It seems a little counter-intuitive— what does proficiency in one language have to do with another? Yet, there are many aspects to studying French that I’ve found which improve the use of my first language, English. The primary challenge it can help solve is a ubiquitous one you may not even be aware of: language laziness.
Let’s face it— for those of us who’s primary language is English, it is all too easy to get lazy. Chance by someone on the street in the morning who calls something ‘awesome,’ and before you know it, anything set before you that day along the entire spectrum of goodness becomes ‘awesome.’ If prompted with a question while our mind is elsewhere, we’re all too likely to respond ‘sure’ when certainly or absolutely could have enriched our response. There’s an interesting truth about both of those last two words (and interesting, as well). They are of French origin, along a multitude of other vocabulary at our disposal, though they may not always be the first words to come to mind.
The English we use today is, in fact, an agglomerated language that centuries ago emerged from an England in cultural transition. Old English, the direct precedent of our current tongue, was brought by the Germanic invaders of southern Britain and spoken there until the 11th century. Its vocabulary, grammar, and syntax were all thoroughly Germanic in nature, and the language is unintelligible to English speakers today.
The origins of the modern English lexicon are, instead, a mix of many different languages which came into contact with ever-evolving English, including French. This is owed to the Norman invasion of England, and the subsequent introduction of Franco-Norman which came with it, in 1066. As the language of the new ruling class (and the remaining English aristocrats who sought the acceptance of their new overlords), the French language became the language of law, politics, and literature. Without a system of formal education, the Germanic language lingered amongst the common people after the conquest. It took generations for the French and German languages to mingle into something a modern English speaker could understand: the Middle English familiar to native speakers through Chaucer and Shakespeare.
The schism between the two languages in those formative years between the common and the learned has left its mark on our modern lexicon. The differences observed can help speakers better understand the background of the words we chose, and the connotations that come with those choices. The table below demonstrates the difference between samples of English vocabulary from both strains.
Words of German Origin : Words of French Origin
Smart : Intelligent
Indeed : Absolutely, Certainly
Dumb : Ignorant, Ridiculous
Walk : Promenade
Give : Render
This small sample offers a look at the difference. There is of course nothing innately more articulate about the words of French origin compared to those of German origin. But imagine two people debating a topic. One makes his case with the words of French origin, and the other with those of German origin. Whose argument would sound more compelling? Would you perceive the intelligence of the speakers any differently? This bias between the sets of words is engrained into the literature of English for centuries, and can trace back to the fundamental positions of the two roots when the English language began to fuse. While it by no means discredits any Germanic words (which certainly have their own merits), it demonstrates a difference in perception.
Another contributing factor to the propensity of the French lexicon may be the relative abundance of adjectives and adverbs. If a stereotype of the French is pretension; than the language, at least in this regard, might live up to the hype. In striving for le mot juste, just the right word, the French lexicon offers a surplus of choices to articulate exactly how you feel about something, the way someone acts, or a host of other attributes. Studying the language can make a speaker aware of the variety of words available to them in English to articulate complex thoughts in a less mundane fashion, challenging the tendency towards language laziness.
This phenomenon doesn’t stop at vocabulary, either. French syntax(?) and grammar are also closely related to English. The challenge of learning French can make a native English speaker more acutely aware of English grammar, allowing speakers to correct mistakes that often pass as such minor offenses that they go unnoticed in everyday conversation. Yet, correcting these mistakes, like broadening your vocabulary, will positively change the perception of a speaker by their listeners. That is a truly universal benefit.