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Get ready for beginners’ French
Get ready for beginners’ French

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1 The letters of the French language

The French language uses a script written horizontally (unlike some written vertically e.g. traditional Chinese or Japanese) from left to right (unlike Arabic or Hebrew). You found out in Week 1 that the French alphabet is comprised of 26 letters. It is the same alphabet as used in the English language, sometimes referred to as the Latin alphabet (as opposed, for example, to the Greek or Cyrillic alphabets, used by Greek and Russian respectively).

Described image
Figure 2 French alphabet

Alphabets are a writing system where letters represent sounds. This is different from non-alphabetic systems (e.g. Chinese) where a single character can represent a whole word.

In addition to the 26 letters of the alphabet, French uses diacritics (signs added to letters, for example in é or ç) and ligatures (two letters combined together, for example œ). Note that letters with diacritics or ligatures don’t count as separate letters in the French alphabet.

Activity 1 French diacritics

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Do you know which of the following letters with diacritics or ligatures are used in the French language? Try and select the five correct ones. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer, have a go anyway: you’ll get feedback about how many are right/wrong and you can keep trying.

a. 

é


b. 

â


c. 

ø


d. 

ç


e. 

ñ


f. 

æ


g. 

ï


h. 

å


i. 

ß


j. 

š


The correct answers are a, b, d, f and g.

French uses the following diacritics and ligatures:

Table 1 French diacritics and ligatures
English term French term How to write

acute accent

accent aigu

é

grave accent

accent grave

à è ù

circumflex accent

accent circonflexe

â ê î ô û

diaeresis

tréma

ë ï ü

cedilla

cédille

ç

ligature

e dans l’a / a–e entrelacés / a–e liés

e dans l’o / o–e entrelacés / o–e liés

æ

œ

The most frequently used ones are the acute, grave and circumflex accents. When you learn French vocabulary, you will need to remember whether words are spelt with any accents. With some practice it will become second nature!

Some of the diacritics in French are used to indicate different pronunciations of the same letters. You will learn how to distinguish and pronounce them when you start learning French. In Week 5 you will do a taster activity about this.