French is an Indo-European language and part of the Romance family, along with Spanish and Italian. The English language was strongly influenced by the introduction of French at the time of the Norman invasion of Britain in the 11th century. As a result the two languages share many grammatical features and contain many cognates.
The French alphabet contains the same 26 letters as the English alphabet, plus the letters with diacritics: é (acute acent) è à ù (grave accent), ç (cedilla), â ê î ô û (circumflex), ë ï ü (diaeresis). French ESL students may have interference problems in class when the teacher spells out words. For example, beginners commonly write i or j when the teacher says e or g.
There are some differences in the sound systems of the two languages that can cause French learners problems of comprehension and speech production. Spelling errors may result from the frequent lack of correspondence between the pronunciation of English words and their spelling.
A typical pronunciation problem is the inability to correctly articulate the vowel sounds in minimal pairs such as ship / sheep, live / leave, full / fool. Because the tip of the tongue is not used in speaking French, learners often have problems with words containing the letters th (/θ/ /ð/), such as then, think and clothes.
Another common feature of English spoken by French learners is the omission of the /h/ sound at the beginning of words. This sound does not exist in French and leads to problems such as 'Ave you 'eard about 'arry?, or overcompensation by pronouncing the /h/ in words like hour, honour.
French learners typically have problems with the unpredictable stress patterns of English words, particularly of cognates. (Word stress in French is regular.) Learners may also be unwilling to engage in the prevalent vowel reduction of unstressed syllables in English. Consider, for example, the way that English native speakers swallow the first syllable of the word tomorrow (t'morrow). These problems result in the stereotypical staccato French accent of beginning learners.
French and English verb grammar have considerable areas of overlap. Both languages, for example, have auxiliaries, participles, active/passive voice, past/present/future tenses. However, there are some differences that can cause interference in the production of English.
A typical problem is the wrong choice of tense. Despite the external similarities of verb grammar, there are frequent occasions when French uses a different tense to convey a particular meaning than English. Some common examples are the following sentences:
- I have played tennis yesterday.
- I can't play now. I do my homework.
- I live in London since last year.
- I will tell you as soon as I will know.
Because French does not use the auxiliary do, learners may have problems in asking questions. For example, they may simply make a statement and use question intonation: He is rich?, or they may invert subject and verb: How often see you her?
Although English and French share the same basic Subject-Verb-Object syntax, there are numerous variations in the word order of sentences more complicated than the I bought a new car type. Here are a few common errors:
- I play sometimes golf.
- I have too much eaten!
- It was the film the best I have seen.
- Do you know what is the time?
Article use in French is similar but not identical to that in English. French pronouns are based on the gender of the noun they are associated with; and the possessive adjectives agree with the nouns they qualify. Interference in these areas will lead to mistakes such as:
- He is doctor.
- This is the John's car.
- What stupid thing to do!
- The German is easier than the English.
- Do you like my ummbrella. He was very cheap.
- I met John and her wife for dinner.
A large number of words in the two languages have the same Latin roots and are mutually comprehensible, although this applies more to academic/technical words than to everyday vocabulary. The concomitant problem, however, is the significant number of false friends. Here are just a few examples. The French word is listed first, followed by the correct English equivalent: cave / cellar; isolation / insulation; demander / ask; sensible / sensitive; ignorer / not know; librairie / bookshop.