Parlons français

Tips, advice & support for French learners - beginners, intermediate and advanced.

27 March 2006

An unusual source of French reading material

Marche à Londres (so far only one number online) - magazine for the French-speaking community in London.

24 March 2006

Quelle histoire!

I picked up this expression very soon after moving to France; I could hardly help it, it gets used on almost any occasion. Depending on the context, you can traslate histoire as fuss, incident, event, trouble. Quelle histoire = what a fuss, what a pain, what a drama, covering everything from finding change for a parking meter to epic battles with the tax authorities. Ça a été toute une histoire - it was a complete mess. Il a fait un tas d'histoires - he made a whole lot of fuss. It's a useful substitute for, shall we say, ruder expressions. Accompany it with a slight shrug and look totally French.

The opposite is also true: une personne sans histoires is an ordinary person, une vie sans histoires is an uneventful / peaceful life, se dérouler sans histoires is to take place / go forward without incident.

21 March 2006

Online Verb Conjugation

Verb Conjugation by computer. I don't know how, but I'm sure this will come in useful!

20 March 2006

An example to us all

How I Learned French in 10 Months - "A geek is faced with a task of quickly learning French to pass a standardized test. He manages to accomplish it in 10 months, largely in his spare time, and using easily-accessible technology together with cheap or free resources. "

Inspiring stuff, and everyone should be able to pick up some good learning ideas. Myself, I can't help thinking that a learning strategy based solely around Harry Potter might leave you with a, well, interesting vocabulary, but it's a great example of how much you can achieve by making good use of widely-available resources. I couldn't agree more with his recommendation of Schaum's Outline Grammar - no pain, no gain, everyone needs to slog through grammar exercises until they've learned their stuff.

19 March 2006

One of my favourite vocabulary-building websites

If you're looking for a way to improve your French vocabulary you should definitely try WordPROF. It's so special that it wins the honour of being the first website reviewed here, although it's still not perfect (more on that below).

First, the advantages: it's free, and unlike many free websites it covers the full range of levels, from beginner to advanced. The vocabulary is exceptionally large, but divided up by category so you don't need to feel overwhelmed. Most important of all, it allows you to learn actively, by testing you as you learn, then giving you the chance to take as many tests as you need until you really know the words. Click on 'Lessons', then 'New Words' to go through the word lists for the first time, or 'Revision' to be tested on what you've already learned.

Then the disadvantages. The software is unfortunately a little unsophisticated - only capable of recognising one correct answer, even if there are several possibilities. While this can be discouraging, it's worth persevering, and remembering that you are getting a lot for free. Lastly, the levels are described in terms of the British education system, which might be confusing for others: to understand the levels, just remember that 'GCSE' means an intermediate level (the exam is taken at the age of 16, after 2-5 years of French lessons) and 'A Level' means an advanced level (the exam is taken at 18, after 4-7 years of French).

One of the best resources for active learning on the web - it requires you to think but the effort will really pay off in the improvement you will see in your French.

Monkey business

Phrases or proverbs involving animals are common in English and French - sometimes they are identical, but not always. See below, for example, to find out how you would complain of a frog in your throat in French.

Comparisons with animals are often fairly crude in any language, so faîtes attention! Those marked (*) are particularly colloquial and risk giving offence if used incorrectly.

le chat échaudé craint l'eau froide - once bitten, twice shy
avoir un chat dans la gorge - to have a frog in one's throat
il n'y avait pas un chat dehors - there wasn't a soul (anyone) outside

*les chien écrasés
- human interest stories
arriver comme un chien dans un jeu de quilles - to turn up when least wanted (jeu de quilles = skittles)

malin comme un singe
- smart / crafty as a monkey
*faire le singe - to monkey about
une ânerie - stupid remark, nonsense (un âne = a donkey)
monter sur ses grands chevaux - to get on one's high horse

18 March 2006

Expressions with avoir

It's very important for learners to remember that things aren't necessarily phrased the same way in French and English. You can't just translate each word - you have to look for the expression in French that has the same meaning.

For example, sometimes phrases which use 'to be' in English use the verb avoir (to have) in French:

I'm hungry = j'ai faim (I have hunger)
I'm thirsty = j'ai soif (I have thirst)

Probably one of the first phrases you learned in French was: J'ai douze ans (I have 12 years).

Other expressions which use avoir in the place of 'to be':

to be cold = avoir froid
to be hot = avoir chaud
to be afraid = avoir peur
to be right = avoir raison
to be wrong = avoir tort
to be lucky = avoir de la chance

Use one of them today!

Coping with unknown idiom
(level = advanced)

Suppose you're reading a newspaper article like this one from Libé Tardif mea culpa de l'Eglise polonaise. The text deals with the difficult legacy of Poland's Communist past, particularly allegations that some Catholic priests collaborated with the secret police. You need a certain amount of specialist vocabulary, e.g. prêtre = priest, paroissien = parishioner, archevêque = archbishop, aumônier = chaplain, but you should be familiar with at least the first one, and all except aumônier can be guessed from their similarities to their English meanings.

At the end of the third paragraph you come to this sentence: Ce qui lui avait valu deux passages à tabac. You probably know all of the words (valu is the past participle of valoir) but a direct translation would make no sense at all. Valoir generally means 'to be worth', but valoir quelque chose à quelqu'un means 'to earn someone something'. So the sentence reads 'This earned him ...', but what did it earn him?

From the context we can guess that it is something unpleasant - we are talking about information about him being passed to the secret police - but what does tobacco / a tobacconist's shop have to do with it? This is where it is important to have a good, large dictionary, which includes idiomatic phrases. The Collins-Robert entry for tabac tells us that the colloquial expression passer quelqu'un à tabac means 'to beat someone up'. Thus, the whole sentence could be translated as 'This got him beaten up twice' or 'This was enough to get him beaten up twice'.

So, passer quelqu'un à tabac = 'to beat someone up' - an example of the problems translating word for word. But even if you were in an exam or didn't have a dictionary, common sense would give you some idea what the expression meant. By reading lots of genuine French material, and paying attention to the turns of phrase, you can take your French to the next level. Try the newspaper websites linked to on the right.


Parlons français, the new blog where a Brit living in France shares her experiences learning and speaking French.