What Makes French So Interesting?

Sean Hopwood, MBA is founder and President of Day Translations, Inc., an online translation and localization services provider, dedicated to the improvement of global communications. You can visit their website if you need French translation services. He is also the owner of Day Interpreting, Day BPO, and Day Impact.

French Language

The French language is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet. French filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard have influenced Hollywood directors and filmmakers all over the world. UNESCO has canonized French gastronomy as an intangible piece of world heritage. And French is spoken by 76.1 million people in 53 countries today. So if you’re learning French, you’re joining some pretty good company. But here are a few things you might not have known about the French language!

  1. The Francosphere’s biggest city

If you asked anyone what’s the largest Francophone city in the world, most people would say Paris. But they’d be wrong. It’s not Montreal, or Brussels either. With 11.9 million citizens, the biggest French speaking city is Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kinshasa’s population recently eclipsed that of Paris, a more modest 10.6 million.

Kinshasa is one of the biggest urban areas in all of Africa. In addition to French, citizens speak a Bantu language called Lingala. Here are some colloquial terms that are unique to Kinshasa French:

  • Cadavéré (literally ‘corpse’): exhausted, spent, tuckered, broken, worn out or truly dead.
  • Un ambianceur (an ‘ambiencer’): someone who enjoys the ambiance of the nightlife and party scene.
  • Anti-nuit (‘anti-night’): sunglasses worn at night, which might be worn by un ambianceur.
  • Bic (after the brand of ballpoint pens): a pen. This is also a term in Belgian French.
  • Casser le bic (literally ‘break the Bic’): to skip out on school.
  • Merci mingi (French/Lingala mashup): ‘thank you very much,’ from the French merci and the Lingala mingi (‘much’).
  • Un zibolateur (French/Lingala mashup): a bottle opener. A Francization of the Lingala word kozibola, which means ‘to open something blocked up or bottled.’
  • Un tétanos (literally ‘a tetanus’): a rusty old taxi.
  1. English owes a lot of words to French

We all know English is like a portmanteau of other languages–Latin and Germanic, for starters. And we borrow a lot of loanwords from anywhere and everywhere. We call our bean curd tofu after Japanese, and we all get déjà vu sometimes. But did you know that around 30% of English words have French roots, or are loanwords directly from French?

If you’ve made a faux pas amongst the nouveau riche by mentioning the bourgeois bric-a-brac in their chic chateaus gives you ennui, you already know and use plenty of French terms in daily life. Transferring that vocabulary as you learn French should be easy!

  1. France is the most visited nation on Earth

In 2015, 84.5 million people packed their bags and their little wads of currency and took them to France. That’s millions more than any other country. What are they trying to see? It could be the Eiffel Tower, which is the world’s most photographed monument. Or the Louvre, which houses the iconic Mona Lisa alongside a treasure trove of other masterworks.

But Paris, as it turns out, is behind London and Bangkok as the world’s most visited city. Which means a good portion of visitors to France are exploring regions outside of the capital. And there’s plenty to love there, too. From rolling vineyards to the seaside cliffs of Brittany, to French Riviera cities like Cannes, Marseille, and Nice.

  1. Think you’ve mastered French pronunciation? Try these sentences.

Learning French means you have to practice some vowel and nasal sounds unfamiliar to the native Anglophone. And what better way to practice them than by tying your tongue in knots with tongue twisters? See how fast you can say these sentences. If you can’t get through them, just practice them slower. And don’t put too much pressure on yourself–these are helpful, but they’re also just for fun.

  • Un chasseur sachant chasser chasse sans son chien. (‘A hunter knowing how to hunt hunting without his dog.’)
  • Les chaussettes de l’archiduchesse, sont-elles sèches? Archi-sèches. (‘The socks of the archduchess, are they dry? Very dry.’)
  • Si mon tonton tond ton tonton, ton tonton sera tondu. (‘If my uncle shaves your uncle, your uncle will be shaved.’)
  • Je suis ce que je suis, et si je suis ce que je suis, qu’est-ce que je suis? (‘I am what I am, and if I am what I am, what am I?’)
  • Cinq chiens chassent six chats. (‘Five dogs hunt six cats.’)
  • Ces six saucissons-secs-ci sont si secs qu’on ne sait si s’en sont. (These six dried sausages are so dry one doesn’t know if they are.’)
  1. You can finally read Proust and Descartes untranslated

Many of the world’s great pieces of writing were originally penned in French. Even War and Peace is partially written in French, since at the time French was the global lingua franca spoken among the educated elites.

More than just a beautiful language, French gives you access to one of the world’s most treasured cultures. So stick with it, and don’t forget to practice every day. When you’re joking with locals on the Riviera, or ordering flawlessly at chic cafes in Paris, you’ll be glad you did!