What difficulties do French people experience when learning English?

What difficulties do French people experience when learning English?

Reflective Diary submitted by Dominic, Madrid.

Several years ago, after completing an intensive weekend TEFL course, I spent one month as an “Au Pair” teaching English within a French family near Montpellier. Here I will share examples of specific challenges encountered.

The difference in pronunciation of words can be difficult for learners to address because they are often subtle and the sound does not necessarily exist in the learner’s native language. An example with vowels is that at times /ᶺ/ is pronounced almost like /ᵊ/, to the extent that much sounds like ‘mirch’. Similar difficulties apply when students mispronounce words and confuse the interlocutor walk/work, beard/bird/bare/bid.
A simple example for a noun in both French and Spanish is that it is unnecessary to pronounce /h/ which can be equally confusing, the word ‘hate’ can sound like ‘ate’. It may be inadvisable to confuse food consumption with cannibalism.

English and French are similar languages in some ways, with many words from Latin roots being spelt/spelled in the same way, with the addition of an accent and no change in meaning (discussion – discussion). However, the frequent presence of similar words caused some difficulties for French speakers with regard to the use of English and accuracy of word definitions. “Actually” and “actuellement” is a good example. Confident students use their knowledge of Latin words, assuming that they are cognates but often they are in fact false friends. Additionally, phrasal verbs are more common than word of Latin origin and although the translation for “distinguer” (distinguish) has the same meaning, it is far more formal in English and habitually people would say “tell the difference”.

A common difficulty for learners of any nationality is the high presence of phrasal verbs, and the identification and understanding of prepositions can be very challenging. “Get, put and take” are excellent examples of this. The expression “to take on” is very different from “take” without a preposition and even with the addition of the word ‘on’, it can have various meanings: to assume, oppose, fight or to employ depending on the context. There are occasions in French where verbs can take different prepositions and have different meanings. Venir a/venir de meaning to come to/ to have just but they far more infrequent are arguably less important.

I noted that French people may develop their English language skills through watching English language television or video. If the film is American in origin, this can result in the learning of Americanisms, such as: “Can I get a coffee, please?”.

Does this matter? Some would say not.


Works cited:

  • Learner English, a teacher’s guide to interference and other problems. Cambridge University Press