#8 Look for cognates!
In the sentence we just discussed — “D’où avez-vous obtenu cette pomme?” – notice that word “obtenu.” Does it remind you of an English word? Of course it does – “obtain.” Obtenez and obtain are cognates – words that derived from the same ancient root. French and English have many, many, many true and close cognates, and this will makes your task much simpler. Table in English is table in French. Paper in English is papier in French. Obviously this isn’t true of every word – pomme is nothing like apple, for example – and even exact cognates are never pronounced the same in both languages. But spotting and remembering cognates will help you build your vocabulary fast!
#9 Learn your diacritical marks!
If you were learning Russian or Mandarin or Arabic, you’d have an entirely new alphabet to learn. Fortunately, French uses the same alphabet as English. But when you see French printed out, you may notice some unfamiliar marks over vowels or even under the letter C – é, ù, û, ï, ç. Those are called diacritical marks, and they change the way the vowel or consonant is pronounced (or occasionally, used). English speakers often find diacritical marks confusing since English doesn’t have any, so here’s a short primer on them.
|play||é, ù, û, ï, ç|
- The forward-flying accent mark (é) is called an accent aigu, and only appears over an E.
- The backward-pointing accent mark (ù) is called an accent grave, and can appear over an A, an E, or a U.
- The accent circonflexe (û) can appear over any vowel.
- The accent tréma (ï) can appear over an E, I, or U, and indicates that both of two vowels placed side by side need to be pronounced. (In German, a similar pair of dots placed over a letter is called an umlaut, and doesn’t have the same function at all.)
- The last diacritical mark is a cedilla, placed under a C to soften the sound – making a letter that would otherwise sound like a K sound like an S.
On the Internet, you can find whole threads of arguments as to why a certain word takes an accent grave versus an accent aigu. Don’t worry about that; it’s irrelevant. Diacritical marks are just a part of the word. But as such, they’re important – for example, “ou” without an accent grave means “or”, and with an accent grave, it means “where” (où). Big difference! Once you become comfortable reading French, the accent marks will also give you a clue as to the word’s correct pronunciation. So when you learn to spell a word, learn the accent marks that go with it. This will help you learn French much more easily.