French is a very fragile language, or at least it seems so from the stories I hear

Raymond Chen

From anecdotal evidence, French is a very fragile language: The slightest deviation in grammar or pronunciation renders the language utterly incomprehensible.

Example 1: The wife of my friend the rocket scientist studied French in school and loved all things French. He agreed to go on a bicycle tour of France with her. (This is known in the business as being a good husband.)

As they cycled past a small town, they spotted an ice cream stand. My friend was volunteered to be the one to buy the ice cream. He approached the woman and said, “Une vanille et une chocolat, s’il vous plaît.

The women sternly reprimanded him with a pointed finger. “Ce n’est pas français.” (“That’s not French.”)

My friend collected his thoughts and gave it another try. “Une vanille et une chocolat, s’il vous plaît.

The woman gave the same reply. “Ce n’est pas français.

He returned to his wife, who had been observing the transaction from afar. She asked, “What did you say to her? … And what did she say? … That should have worked. Let me try.”

His wife approached the woman and said, “Une de vanille et une de chocolat, s’il vous plaît.

The woman looked right at my friend and punctuated her statement with an accusatory finger: “Une de vanille et une de chocolat!

Example 2: One of my friends grew up in the English-speaking portion of Canada but learned French as part of the standard academic curriculum. During a trip to France, he got caught in an unexpected downpour and found a shop that had umbrellas. He went to the lady at the desk and asked to buy a “parapluie” (umbrella).

The woman could not understand what it was he wanted to buy.

He repeated his offer to buy a “parapluie“.

Once again, the woman did not understand what it was he wanted. My friend left the shop empty-handed.

My friend later checked his pronunciation with some native French speakers. Apparently, he did not pronounce the second “p” with a strong enough puff of air. This tiny mistake rendered the word completely incomprehensible. The contextual clues of a rainstorm were apparently of no use whatsoever.

Example 3: One of my friends grew up as a native French speaker in Canada¹ (though he is now a United States citizen). He was on vacation in France and observed at the next table some Japanese tourists trying desperately to place their order in French. They consulted their phrase book and did their best to ask for some water. “Eeeooouuuuu?” Unfortunately, Japanese vowels and French vowels do not line up perfectly, and the waiter professed that he was completely unable to understand what they were trying to say.

Example 4: One of my colleagues went to school in Montreal, so he speaks French reasonably well. He was at a restaurant in France, and he asked to see the wine list, “la liste des vins.

The waiter was perplexed and replied in French that he didn’t understand what my friend said.

My colleague repeated his request to see “la liste de vin,” and the waiter once against apologized in the most polite terms possible for his inability to derive any comprehensible meaning from the seemingly random stream of syllables emanating from my colleague’s mouth.

My colleague rephrased his request, asking to see, you know, the piece of paper that enumerates all the wines available for purchase so that it may be consumed in conjunction with the meal.

And then a grand epiphany struck the waiter, and he dramatically announced, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. La carte des vins!

My conclusion from these stories is that French is a very fragile language.

The Académie Française is the organization in France which is vested with official authority for matters relating to the French language. It was formally established on February 22, 1635. Happy birthday, Académie Française. Maybe you can work on making your language a little less fragile.

¹ He tells me that as a child, he learned English by watching He Man and the Masters of the Universe.


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  • cheong00 0

    “It looks Greek to me.” 😛

  • Patrick 0

    That’s a little unfair. Just because English is a hodgepodge of words from every other language stitched together with seemingly no logical coherence doesn’t mean you get to snob your nose at languages that bother to have rules :-p

    That said… the French do tend to be snobbish with tourists. I am French-Canadian and on my last visit to France the locals referred to my dialect as “Français de bûcheron”… lumberjack French.

    I learned English in my early teens watching “Who’s the Boss”. I had a huge crush on Alyssa Milano. No stronger motivation for a teenage boy.

    • Antonio Rodríguez 0

      Spanish is as complex as French, both in grammar and in vocabulary. In fact, verb conjugation and gender concordance, the most troublesome aspects for English speakers, are almost identical in both languages. But we Spaniards have a very broad sleeve (as we say) with foreign speakers. Maybe it’s because we are used to tourists, maybe because we are far less chauvinist than our northern neighbors, maybe because we are used to strange accents and vocabularies (an Andalusian, a Galician and a Catalonian speaking Spanish can sound as if they were speaking three different languages). Anyhow, the fact is that you can stay in Spain for a long time without having anything but the most basic knowledge of Spanish, or speaking it horribly bad, and have no problem at all.

      Sadly, here we have similar stories of Catalonian separatists refusing to “understand” people if they don’t speak Catalan, when in fact Spanish and Catalan are mutually understandable without trouble, and most mass media in Catalonia is broadcast/printed in Spanish. The problem in these cases isn’t the language, but some of the people who speak them.

      • Patrick 0

        I agree. I’ve been to Spain (Madrid and Barcelona) and I got by with my rudimentary Spanish and never felt like people were trying to correct me. Then as soon as I get to France, people start correcting my (native) French.

  • Simon Mourier 0

    This is soooo cliché. I’m French (sorry for my english :-), and I seriously doubt the truthfulness of these stories. Everyone here will understand “Une vanille et une chocolat” in the ice-cream context, or “la liste des vins” which is 100% correct, although ok, the accent can be a small difficulty sometimes, but that has nothing to do with the french language itself.

    • Etienne Dechamps 0


      I’m French as well. Judging from these examples it seems very unlikely that there was an actual misunderstanding, except maybe in example 3. « Une vanille et une chocolat » is just fine; it’s not even awkward. « Une de vanille et une de chocolat » actually sounds weirder to me – if one really wanted to be pedantic they would say « Une boule de vanille et une boule de chocolat ». It is true that we say « carte des vins » not « liste des vins » but the meaning of « liste des vins » is still extremely obvious.

      It seems more likely that the French people on the other end were being deliberately difficult and playing dumb. The woman in example 1 seems particularly rude.

      • Sukru Tikves 0

        Someone standing at an ice cream shop and muttering “chocolat” should be universally understandably, regardless of country.

      • Antonio Rodríguez 0

        Same goes for the umbrella thing. Just pointing to the umbrella in the store and then pointing to the pouring rain through the window should make the seller understand, without words.

    • Don Hacherl 0

      I know what the Japanese tourists did wrong. It was not just saying “Eeeooouuuuu” instead of “eau”. From personal experience I can report that saying “eau” while pointing at a bottle of water produces nothing but bafflement, followed 30 seconds later by “l’eau?”

  • Sukru Tikves 0

    I can assure you ordering water here in US can be a problem, too.

    We had learned “British English” (English English for us), and with a bit of an accent to boot.

    for newcomers: “wa-da” works, “wo-tɪr” does not… (depends on the local state, though).

    • Joshua Hudson 0

      Your “wo-tɪr” might sound too much like waiter. Asking for the waiter when the waiter is in front of you does indeed sound rude. While “wa-da” has a few other near matches, none of them are applicable.

      While these examples in the original text are indeed awful; I was wondering if there’s a bit of reason in that all the dropped end syllables on the words might make not enough redundancy left if the initial parse fails for some reason.

  • Pierre Bisaillon 0

    What you explained is that the France citizen are particularily pedentic; everything you mentionned would have been understood perfectly in Quebec

  • Julien Couvreur 0

    I second other commenters about the ice cream scenario (sentence seems fine).
    Regarding the Academie Francaise, luckily it has more pretention than actual authority on the language. They make up words and rules which people happily disregard 😛

  • Letao Wang 0

    My anecdotal experience is very much the opposite. As a beginner I had talked in completely broken sentences and even made up words by doing a Frenchy pronunciation of words in English, and very rarely did people have trouble understanding what I wanted to say.

    Example 1 seems like a snobby woman who wanted to be a 4th grade teacher, not an actual problem with understanding.
    Example 3 might be because they were trying to sound out the vowels “e”, “a”, “u” separately, which is a common mistake. It should be similar to how you say the letter “O”, which should be just fine for Japanese speakers. “L’eau” sounds like “low”.
    Examples 2 and 4 might be a matter of not enunciating clearly. I’ve had similar experiences trying to order “escargot” and “salade de fruits” and it turned out I was talking in a sheepish voice and they couldn’t hear me.

  • M. W. 0

    A few salient points:

    • Some people, French or not, are douche-bags who intentionally pretend to not understand when others, particularly foreigners, say something that isn’t perfect.
    • The French have a reputation of being quite snooty.
    • When it’s clear that someone isn’t a native speaker, a reasonable person will compensate by trying to pull an IE and decode the intended meaning anyway.

    I’ve known people who had accents and encountered English speakers who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand what they said even though there was little to no difference from the correct pronunciation. I’m quite the spelling and grammar Nazi, but only to illiterate zoomers who think they can excuse their illiteracy with “it’s the Internet” or “language evolves” (yeah, tell that to your English teacher 🙄). That said, I always give leeway to non-native speakers, because, you know, I’m not a dick. ¬_¬

  • Michael Dunn 0

    The confusion in example 2 is at least understandable. If the second syllable of “parapluie” is reduced enough, it sounds like “par lui” which means “by him.” So the person in the shop could have heard “I want to buy a by him.”

    But this sort of thing isn’t specific to French; mispronouncing a word or using an unfamiliar word can impair communication, no matter what the language. I can recall seeing programming questions on forums asking about “fixing a window” which drew confused responses of “is the window broken?” The person meant “fix” in the sense of “keep it from moving, ” which is correct, but uncommon enough that other people didn’t get the meaning right away.

  • GL 0

    On “parapluie”: if the “p” is not aspirated, one might mistake it for a “b” instead, so it could become “parabluie”.

    On “une vanille et une chocolat”: I can see this comes from “a vanilla (one) and a chocolate (one)”, but “une chocolat” would sound really weird, because “chocolat” is a masculine noun. (“Une vanille” sounds fine.)

    • Raymond ChenMicrosoft employee 0

      The “p” was aspirated. It just wasn’t aspirated *enough*.

  • cheong00 0

    Btw, this reminds me about something that one of my English teacher in secondary school told us about when being asked “why we’re told to use different words and not repeating the use if possible? Is that just to show off you know a lot of vocabularies?”

    When talking in English, since lots of English words carry more than one different meaning, it help to use different vocabularies to convey the same idea to people who you’re talking to in order to converge the idea to what you really want to talk about, so as to minimize the chance of misunderstanding.

  • Paul Kennedy 0

    I haven’t been here in years. I was looking at a blog post about “Environment Variable Expansion” I found in a batch file. Funny that I would come across this post. Is that third story about Andrew C? Did he tell you himself? (I remember he would tell everybody that story – it’s a good story).

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. And RIP Andrew.

  • Paul Kennedy 0

    *Example 4 (not 3)

  • stephen mitchem 0

    On visits to France i find starting with “Bonjour” followed by “pardon” and the rest in English seems to work. If they blank you say “pute de con” or “putain” and walk away.

  • Brian Boorman 0

    I think in these situations, you simply say in your best French you can:

    “Soyez arrogant, mais sans les anglophones, vous parleriez allemand, pas français.”

    • Wilhelm Nöker 0

      In Rome we once asked for bruschetta as if it were spelled “bruscetta”. The waiter repeated our mispronounced order, adding “subito!”, and then brought us just what we wanted.

      In Normandy, I asked a café waitress for “un crêpe” rather than “une crêpe”, which is rather funny if you think about it, but she pretended not to understand me at all.

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