This month is the Tour de France, and Duolingo is celebrating with our own "Tour de French Learning"! We're exploring the history of French, what French accent marks mean, and who uses French around the world! Ready to learn more? Allez ! Allez ! Allez !
It's true that all languages can communicate all ideas and feelings, but it's also a fact that we love to learn about unique words that wrap up so much cultural nuance! For the next stage of our Tour de French Learning, we'll take a look at some French words and phrases that give learners an insight into how the French think and talk about the world, their country, and themselves.
Terroir means land and soil, and even if you've never studied French, you might have seen this word on wine bottles to describe vineyards! But the way the French use this word turns metaphor into reality: Terroir refers to a region’s food and agriculture, as well as the people who sustain it. Terroir is the place where people’s metaphorical roots mingle with the soil’s real ones.
In France, perhaps more than in the U.S. and other countries, there is a history of leisurely wandering as an artform. It’s called flâner—to sort of stroll, but without a destination, observing what’s around you, and questioning, pondering, considering the world and your place in it. (Maybe you were even a pandemic flâneur!) There is a simple pleasure, even poetry, in that aimless walk, especially as our cities change before our eyes, and we allow the streets to carry us away.
French students pick academic paths earlier than students in other places (in the U.S., this might not happen until well into college!), and then sit for the baccalauréat exam in their chosen discipline. This national exam takes place at the end of high school, and serves as a college entrance exam. While that's its concrete purpose, for the French the bac is a rite of passage. Students spend endless hours preparing for its oral and written sections, and it fosters that French spirit of debate and analysis, while requiring structure and precision. Once you’ve passed, you’re ready to take on any French philosopher, or news anchor!
This French word might look familiar—it so perfectly encapsulated this feeling that English borrowed it directly from French back in the 17th century! (In fact, it's distantly related to the English word "annoy.") In French, as in English, it's used for a feeling of boredom or dissatisfaction with what’s around you, it’s the sense that you can’t make a difference in the world… Luckily, there are antidotes, but unlike in the U.S., the antidote to ennui doesn’t have to be activity, progress, and profit. Enjoying a piece of art, going out to flâner, or talking with a friend can relieve that sense of ennui in France!
You might be familiar with this phrase, which we use in English to sort of mean "and there it is!" or "ta da!" In French, voilà is the expression you would use for emphasizing, well, just about anything: a sudden realization that that’s what Barbara Pravi is singing in her Eurovision hit, an artistic masterpiece you’re finally ready to reveal, or your son’s favorite toy you just unearthed from under the sofa. It’s a versatile little word that can mean “Ah-ha!,” “Here you go,” and “Take a look at this!”, all at once. In French, it only takes a little voilà to show off your latest discovery.
And finally, this most exasperated French expression is sort of like English "meh." Like “meh,” it can be used to acknowledge something but show a lack of enthusiasm—but it can also be used to flat-out criticize something and get away with it. You can tell someone, “This dish doesn’t look good,” and you might sound rude, but put a bof at the beginning and you show just enough indifference to not hurt anyone’s feelings: Bof, cette ratatouille n’a pas l’air très bonne. Just don’t forget to shrug your shoulders when you say it!
Learning a little of that ✨ je ne sais quoi ✨
Understanding a community's culture is essential for language learning, and it can also be a lot of fun to figure out the hidden meanings behind words—they have nuance beyond what you might find in a dictionary or translation site.
Check back soon for the Champs-Élysées stage (that's the last one!) of our Tour de French Learning!