Easy French Lesson 11: Humor Learning French

Easy French Lesson 11 Humor Learning French

To close these Easiest French Lessons on a light note, the following humorous anecdotes of language learners, which also have additional insights into learning French, are included for your entertainment.

But first, here’s a final letter from France about discovering some easy new French words not related to English.


Dear Billy Bob,

After being here in France for ten days, I realize that some totally unfamiliar French words are easier to learn than others. Besides all the French words similar to English that I have written to you about, I have been seeing and hearing some foreign words so often in familiar situations that my mind has begun to remember them automatically, without even trying.

For example, restaurants and boutiques hang a sign FERMÉ that is like the CLOSED signs back home. The OPEN for business sign is OUVERTE.

Also many doors are labelled POUSSEZ (PUSH) or TIREZ (PULL).

If a hôtel has NO VACANCY, it hangs out the sign COMPLET. The VACANCY sign is CHAMBRE À LOUER.

Water faucets are either CHAUD (HOT) or FROID (COLD).

When I go to pay in a restaurant I look for the sign CAISSE (CASHIER).

We’re already familiar with the ideas represented by these French signs, and the situations in which they occur. So when I see these words on signs in France, it’s easy for me to figure out what they mean. Also, I see them repeatedly, so these new French words are rapidly becoming familiar to me.

New French Words Often Heard

Along with all these foreign signs I see everywhere over here, I’ve been hearing certain French words so often that they no longer seem so alien. Also, I can usually understand what they mean because they occur in situations analogous to familiar ones I’ve been used to all my life.

For example, everyone says BONJOUR all the time whenever I go into a restaurant or store. And they address me as MADMOISELLE (Miss), and each other as MADAME or MONSIEUR (Mister).

I’ve learned to say JE M’APPELLE Candy (my name is Candy). Or for a little joke I say JE M’APPELLE BONBON (candy), which they don’t get sometimes.

After I meet someone they say ENCHANTÉ (pleased to meet you), and when I leave its AU REVOIR (goodbye) and À BIENTOT (see you later).

And they are always asking their friends CA VA? (how are you?), to which they answer CA VA BIEN (I’m fine).

I’m always saying please (S’IL VOUS PLAIT) and MERCIE (thanks), and NON, MERCIE (no thank you).

Since I’m always trying to find my way around as a tourist, one of the first phrases I picked up was OU EST…? (where is this or that? Ou even sounds a bit like where.)

OU EST LA BANQUE? OU EST LA CHANGE? (money exchange counter).


And of course, OU SONT LES TOILETTES? (which they also call LAVABOS or W.C.)

After I found my way to LA BANQUE, I started paying for things and quickly learned to ask How much is it? (COMBIEN?) and Check please (L’ADDITION, S’IL VOUS PLÂIT.).

Now I must say BON NUIT (good-night) because tomorrow is LE TOUR DE CATHÈDRALE NOTRE DAME.

Best wishes, Candice





This is a story by Wilder Penfield found on the internet, which occurred in bi-lingual Canada:

I have a true story of a child whose parents were asked if they wished her to study French in kindergarten. They were delighted and signed up for the instruction.

After the first week they asked her if she liked her French. A blank stare.

“What’s French?”

The perplexed parents telephoned the school and were told that the girl was indeed having French every morning from 11:30 to 12:00.

So they again questioned the girl.

“Oh, mummy, that’s not French; that’s gym period!”

It turned out that she had been having gym in French without being aware that the teacher’s directions and her repetitions and responses were all in French.



This is based on a true story from Barbara Dillon about her mother Helen as a young girl:

To help get little Helen ready to start kindergarten in the fall, her mother Margaret home-schooled the girl during the summer by teaching her the names of all the things around the house. So little Helen Devlin learned the names of the various pieces of furniture, the all different vegetables and fruits, and everything like that.

Finally the big day arrived. Her mother helped Helen get dressed because she knew it was a school tradition to take a class photograph on the first day of kindergarten. So she told her scared little daughter,

“When they go to take your picture, the photographer will probably tell all the kids to ‘say cheese’.”

“Why do they do that, mommy?”

“Look in the mirror and say ‘cheese’.

“You see when you say ‘cheese’ you make a big grin. But not everybody says 'cheese'. In South America the photographers tell people to ‘say whisky’ to get them to grin.”

Little Helen looked in the mirror again and said, ‘whiskey’, which sounded funny coming from such a little girl.

Her mother Margaret said, “But in our family we hate that big fake cheesy grin in photos. So we always ‘say plum’ because it makes a pretty little smile on your face, instead of a big old grin. So when the photographer tells you to say ‘cheese’ you just say ‘plum’ instead.”

“OK, mommy.”

So the traumatic first day of kindergarten passed without a problem. A week passed as the child became more comfortable going to school. But after the first week little Helen came home from school with tears streaming down her face, clutching her class photograph.

In the class photograph all the kids were grinning their big cheesy grins. All except little Helen, whose lips were distorted into a painful pucker.

“What happened?” her mother asked.

Through her sobs little Helen stammered, “When the photographer told us to ‘say cheese’, I tried to remember what you told me. At first I thought ‘whiskey’. But then I remembered it was a fruit.

So I did what you told me -- I said ‘prune’!”

Helen’s mother tried to hold back a laugh. Her first thought was that her little daughter just confused two related purple fruits that both begin with the letter P.

And then she suddenly remembered that as part of the home-schooling in summer she had taught little Helen that the French word for ‘plum’ is ‘la prune’.



This is a true story:

Young Barbara Dillon decided to see the world! So that’s what she did. All on her own, solo, alone! She heard rumors that you could buy a plane ticket to go around the world for a year. As long as you kept going in the same direction, east or west, and picked your stops in advance, and arrived back home by day 365. (Didn’t know that, did you?) So that’s what she bought.

She quit her job in finance in Boston, and informed her family and friends. They were shocked, disapproving, and alarmed for her safety. (And maybe a little envious.)

“You quit your job? You’re going where? For how long?”

“All by yourself? Solo? Alone?”

Everyone except her parents -- who are totally supportive.

Her older brothers Tom and Mike joked: “Well, I guess it’s no shoes for us this year.” “Gotta help little sister pay for her big trip!”

So off she goes, heading west -- first stop Hawaii!

She finally gets to France -- almost a year later. By this time she is a confident world traveler. And more than a little proud of the way she has done it. All on her own, solo, alone! By now she knows a little French, so in conversations she casually mentions the fact that she is traveling solo.

“Je voyage seul.” (“I’m traveling alone.”)

Whenever she tells people this in France, in French, it gets little reactions out of people that secretly make her proud.

A French woman’s eyes would open wider, as if to say, “What a risque thing for a woman to do!”

An old Frenchman would purse his lips, as if to say, “What a daring thing for a woman to do!”

A young Frenchman would raise his eyebrows, as if to say, “What an adventurous thing for a woman to do!”

Until one day she mentions it to her bilingual friend Bruce. But he starts laughing!

“Your French pronunciation is a little off.

You’re not saying: ‘I’m traveling alone!’ (Je voyage seul.)

Instead you’re telling people: ‘Je voyage soûl.’ (I’m traveling drunk!)”



Humor of Mark Twain's French is adapted from his book Innocents Abroad:

We could not get on the pier from the ship (in Marseilles harbor). It was annoying. We were full of enthusiasm--we wanted to see France!

Just at nightfall our party of three contracted with a waterman for the privilege of using his boat as a bridge--its stern was at our companion ladder and its bow touched the pier.

We got in and the fellow backed out into the harbor. I told him in French that all we wanted was to walk over his thwarts and step ashore, and asked him what he went away out there for.

He said he could not understand me. I repeated. Still he could not understand. He appeared to be very ignorant of French.

The doctor tried him, but he could not understand the doctor.

I asked this boatman to explain his conduct, which he did; and then I couldn't understand him.

Dan said: "Oh, go to the pier, you old fool--that's where we want to go!"

We reasoned calmly with Dan that it was useless to speak to this foreigner in English--that he had better let us conduct this business in the French language and not let the stranger see how uncultivated he was.

"Well, go on, go on," he said, "don't mind me. I don't wish to interfere. Only, if you go on telling him in your kind of French, he never will find out where we want to go to. That is what I think about it."

We rebuked him severely for this remark and said we never knew an ignorant person yet but was prejudiced.

The Frenchman spoke again, and the doctor said: "There now, Dan, he says he is going to allez to the douain. Means he is going to the hotel. Oh, certainly--we don't know the French language." This was a crusher, as Jack would say. It silenced further criticism from the disaffected member.

We coasted past the sharp bows of a navy of great steamships and stopped at last at a government building on a stone pier. It was easy to remember then that the douain was the customhouse and not the hotel. We did not mention it, however.

With winning French politeness the officers merely opened and closed our satchels, declined to examine our passports, and sent us on our way.

We stopped at the first cafe we came to and entered. An old woman seated us at a table and waited for orders. The doctor said:

"Avez-vous du vin?"

The dame looked perplexed. The doctor said again, with elaborate distinctness of articulation:

"Avez-vous du--vin!"

The dame looked more perplexed than before.

I said: "Doctor, there is a flaw in your pronunciation somewhere. Let me try her.

Madame, avez-vous du vin?--It isn't any use, Doctor--take the witness."

"Madame, avez-vous du vin--du fromage--pain--pickled pigs' feet--beurre--des oeufs--du boeuf--horseradish, sauerkraut, hog and hominy--anything, anything in the world that can stay a Christian stomach!"

She said:

"Bless you, why didn't you speak English before? I don't know anything about your plagued French!"

The humiliating taunts of the disaffected member spoiled the supper, and we dispatched it in angry silence and got away as soon as we could.

Here we were in beautiful France--in a vast stone house of quaint architecture--surrounded by all manner of curiously worded French signs--stared at by strangely habited, bearded French people—everything gradually and surely forcing upon us the coveted consciousness that at last, and beyond all question, we were in beautiful France and absorbing its nature to the forgetfulness of everything else, and coming to feel the happy romance of the thing in all its enchanting delightfulness—and to think of this skinny veteran intruding with her vile English, at such a moment, to blow the fair vision to the winds! It was exasperating.

We set out to find the centre of the city, inquiring the direction every now and then.

We never did succeed in making anybody understand just exactly what we wanted, and neither did we ever succeed in comprehending just exactly what they said in reply, but then they always pointed—they always did that--and we bowed politely and said, "Merci, monsieur," and so it was a blighting triumph over the disaffected member anyway. He was restive under these victories and often asked:

"What did that pirate say?"

"Why, he told us which way to go to find the Grand Casino."

"Yes, but what did he say?"

"Oh, it don't matter what he said--we understood him. These are educated people--not like that absurd boatman."

"Well, I wish they were educated enough to tell a man a direction that goes somewhere--for we've been going around in a circle for an hour. I've passed this same old drugstore seven times."

We said it was a low, disreputable falsehood (but we knew it was not). It was plain that it would not do to pass that drugstore again, though--we might go on asking directions, but we must cease from following finger-pointings.



This is adapted from a humorous book by David Sedaris: ‘When You Are Engulfed in Flames’, with this part about struggling to learn French.

Though harsh in other respects, prison would be an excellent place to learn a foreign language—total immersion and you’d have the new slang before it even hit the streets.

Unlike the French school that I actually attended, this one, when it came to verbs, would likely start with the imperative (in French): “Bend over.” “Take it.” That kind of thing.

Still, though, you’d have your little conversations. In the cafeteria, in the recreation room or crafts center, if they have them in a French prison, and I imagine they do.

“Tell me, Jean-Claude, do you like the glaze I’ve applied to my shapely jug?”

Of the above, I can say (in French), “Tell me, Jean-Claude, do you like the... jug?” “Glaze” is one of those words that shouldn’t be too difficult to learn, and the same goes for “shapely.” I’m pretty good when it comes to retaining nouns and adjectives, but the bit about applying the glaze to the shapely jug—that’s where I tend to stumble. In English, it’s easy enough – “I put this on that” – but in French, such things have a way of biting you in the ass. I might have to say, (in French)

“Do you like the glaze the shapely jug accepted from me?” or “Do you like the shapely jug in the glaze of which I earlier applied?”

For safety’s sake, perhaps I’d be better off breaking the one sentence into three: “Look at the shapely jug.” “Do you like the glaze?” “I did that.”

If I spent as much time speaking to my neighbors (in France) as I do practicing imaginary conversations in the prison crafts center, I’d be fluent by now and could quit making excuses for myself. As it is, whenever someone asks how long I’ve been in France I wonder if it’s possible to literally die of shame.

“I’m away a lot,” I always say. “Two and a half months a year in America, and at least two in England, sometimes more.”

“Yes, but how long ago did you come to France?”


“I asked, How. Long. Have. You. Been. In. France? ”

Then I might say,

“I love chicken.” or “Big bees can be dangerous,” anything to change the subject.


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