Asking yes/no questions in French
Simple yes/no questions are of immense importance when learning a language, particularly when it comes to taking those language skills abroad. Being able to ask even basic questions such as 'can you help me?' or 'do you have directions to ...?' can not only be useful, but of fundamental importance, alleviating the stress that can occur when travelling in regions dominated by non-English speakers, forcing those unlearned in foreign languages to resort to mime. There are three ways to phrase yes/no questions in French, the first of which simply builds upon verb skills and relies on changes in intonation.
1. In speech, statements are characterised by falling intonation, whilst questions, conversely, are signalled by a rise in intonation. When we ask a question in English, our voices naturally rise at the end in a tonal alteration that is also employed when asking questions in French. In spoken, colloquial French, a yes/no question can simply be formed through basic verb conjugation and an employment of this tonal shift. For example, the phrase, 'vous aimez le sport' (involving the verb aimer-to like) translates to 'you like sport.' This statement is easily turned into a question by ending it with a rise in intonation and, whilst not really acceptable in formal or written French, is certainly the simplest way to ask something of someone. Another example is 'il travaille dans un restaurant' - 'he works in a restaurant', (involving the verb travailler-to work), with the tonal rise altering the statement to a question.
2. In French, questions are also posed by inserting the phrase est-ce que into the beginning of the sentence. This is an untranslatable tag that is simply utilised in the formation of inquiries. To ask the questions used above in this different format, 'vous aimez le sport?' becomes 'est-ce que vous aimez le sport?' and 'il travaille dans un restaurant' becomes 'est-ce qu'il travaille dans un restaurant?' Questions in this format are frequently used in spoken French, but can also appear in written documents.
(Notice how in the second example the phrase est-ce que becomes est-ce qu'. This is because in French when two vowels are placed next to each other, one at the end of a word and the other at the beginning, an elision is made by dropping the final vowel of the first word and linking it to the second via an apostrophe.)
3. The category of yes/no question that most frequently appears in the written word is the form involving the inversion of the subject and the verb. The statement 'vous aimez le sport', for example, utilises the verb aimer-to like, and the subject vous-you. When we invert these, the phrase becomes 'aimez-vous le sport?', literally translating to, 'like you sport?' or, as we would say, 'do you like sport?' Similarly, 'il travaille dans un restaurant' converts to 'travaille-t-il dans un restaurant?' It is important to know that inversion does not normally occur with je (first person singular conjugation). For example, 'Je parle anglais'-'I speak English,' would not become 'Parle-je anglais?' It is also useful to understand that the usage of a person's name rather than the pronouns 'il-he' or 'elle-she' still requires the insertion of the pronoun. For example, to say 'Does Alex work in a restaurant?' the inverted question in French would read, 'Alex travaille-t-il dans un restaurant?'
(Note how the second and fourth examples place a 't' between the inversion of the subject and verb. The insertion of this 't' must, for phonetic purposes, occur in inversions taking place in the third person singular - pronouns il and elle - when the verb ends in an 'e'.)
Some possible questions:
Does she speak French?:
- Elle parle français?
- Est-ce qu'elle parle français?
- Parle-t-elle français?
Do you eat meat?:
- Vous mangez viande?
- Est-ce que vous mangez viande?
- Mangez-vous viande?
Can you help me?:
- Vous pouvez m'aider?
- Est-ce que vous pouvez m'aider?
- Pouvez-vous m'aider?
Do you have directions to Boulevard Street?:
- Vous avez des directions à la Rue de Boulevard?
- Est-ce que vous avez des directions à la Rue de Boulevard?
- Avez-vous des directions à la Rue de Boulevard?
Can we walk to the hotel?
- Nous pouvons marcher à l'hôtel?
- Est-ce que nous pouvons marcher à l'hôtel?
- Pouvons-nous marcher à l'hôtel?
Does Laura like singing?
- Laura aime chanter?
- Est-ce que Laura aime chanter?
- Laura aime-t-elle chanter?