Getting used to French takes some practice and some explanations. Let me clarify 7 big differences between French and English.


1. The alphabet is the same, but pronunciation is different

This applies to the letters: A, E, I, G, J, N, R, Q and U in particular.

If you were thinking "should I learn French or Russian?" I would say, "learn French, it's easier. We share the same alphabet, for a start: 26 symbols you already know! Well, it's true, but you will quickly discover that some of those friendly symbols will turn against you. French pronunciation is different.

Vowels are the worst, and the most nightmarish one is E as is comes in 3 different suits: plain E, É (accent aigu) and È (accent grave).

Plain E is enemy number one. It doesn’t sound like English E. It sounds like "UH", trust me on that. É is closer to English E with a sound I describe as "AY" (close to English A is words like "game"). Finally, È is like a sour É, meaning that your mouth stretch more like grimace. Also, keep in mind that E+R or E+S (in words like "verbe" or "les") becomes the sound È.


A is like when you go to the doctor and he puts a stick in your mouth and ask you to say "AHH". It's like the particular A in words like "gala" and "Allah" and "jam".

The letter i in French sounds very much like "ee" in English.


G is called "jay" (but skip the invisible ‘D’ sound we put in that word). It can sound like the (hard) English G in word like "golf", but it can sound soft just like a French J too. Tricky letter!


J is called "jee" (again, skip the invisible ‘D’ we would tend to put in that word, if it was a real word).


R is called "air" and it's sound is like purring. It cannot be skipped, so purr them away, nice and sweet.


N is short in French, say, a millisecond! In comparison, the English N is super long. In French "NE" is very long, like there were 4 Ns. So for example, the word "person" in French is "personne" and it's pronounced "PAIR-SONNNNNNE".


Q and U are very tough to explain. You need to hear them, as I'm unable to link them to English letters. Let me just say that, to me, English Q sounds like KEEOO. In comparison, the French one is KU. Same for U, the English one, to me, is EEOO, whereas the French one is U. A useful tip I came across is to say the letter "ee" and keep saying it, but move your lips to pout like you would if you were about to take a drag on a cigarette or give an air kiss (yes you will look a bit ridiculous but that's normal). It should sound like this "EEEEEEEEEE…..U". Good luck with that!


When reading French, at the beginning, I would suggest you cross out the letters I mentioned above (E, A, G, J, R, N, Q, U). Write the correct sound above the letters as a note to yourself. For example: "limace" (meaning slug) should be pronounced "LEE-MA-SUH" (make sure your say the right A, if it sounds LEE-MAY-SUH, you got it wrong.)


2. Some letters are silent

Image by Kim Boek (CC-BY-2.0)


Moving on to another pitfall: silent letters. 

Particularly H, E, S, D, T, and sometimes L too.

French is full of silent letters. They tend to hang at the end of words, loitering without a purpose. Keep in mind that if a consonant is not followed by a vowel, it's probably silent, especially if it's d, t or s. Just ignore them. There are some exceptions of course, but you will make less mistakes if you follow this rule and learn along what the exceptions are. L works the other way around, it usually have a sound on its own, but there are several cases of silent L.

Another tricky one is H. French speakers abhor it. It's vulgar. Curb them when you see them. Words like "hotel" in French are "otel".

Finally, when you get comfortable with French pronunciation, you will notice that plain E (sounding "UH", remember), is usually silent when it's at the end of a word, because French speakers don't drag their endings in the way the English speakers do. So words like "limace", in fact sounds like "LEE-MA-SSS". Also, if plain E is in the middle of a 3-syllable word, it could be replaced by an hyphen, meaning 1) it's silent 2) the word becomes 2 syllables. For example, think of a word like "médecin" as "méd-cin" so, pronounce it "MAYD-SIN".


3. Quality and nouns are back to front

Image by Timmis, Reginald Symonds


Most adjectives go after the noun in French. It's like putting the cart before the horse (actually, naturally I think it's English that's back-to-front, but that's just my point of view). So "a blue house" translates into "une maison bleue".

There are few exceptions of course: big, small, pretty, beautiful, nice, mean, bad, young and old (this is not an exhaustive list, it's just the main exceptions). Those, you will use them like in English, so "a pretty girl" becomes "une jolie fille".


4. Every noun needs an article

...except days of the weeks, "Noël" and "Pâques".

A sentence like "Roses are my favourite flowers" could not be translated as "Roses sont…". "Roses" is a noun, therefore it needs an article. The correct translation would "Les roses sont mes fleurs préférées".

One exception to this rule is the days of the week. If you use an article with them, it means "every". So "I work every Saturday" is "je travaille le samedi". If it happens only once, I would therefore say "je travaille samedi" (meaning THIS saturday an no others).

Proper nouns, and by extension Christmas and Easter, are above the article rule. You would say "J'aime Noël et Pâques" (I like Christmas and Easter).


5. Some verbs need a reflexive pronoun 

Some verbs always need a pronoun with them. One example is the verb, "se souvenir" (mean "to remember"). In French the first particle "se" mean "oneself"/"to myself". You might see it as a bit pendantic, but it's very much needed. 

Here is a list of such verbs and the pronoun: Liste de verbes essentiellement pronominaux

Other verbs need a pronoun only in certain occasions. For example, the verb "to wash" is "laver". If you use it without a pronoun, it means you wash something. With a pronoun, it's to wash oneself.

Here is a list of reflexive verbs: Verbes réflexifs en français


6. Pronouns sit between the subject and the verb

By the way, nothing should sit between a subject and a verb in French.

Words like "often" are put either at the beginning of the sentence, or after the verb. The only thing allowed between a subject and a verb is a pronoun. This will be very hard to get used to. I sympathise.

Sentences like "I love you" become "I YOU love" in French ("Je t'aime" the T is short for "te", meaning you in the pronoun shape). Another example would be the sentence "he gave him something". It would become "He HIM gave something"

"Il lui a donné quelque chose", "lui" been "him" in the pronoun version of this word.


7. We measure age with the verb "to have"

This will be a bit shocking to start with: we say things like "I have 35 years old" (J'ai 35 ans) not "I'm a 35 years old".

My tip: it's your age, own it!


And, now that you know these 7 French quirks, I hope that brings you 7 steps closer to mastering the language!


Hero Image by Robert & Mihaela Vicol