How Taking French Helped My English

I have been fascinated by language since I was a child. My first grade teacher taught us to count to ten in Spanish. This let me know that we all have the same ideas, just different words to communicate them. In fourth grade, my class learned how to do the chorus of Keep Christmas With You in sign language. In junior high, I stumbled across the ASL alphabet and taught it to myself. 

I was excited that my high school taught foreign languages – French and Spanish. My friends all said Spanish was easier, but my mom told me that French was a great way to meet girls. She wasn’t lying – it was me and two other guys in the class. 

Up to this point, I never paid much attention to English class. I figured that I already spoke it, so the technicalities were just splitting hairs. I knew a lot of English-class jargon, but didn’t really know how to apply it and really didn’t care. 

Chalkboard
That’s English, right? | Photo by Tra Nguyen on Unsplash

Conjugating Infinitives/Subject-Verb Agreement

One of the first things we had to learn was how to conjugate verbs from the infinitive form. Sounds complicated, right? Really, it isn’t. This is where subject-verb agreement comes into play. I did not know this. I didn’t realize there was a connection. I didn’t even know what an infinitive was. For those who don’t, it is the “to + verb” form of a verb: “To speak”, “to have” etc. 

While I generally knew the whole “I speak, you speak, he/she speaks, we speak, all of you speak, they speak” of our language, notice how most of those words are the same? 5 out of 6 are all “speak.” In French, it’s: I parle, you parles, he/she parle, we parlons, all of you parlez, and they parlent. Four of those all sound the same, by the way. You have to know the differences in order to spell the right one. This made me focus more on the English conjugations.

Split Infinitives

This is also when I learned what a split infinitive is. There is a famous split infinitive that I used to help teach my kids. Think Star Trek. Their line, “To boldly go…” – that is a split infinitive. The “to” and the verb (go) are split by the adverb “boldly.” I was able to realize this is what a split infinitive is as French has no such thing. Infinitives in French (and Spanish) are one word. “To go” = “Aller.” You can’t split it. “To boldly go” is simply to go boldly: “Aller audacieusement.”

That/Who

When an object does something in particular, the object is referred to as “that.” If a person is the object, then we use the word “who.” This rule is the same in French (“que” vs. “qui”). A person is someone who does something, a non-person is something that does something. I paid no attention to this until I was getting dinged for this in French. 

Past, Conditional, and Future Tense

My law background has required me to use the words “would”, “could”, and “should” way too much for documents that are meant to be clear. We throw in the word “will” when we are absolutely certain. 

In French, many of the words are altered to have the conjugated form of “to have” added to the end of the infinitive to indicate future tense. “I will speak” becomes “Je parlerai”: Je (I) + parler (to speak) + ai (have, conjugated for the I use). Literally, it would be “I to speakhave.”

The need to deconstruct the words and phrases for another language helped me to better understand how our own structures work. 

* * *

Studying foreign languages has helped me to gain perspective over how people communicate. When you learn the ideas that people convey and the systems used to do so, you better understand how the mind works when transmitting these ideas. 

Taking French in high school helped me nail the technical aspects behind how communication works, allowing me to better apply that to my native language. 

Many thanks, and Best Blessings,

Neth W.

Related Journaling Prompts: If words are thoughts, how am I limiting my thinking?


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