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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

VIDEO: The French accent and vocab of these 11 celebs rated

From Hollywood stars to world leaders, the list of famous people who speak le français is long (and their accents are sometimes to die for) - let's take a look at their overall competence.

VIDEO: The French accent and vocab of these 11 celebs rated
Actors Bradley Cooper, Emma Watson and Thimotée Chalamet have all spent a lot of time in France. Photo: Sarah MORRIS / Angela WEISS / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

1. Bradley Cooper

Before he played rugged hotties in Hollywood blockbusters, Bradley Cooper studied in Aix-en-Provence, south of France. Even if that was quite a while back – “oh là là, such long time ago,” the 46-year-old told TF1 back in 2019 (see clip below) – Cooper has maintained a pretty impressive French level.

Not only did Cooper accept an interview in French, he even cracked successful jokes – a feat any foreigner in France will know is to be admired.

The Local’s score – 8/10.

2. Emma Watson 

The British star is known worldwide for her role as the brilliant witch Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, but not everyone knows that she was born in Paris and spent her fist five years in the French capital.

She still speaks basic French, although her level remains a bit limited compared to Cooper’s, but she has said her New Year’s resolution is to master the language perfectly. (Although apparently it’s her resolution “every year,” so it may take a while before she becomes bilingue.) Hear her speak at the end of the clip below.

The Local’s score – 4/10.

3. Timothée Chalamet

Timothée Chalamet – whose breakthrough came as Elio in Call Me By Your Name, an exhilarating tale of two men who fall in love in picturesque Italian landscapes – is fluent in French.

The 25-year-old is French-American with a French dad and growing up often spent his summers in a small village close to Lyon. His French is presque parfait (near-perfect) and definitely worth a listen. He loses a point for saying “like” (in English) a few too many times.

The Local’s score – 9/10.

4. Serena Williams

Not just a kick-ass tennis player, Serena Williams also speaks an impressive amount of French. She even participated in the prestigious nighttime TV debate, C dans l’air, back in 2015 (see clip below). 

Williams fell in love with Alexis Ohanian, now her husband, in Paris. As they watched a leopard get fed a (dead) rabbit in the Jardin des Plantes, Ohanian put his arms around Williams to console her. And voilà. The couple has a daughter, Olympia, and a few years ago French media went nuts over this video where Williams teaches her French.

The Local’s score – 5/10.

5. Boris Johnson

Back in 2013, Boris Johnson said live on French television that he had “more chance to get beheaded by a frisbee or reincarnate as an olive, than to become prime minister.”

While that turned out not to be true, the PM’s linguistic skills were impressive, which has to do with his grandmother’s side of the family being French and Johnson spending his childhood in Brussels where his father, Stanley Johnson, worked at the European Commission. (Stanley later applied for French citizenship to maintain his ties with the European Union following Brexit.)

He gave several interviews in French while mayor of London but seems to be more reticent at speaking it now – even at a joint press conference in Paris with Emmanuel Macron and a load of French journalists in 2019 he resolutely stuck to English.

The Local’s score (for his language skills only, we’re saying nothing about his Brexit) – 7/10

6. Gwyneth Paltrow

Not only does she speak fluent Spanish, it turns out Gwyneth Paltrow speaks solid French, too. The American actress says she believes in hard work and allegedly only lets her kids watch French and Spanish telly. Impressive, but she needs to practice differences between masculine and feminine words.

The Local’s score – 5/10.

7. Johnny Depp 

Johnny Depp obviously had to pick up a bit of French when he dated French singer and actress Vanessa Paradis.

His accent is really good, although his vocabulary seems limited and he tends to refrain from saying more than two or three words at the time. Still, thumbs up for the excellent Rs.

The Local’s score – 6/10.

8. Helena Bonham Carter

Extraordinary Helena Bonham Carter speaks French like a boss and she even starred in a French film back in 1996.

There is French blood on her mother’s side of the family, and Bonham Carter told French press that she spent several holidays in Paris and in Rayaumont, in the Oise département north of Paris. Her French, like the actress, is magnificent.

The Local’s score – 9/10.

9. Mitt Romney

Years ago, the US ex presidential hopeful was lambasted for a campaign ad in which he spoke French. The video, shot during the organising of the 2002 Olympics, opened with the Republican Party’s frontrunner saying “Bonjour, je m’appelle Mitt Romney” (Hello, my name is Mitt Romney) while the French national anthem, la Marseillaise, played in the back.

Sadly, the video has since been removed, but you can hear Romney speak with a French-Canadian in the clip below. As Romney stresses, their accents differ, “because I lived in Paris” back in the 1960s, when he came to the capital as a Mormon missionary. Strong accent, though.

The Local’s score – 5/10.

10. Jodie Foster

Jodie Foster is so fluent that she has starred in a number of French films and also dubs her own films for French audiences. She went to a French-language prep school in Los Angeles and worked in France as a teenager, which has left her with an impeccable French. (She also speaks good Italian, German and Spanish.) Definitely the winner on the list.

The Local’s score – 10/10.

11. Hugh Grant

Hugh Grant’s mother was a French teacher who taught her son to speak basic French. While his accent is very British and his vocab limited, Grant’s boyish charm as usual turns an average performance into something quite enjoyable.

The Local’s score – 5/10.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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