 140) and û (alt + 150). The circonflexe always opens and lengthens a vowel. Interestingly, in many cases where the circonflexe is used, it replaces a vowel+s combination. For example, hôpital comes from an original hospital, a word familiar to English speakers.
  • The tréma (diaeresis) is used with the letter “i” and occasionally “e”: ë (alt + 137) and ï (alt + 139). It usually indicates that a vowel is pronounced separately in a vowel cluster: Noël (noh-elle), maïs (mah-ees, not meh).

The ligatures

In some words, the letters o and e and a and e are stuck together in what is known as a ligature. Ligatures are a relic of hand-written manuscripts, where certain letter combinations appeared so often they flowed into each other to create a new symbol (the ampersand – & – for example, is a ligature of e and t). They appear whenever the combination “oeu” is present, in words such as cœur (alt + 0156) and Latin words such as “ex æquo” (a tie in a competition) and the name Lætitia (alt + 145).

The cedilla

The last of the special letters you will learn when studying French is the “c cédille”, or c with a cedilla. It looks like this: ç (alt + 135) and appears when “c” is pronounced like the English “s” instead of as a “k” in the middle of a word. Thus:

  • Gascon (someone from the Gascogne region) is pronounce gah-skon but
  • Garçon (a boy) is pronounce gahr-son.

Français takes a cedilla The c cédille is present right in the name of the French language – a warning of what is to come? Photo Credit: Drinksmachine on Visual Hunt

The Gender of French Nouns: Embracing your Masculine and Feminine Sides

Like all Romance languages, French has gendered nouns. You can find out the gender of an unknown word by looking at its article: those preceded by “le” and “un” are masculine, by “la” and “une”, feminine. It means that inanimate objects also have a gender – a chair is feminine – la chaise – while a glass is masculine – le verre. This is an odd enough concept to get your mind around when your first language has only one gender: “the”.

But it also means that adjectives and certain verb tenses have to agree with the noun. It means paying special attention when writing French to get the adjectives right, to make sure the past participle agrees in gender and number with the subject if the auxiliary verb is “être”. This is tricky, but you will soon get the hang of it!

French Verbs: Many Tenses, Slightly Different Use

French has many tenses. Some are similar in appearance to English verbs, but their use can be slightly different. There are also a lot of irregular verbs that you have to conjugate differently. As you begin to build up your conversational French they will come more naturally to you. Find out about them here.

Word Order: French Adjectives and Sentence Structure

One thing that confuses English-speaker when learning to speak French is the expressions, the order of where to put words and phrases and where to put their adjectives.

In English, the adjective goes between the article and the noun: the big boss, the gentle giant.
When speaking French, you need to put the adjective after the noun: le jardin secret, l’ours brun.

Except when – and these are words you hear a lot in French grammar – except when the adjective is one of the BAGS group: describing Beauty, Age, Goodness and Size. This is why, despite what you just read above, it’s Le Petit Prince and La Belle Époque.

Also, once you’ve learned your beautiful adjective tables and know their masculine, feminine and plural forms, you will soon find out that a small group of BAGS adjectives have a different form if the noun following them starts with a vowel. So it’s “le beau garçon” but “un bel arbre”; “un vieux moulin” but “un vieil artiste”.

Learn to Speak French: Spelling vs. French Pronunciation

English is already a spelling nightmare, as when they were unifying English spelling someone simply decided to take common spellings from all over England so no-one will feel left out. Since people spelled words how they pronounced them and even back then England had a very wide range of accents, you get a language where “gh” can sometimes be pronounced “f” (and sometimes not).
French spelling, on the other hand – does not correspond to spoken French, either. The problem in French is a different one. Where English tried to accommodate spellings from all over the country, the French simply never updated theirs. The greatest complaint of people learning French as a foreign language have is that only half of what is written is pronounce. This comes from some sounds becoming elided in the spoken language or falling silent.

Silent endings

What does this mean? It means that a lot of endings are not pronounced. These include:

  • some verb endings such as the -ent ending of French verbs conjugated in the third person plural
  • endings in “s”, for example in some conjugations, especially the second person singular and the 1st person singular and plural (j’ais, tu as – present tense of “avoir”, tu m’aimes, nous aimons…). The “s” in plural forms is silent as well
  • endings in vowel + t: petit (peu-ti), attentat (a-tan-ta), tôt (to)…
  • in endings in consonant + -il, the “l” is silent, as in “gentil” or “outil”. Except for the pronouns “il” and “ils”.
  • the letter “x” is generally silent after “i”, “ou” or “eux”: le prix, des poux, heureux; with some exceptions: the number 6 “six”, for example.

However, silent endings ARE pronounced if the following word begins with a vowel (except for “x”).

Don't pronounce the final "t" in "atout". The final “t” in “atout” is silent – it’s pronounced ah-too. Photo credit: Institut-Escola Les Vinyes on Visual hunt

Voice and unvoiced “h” (”h” aspiré)

Your French teacher will have taught you that French does not pronounce the letter “h”. This is true. However, though it often treats the letter “h” as though it weren’t there – as though these were normal words beginning with a vowel – sometimes “h” is treated as though it were a consonant. This means that vowels are sometimes contracted before an “h”, sometimes not. Thus:

Un homme -> l’homme des hommes (dezomm)
Un hibou -> le hibou des hiboux (dé iboo)
Haut -> le haut rebords des hauts rebords (dé oh reubor)

The French speak of the “h muet” (silent “h”) and the “h aspiré” (aspirated “h”). Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive list of words with an “h aspiré” – there are no rules, though it often depend on the word’s etymology.

The many and varied ways to spell the sounds “é” and “è”

One would think that, since the French alphabet has these nifty little “accents” to indicate the sounds “é”, “è” and “ê”, the French would stick to that. But there are several ways of writing those sounds:

  • É:
    -ez (at the end of a word)
    -er (at the end of a word)
    -ef (in “la clef”, the key)
  • È:
    -ait (at the end of a word)
    -et (at the end of a word)

More French spellings for the sound “an”

That stereotypical French sound, the “an” (try to pronounce an open “a” through your nose) also exists in several spellings. There is, if you are finicky about pronunciation, a very slight difference between those with “e” and those with “a” (those with “e” are pronounced a little more closed), but almost no-one will notice if you pronounce them the same. Here are some spelling variations on the “an” sound:

  • an
  • am
  • ant
  • ang
  • en
  • emps
  • ent


And more ways to write “un” in French

Yes, the “un” sound (try to say “eh” through your nose) can also be written several different ways. So when learning your French vocabulary, remember how to pronounce these letter combinations:

  • un
  • in
  • ain
  • aim
  • ein

"ert" and "aire" are the same sound. There are a number French sounds that are spelled in several different ways. The “ai” sound (è) can be spelled “ert” or “aire”. Photo credit: Jeanne Menjoulet on Visualhunt

French Homonyms and Homophones

When learning vocabulary for your French courses, you may have already noticed that French has an amazing number of homonyms (words spelled and pronounced the same, but meaning different things) and homophones (words spelled differently but pronounced the same). Even though for whom French is a native language often make mistakes.
Some of the most common homonyms you might encounter are:

  • Été (past participle of the verb “être”) – un été (summer)
  • Lit (conjugation of the verb “lire”, “to read” in the third person singular, present tense) – le lit (bed)
  • Des courses (a race) – des courses (shopping)
  • La tour (tower) – le tour (le perimeter, the way around)

Some interesting homophones to discuss with your Superprof tutor are:

  • Eau (water) – au (at)
  • La (the, feminine) – l’a (ellipsis of le a, the object pronounced and 3rd person singular of “avoir) – las (weary)
  • Le compte (a bank account) – le conte (a fairy tale) – le comte (the Count)
  • Vert (green) – le ver (worm) – vers (toward) – le verre (the glass) – le vair (a type of squirrel). There is some speculation that Cinderella’s glass slippers are due to a mis-spelling of slippers lined with vair (a nice warm fur; it is the name of a heraldic fur in English).
  • La mer (the sea) – la mère (the mother) – le/la maire (the mayor)
  • Une paire (a pair) – le père (the father) – pert (3rd pers. sing. of the simple present of “perdre”, to lose)
  • Le sang (blood) – sans (without) – sent (3rd pers. sing. of the simple present of “sentir”, to smell)

Pain can also be spelled "pin" - but it means something else. Another pair of homophones is “pain” and “pin”: the first is bread, the second, a pine. Photo credit: agu²! on VisualHunt

And these are only the beginning! There are many more homophones lurking out there, ready to confuse those learning the French language. That’s why it’s important to look at the context of your sentences when trying to learn new words.


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