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‘How to think like a French person and speak better French’

Switching to a French ‘head’ can help navigate the nuances of the language, suggests Nick Inman

Speaking French requires you to flip a switch in your brain to a French mindset Pic: 26ShadesOfGreen / Shutterstock

Speaking and thinking are intimately linked. To make progress in French, you have to get at least a little into the mindset behind the language. 

French requires you not only to change your vocabulary but to flip a switch in your brain at the same time.

Otherwise, you will go around speaking French in the way an anglophone thinks it should be spoken – and no wonder if no one understands.

You will also be missing out in other ways. 

Read more: How to gain confidence in speaking French

A different way of seeing the world

Getting practical stuff done is one thing, but adapting to a different way of seeing the world brings greater benefits still.

Of course, in this article I am going to have to generalise. I am not claiming that 67 million people all think in the same way, but there are some common denominators. 

If you don’t believe me, make your own inquiries: talk to a French neighbour or friend and ask them if I am right.

French laud intellectualism

A useful place to begin is Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think.

His main point is that the French laud intellectualism. They delight in arguments about abstract concepts, while English tends to be applied to more concrete matters.

Another difference is that English favours improvisation. Intelligibility is the only aim and each speaker is free to create around this.

By contrast, French is a right/wrong formula: respecting the method is as important as getting the message across.

French has the right word for the job

English prefers short, practical words with multiple and even vague meanings. 

French is the opposite. It shuns phrasal verbs in favour of single-purpose coinages. 

For example, where English puts ‘bring’ to lots of uses (‘bring about’ / ‘bring back’ / ‘bring closer’), in French you have to learn a series of mots justes (amener, entraîner, provoquer / rapporter / rapprocher).

To speak requires that you utter polysyllabic mouthfuls without being self-conscious.

Read more: Five steps to interact better with people in French

Few taboos in French

Another gulf between the two languages is that the French do not go in for many taboos and euphemisms.

They talk quite plainly about all the things you should not mention in the officers’ mess: sex, politics, the workings of the body and all matters intimate without embarrassment.

Host of little peculiarities

Coming down to a mundane level, you will have noticed a lot of the main differences already. 

If you try to think in English and translate literally into French, you will be constantly tripped up. 

And not only by etiquette, genders, the different noises that animals make on the Continent and back-to-front possessives  (la maison de Peter instead of Peter’s house), but also by a whole host of other little peculiarities.

To give just one example, you might think that a river is a river. 

In France, however, they are either rivières (rivers flowing into other rivers) or fleuves (draining into the sea or ocean).

Go with the French flow

Sometimes, there is a gain to an English-speaker and French simplifies things for you, such as depuis as a catch-all translation for ‘since’, ‘from’ and ‘for’ in the context of duration.

At other times, it is French that makes more of a meal of things and you have to stretch your mind to accommodate it.

I am going to get letters about this one, but there is no short way to say ‘to hug’ in French: you have to say prendre dans les bras, serrer dans les bras or faire un câlin.

So the language lesson for today is: don’t fight it – go with the French flow.

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