Reading French 1 : Preliminary information

© 2015, Greg Lessard

About this course

This course is aimed at those people who want to be able to pick up a text written in French and at the least understand the gist, and at the best, grasp some of the nuances. It assumes no previous knowledge of the language, although, as we will see shortly, knowledge of English is useful. At the end of the course, you should be able to read basic texts essentially unaided and relatively complex French texts with the aid of an online or paper dictionary.

The course uses an inductive approach and makes use of the following steps:

These course materials are entirely open access. That means that anyone can access them. You may explore them as a guest, anonymously. No record is kept of your activities. On the other hand, if you would like to keep track of your progress, you will be required to register in the course. To do this, you will need to enter an email address and you will be given your own unique id and password. We will not make your email address or any aspect of your identity known to any third party, although we may use aggregated results for our own research and to get a clearer sense of areas where students in general need more help. We will not share individual results with anyone else than our research team. This arrangement has been approved by the research ethics committee of Queen's University.

Some people want an academic credit for a course. If that is your case, a variant of this course is available from Continuing and Distance Studies at Queen's University in Canada. To take it, you must register at Queen's as a student. If you successfully complete their version of the course, you will be given a credit on a Queen's transcript.

Why learn French

There are many different reasons for studying French:

Why not just use Google Translate?

To answer that question, let us begin by considering how Google Translate works. Here is what Google has to say:

What is Google Translate?
Google Translate is a free translation service that provides instant translations between dozens of different languages. It can translate words, sentences and web pages between any combination of our supported languages. With Google Translate, we hope to make information universally accessible and useful, regardless of the language in which it’s written.
How does it work?
When Google Translate generates a translation, it looks for patterns in hundreds of millions of documents to help decide on the best translation for you. By detecting patterns in documents that have already been translated by human translators, Google Translate can make intelligent guesses as to what an appropriate translation should be. This process of seeking patterns in large amounts of text is called "statistical machine translation". Since the translations are generated by machines, not all translation will be perfect. The more human-translated documents that Google Translate can analyse in a specific language, the better the translation quality will be. This is why translation accuracy will sometimes vary across languages. (

This sounds quite convincing, and in some, perhaps many instances of simple texts, Google Translate can perform a reasonable job. However, let us think a bit more about the approach being proposed. Google Translate is basically a (very) large bilingual dictionary. Like any dictionary, it has no inherent intelligence. It doesn't actually understand the text it is 'translating'. Rather, it is replacing one string by another.

Let us compare this with what we do when reading a text in a language we know. We begin by taking in the forms, but these are quickly forgotten. (Test this by closing your eyes NOW and repeating PRECISELY the words in the Google Translate quotation.) We use the forms mostly as a means to find the meaning of the text. But this meaning is not simply the sum of a set of strings. Rather, it is built up over a text and depends, among other things, on the context the text is written in, who it's written for, who has written it, and for what purpose.

Testing Google Translate

We have seen that meaning is crucial to good translation. To illustrate this, let's look at some examples produced using Google Translate. Consider first the following simple English sentences:

Google Translate suggests the following equivalents in French:

Clearly, there are some problems here. Now let us turn the process around and enter some texts in French. These are drawn from a story in the newspaper Le Monde about a new cartoonist. We provide first the original text in French, then the translation by Google Translate. Mouse over the translation to find the areas where a problem has been corrected. Compare Google's translation which will appear in blue, with a human produced translation in green. What do you notice?

We can see that Google Translate captures the gist of much of the text, but goes off the rails in several instances, sometimes badly. In other words, it provides a basic tool that can function at a superficial level. But it is a dangerous tool if one wants to understand clearly a text of any complexity.

You are now faced with a choice. You can use the easy but dangerous tool, or you can invest your time in learning how to read a French text by your own resources. If you choose the latter option, read on...

Letters and sounds in French

Like English, French uses the Latin alphabet (a, b, c, ...). However, a number of diacritics are added to the basic alphabet. Here is a table of the principal diacritics, ordered here by descending frequency of use. Mouse over the words in French to see their meaning. Such gestures will recur frequently in this text.

Diacritic Examples
Acute accent (only on e) santé, été
Grave accent (pronounce grave like have) à, père,
Circumflex accent pâle, bête, île, pôle, sûr
Cedilla (only on c before a, o, u) ça, plaçons, reçu
Tréma (pronounced tray-ma) ambiguïté

And here is a list of the various letters with examples of some French words which contain them, in various positions: beginning, middle and end. Look at the list and pay particular attention to the combinations of letters it contains.

Letter Sample words
a ma, chatte, adresse, faux
b beau, bien, ébène
c content, bouc, cent, pièce
ç ça, commençons, reçu
d dort, fonder, monde, fond
e le, elle, pierre
é été, monté, scénario
è scène, père
ê bête, prêtre, même
f feu, affaire, chef
g géant, gant, songer, longueur, longue
h homme, haricot
i lit, pierre, paix
j je, déjà
k kilomètre, hockey
l lent, solde, griller, belle
m main, tombe, amour, faim
n non, sain, santé, entrer
o pot, botte, port, pouvoir
ô bientôt, nôtre
p pont, frapper, tape, champ, coup
q qui, quand, chaque
r riche, pierre, brun, fort
s son, frisson, les, tables, les amis
t tôt, action, battement, bête
u dur, pu, feu, pouvoir, puis
û dû, dégoût, bûche
v vrai, sauver, sève
w kiwi, wagon, watt
x nerveux, exotique, six
y yeux, voyage, paye
z zoo, chantez, bronze


Although we are only at the beginning of the course, there are already several things you already know:

Let us explore these three areas in more detail.


Hover over the members of the following list of French words to see their English equivalents.

Notice the similarities between the two languages. Do you see any patterns in how words vary between the two languages? (We will return to this below.)

Where do cognates come from?

The numerous cognates between English and French stem from a variety of factors. Thus:

Cognates between English and French, when they share the same or a similar meaning, are often referred to as bons amis or 'good friends'. Some French words, however, do not mean the same as their English counterparts having the same form. These are often referred to as faux amis (pronounce fo-za-mi) or false friends. For example, the French word pain means 'bread', not 'discomfort'. One of the important tasks to follow in this module is to begin to acquire a library of useful cognates.

Finding cognates

As a result of the commonalities between the two languages, if you speak English, you know more French words than you might think. Look at the following paragraph and try to find words whose meanings you suspect you know. Then pause your mouse over the the words you think you recognize. In the case of cognates (words of similar form and meaning between two languages), a small bubble will appear with the English text inside it. Note that only the most obvious cognates are flagged. You may notice others.

Le système hydrographique du Saint-Laurent, incluant les Grands Lacs, figure parmi les plus importants au monde. Sa superficie de 1,6 million de kilomètres carrés le classe au 3e rang en importance en Amérique du Nord, après ceux du Mississippi et du Mackenzie. Il draine plus de 25 % des réserves mondiales d’eau douce et influence les processus environnementaux du continent nord-américain. Plus de 30 millions d'États-Uniens et 15 millions de Canadiens vivent dans cet immense bassin.

Source: Environnement Canada

See entire English text

The Saint Laurence River system, including the Great Lakes, is one of the largest in the world. With an area of 1.6 square kilometres, it is third in size in North America, after those of the Mississippi and the Mackenzie. It carries more than 25% of the world supply of fresh water and influences the environmental processes of the North American continent. More than 30 million Americans and 15 million Canadians live in this immense river basin.

Spelling relations between English and French

When looking at the previous paragraph, you may have noticed that a number of French words have endings which differ from their English counterparts, even though the base forms are quite similar. It is useful to keep these in mind when reading a French text. Here are a few of the most salient ones:

French ending English ending Example
-ique -ic géographique - geographic
-ain -an américain - American
-ien -ian Canadien - Canadian

We will see more examples later. Two useful tricks will help you identify potential cognates even in the absence of a perfect correspondence between the two languages.

  1. Remove all vowels from the French word and see if the resulting skeleton is shared with an English word that would fit in the context you are looking at. For example, the French word rivière shares the skeleton r*v*r with the English word river.
  2. Concentrate on the base part of the word when looking for similarities with English. For example, if you see the French word cardiaque, take off the ending and look for similarities with English (in this case, cardiac).

Frequent words

Since as we noted above, a small number of words recur frequently in French, knowing even a few of them can make a big difference. Let us illustrate this. To begin, here is a quick French vocabulary list composed of some of the most frequent function words in written French with an approximate English gloss.

  1. de or d'= 'of'
  2. à = 'to'
  3. et = 'and'
  4. le or la or l' or les= 'the' or 'it'
  5. il = 'he' or 'it'
  6. un or une = 'a' or 'one'
  7. du or de la or des = 'some' or 'of the'
  8. ne or n' = 'not'

Take a few moments to memorize these. Now, look at the following text and mouse over the words we have just seen. If you hit one of them, it will be highlighted and the English gloss will appear:

Le géant de la distribution en ligne Amazon a gagné 1,36% à 322,74 dollars. Le groupe a annoncé le lancement de deux nouvelles séries confiées à des grands noms du secteur.
Source: La Presse

Now let us combine these words with some cognates recognizable in the text. Mouse over these:

Le géant de la distribution en ligne Amazon a gagné 1,36% à 322,74 dollars. Le groupe a annoncé le lancement de deux nouvelles séries confiées à des grands noms du secteur.
Source: La Presse
See entire English text

Shares in the online retail giant Amazon rose 1.36% to $322.74. The group announced the release of two new series limited to the big names in the sector.

Finding cognates again

Finding cognates is an art that requires practice. This exercise will help you verify your ability to do that. Click on the words that you think are cognates below. If you are correct, the word will turn green. If you are mistaken, it will turn red. You can check your accuracy or see the translation by clicking on the buttons below the text.

Le constructeur automobile sud-coréen Hyundai Motor a annoncé mardi qu'il allait investir 80 700 milliards de wons (86 milliards de dollars) d'ici 2018 dans sa production à l'étranger, en particulier en Chine, et le développement de véhicules de nouvelle génération.

Arrivé au bout de ses capacités, Hyundai entend injecter 49 100 milliards de wons dans le développement de ses unités de production hors de la Corée du Sud et 31 600 milliards dans la recherche et le développement (R&D).

Le cinquième constructeur mondial, pénalisé par la faiblesse du yen et la cherté du won qui avantage ses concurrents japonais à l'exportation, porte ainsi à 20 200 milliards de wons par an ses dépenses en infrastructures et R&D contre 14 900 milliards en 2014.

Pas moins de 7000 chercheurs et ingénieurs vont être recrutés à ces fins.

«Cet investissement record doit nous permettre avant tout de nous assurer la maîtrise des technologies fondamentales dans la production de voitures écologiques, de voitures intelligentes et d'autres véhicules de nouvelle génération», a justifié le groupe dans un communiqué.

Plus de 11 000 milliards de wons doivent être consacrés au développement de voitures écologiques, à propulsion électrique ou hybride.

Source: La Presse

Parts of speech

When working with texts, it is very useful to have at hand the terminology required to name the elements we are manipulating. One of the most basic elements of terminology is the part of speech. We can divide the words of most languages into some basic parts of speech. Fortunately, English and French share their parts of speech, as the following table illustrates:

Part of speech Function Examples in English Examples in French
Noun Designate a physical or mental entity wall, destruction, liberty mur, destruction, liberté
Verb Designate an event walk, decide, be marcher, décider, être
Adjective Designate a quality soft, old, former doux, vieux, ancien
Adverb Designate a location in space or time, a relation, degree or manner here, often, very ici, souvent, très
Determiner Specify the status of a noun a, the, my, three un/une, mon/ma/mes, trois
Pronoun Replace a noun phrase I, you, it, that je, vous, il/elle, cela
Preposition Designate a relation for a noun phrase after, upon, with après, sur, avec

Finding parts of speech

Identifying parts of speech is crucial to manipulating texts. This exercise will help you explore the different parts of speech. To begin, choose a part of speech to search for:

If you click on a member of the class you have selected, it will turn green. If you choose another part of speech by mistake, it will turn red.

Charles was a small grey bird. He nested in an oak tree. Leaves covered his tiny nest. Under the tree lived a fox.

Nearby he could hear a noisy family of red squirrels. They spent the day angrily scolding everyone. At the top of the tree sat an old owl.

Finding semantic units

To see how translation units work, mouse over the following text and look for the units where several words hang together to carry a specific concept.

La volatilité des prix de l'énergie devrait être un élément d'incertitude à long terme pour les chemins de fer canadiens, mais un analyste de l'industrie croit que les volumes de pétrole brut transporté par train devraient continuer à croître cette année, quoique plus lentement.

Source: La Presse

Translation units

The units of meaning of a language sometimes map onto single words, as the following examples show:

Meaning unit In English In French
'small furry animal that purrs' cat chat
'obtain in exchange for money' buy acheter
'above the norm in size' big grand

However, sometimes a a unit of meaning is carried by a sequence of words, as the following examples show:

Meaning unit In English In French
'small pastry' bun petit pain
'cause a tree to fall using a sharp tool' cut down abattre
'below the norm in depth' shallow peu profond

In both cases (single words and multi-word clumps) we may speak of translation units. In other words, when translating, we should always look beyond the individual words to the units of meaning.

When you are looking at texts in search of units of meaning in French, it is good to be mindful of an important difference between English and French. In English, many units have their head (the core of the unit, the one being modified by the other elements) at the end, as in round table or laptop computer. However, French often orders heads and modifiers in the reverse order, as in table ronde or ordinateur portable.

Here is a list of examples where this is so. In each case, find the head.

English French
sunglasses lunettes de soleil
hunting knife couteau de chasse
annual meeting réunion annuelle
conservative party parti conservateur
wind energy énergie éolienne

Reading passages

Let us now begin to put some of your knowledge into practice, by reading some acutual French. Two passages are presented here. In the first example, the associated images make the meaning of the words clear. In the second, hover over each of the words to check its meaning in English. Before you do that though, spend some time looking at each of these and try to guess the meaning.

A list of fruits and vegetables with advice on organic buying (from the site


Extract from the beginning of the poem Les Djinns by Victor Hugo (from the site

This famous poem tells the story of the the arrival in a desert environment of a swarm of "djinn" (think of the English word 'genie'. The poem captures the rising sound of the approaching swarm by making each verse contain longer lines than the previous one. Then, as the "djinn" leave, the lines become shorter again.

Translating poetry is famously difficult. We provide here a literal translation, designed to show the meaning of each word. For a more poetic translation, see for example

Murs, ville,
Et port,
De mort,
Mer grise
Où brise
La brise,
Tout dort.

Dans la plaine
Naît un bruit.
C'est l'haleine
De la nuit.
Elle brame
Comme une âme
Qu'une flamme
Toujours suit !

Summing up

We have now reached the end of the preliminary chapter. At this point, you should:

  1. have an appreciation of why translating French to English is complex
  2. understand the basics of French spelling
  3. have grasped the importance of cognates in providing an initial sense of a text
  4. know at least the most frequent function words which give structure to a text
  5. have a good grasp of parts of speech
  6. be capable of looking for units of meaning, either single or multi-word
  7. have the ability to look at complex units in French and consider the possible order of their English equivalents.