(Warning: swear words and sexual content are in this question).

Learning French is the first time I'm learning a new language; because of this, I don't have any appreciate of how I recognize (in English) what meaning to understand a word, when it has multiple meanings. So, now that I am experiencing words in French that have multiple meanings, I don't know how people distinguish between them.

Here are some words I have experienced this with:

  • assez
    (eg, "- Est-ce que tu veux de la glace? - Oui, j'aime assez la glace";
    does it mean "Yes, I like ice cream enough [but not a great deal, so don't give me too much]",
    or "Yes, I quite like ice cream! [so give me plenty, please!]")
  • toujours
    (eg, "Désolé, je suis toujours malade";
    does it mean "Sorry, I'm still sick", or "Sorry, I'm always sick")

And now I just discovered a new ambiguous word as I'm reading a [erotic fiction] short story:

  • "Je rentrais du tennis. Comme d'habitude, après une bonne heure intense, je suis assez chaud et j'ai envie de baiser mon copain"; does he want to kiss his friend, or fuck his friend? Both meanings make sense in this context.

My general question is "How does a person distinguish between meanings, when a word has more than one?". In each of these examples, context alone does not seem sufficient. Is this a case where some meanings are just more used than others, but you would have to be immersed in the culture to understand which is more often used? Are there reference resources that can help me understand?

A comment indicated that "Désolé, je suis toujours malade" probably does not mean "Sorry, I am always sick", because tout le temps would more commonly be used to express that meaning; thus, context is not the only thing a person uses to distinguish meaning.

Is there a reference that would help me look up information such as "toujours" rarely meaning "still", or tell me how words (and phrases) are usually used, unlike a dictionary which lists all meanings of a word without indicating how often they are typically used?

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    In any case I don't see how this is a language about French specifically. This problem exists in every natural language.
    – N.I.
    Commented Apr 7, 2018 at 16:41
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    @Améraldor C'était peut-être en Belgique alors... Ou un autre pays francophone... J'admets sans problème que j'ai pu me tromper.
    – N.I.
    Commented Apr 7, 2018 at 20:49
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    I ask myself how do I know these things, aside from contextual cues, is it really that I know that toujours rarely means still, or that encore is better; is it that I know that baiser very rarely means kiss unless there is a reference to a hand or body part or is it that it's more typical with avoir envie de that embrasser would follow for kissing, but wouldn't I end up with collocations about auxiliairy verbs relating to the frequency of topics etc. I would need a lexical cue at baiser that embrasser is more typical with the notion of wanting to kiss... Thanks!
    – user3177
    Commented Apr 7, 2018 at 21:03
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    @Améraldor: indeed, I wonder if such dictionary/reference (that talks about, for example, comparing usage between baiser and embrasser) even exists! But your comment does present more clarity about this question of "what are the different ways that fluent speakers subconsciously use context to figure out meaning?"
    – silph
    Commented Apr 7, 2018 at 21:08
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    I doubt that there are resources specifically designed to help figuring out which meaning to pick when a word has more than one. Doing it is actually a common situation with most if not all natural languages, as already stated by @Najib yesterday. For example the English adverb hardly has at least two opposite meanings, the most intuitive one for foreign learners being archaic. Identifying what means what in some context is part of the basic learning of any language, not just French.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 14:46

2 Answers 2


— Est-ce que tu veux de la glace ? — Oui, j'aime assez la glace

To a native French, this is clearly enough context:

  • “Would you like some ice cream?” “Yes, I like ice cream quite a bit

« Désolé, je suis toujours malade »

Well, this is a bit more ambiguous, but depending on who is saying it, one should be able to quickly decide on the most likely meaning of it, extreme cases being some athletic young person, strongly built but looking tired or greenish (then we’d lean towards still sick), or some weak old person struggling to make more than a few steps (then quite possibly in a semi-permanent state of weakness).

Also and importantly, as Améraldor rightfully pointed out in the comments, the way toujours is pronounced would usually be a perfect clue as to how to interpret it:

  • Désolé, je suis TOU-jours malade ! (TOU- louder and/or higher pitched)
    Désolé, je suis TOU-JOURS malade ! (TOU-JOURS louder and/or higher pitched)
    Désolé, je suis touuujouuurs malade ! (toujours longer, sometimes also higher pitched)
    → Sorry, I am AL-ways sick!
  • Désolé, je suis toujours malade !
    → Sorry, I am still sick!

There has been comments made about a statistical way of finding the meaning of the sentence, claming that the version “always sick” would usually be worded “tout le temps malade”, so therefore “toujours malade” should be “still sick”.

I am unsure what dataset was used to make these claims, and they may be valid, but as far as I am concerned, I would use “toujours” most of the time. There are therefore limitations to this method, and the tone method pointed out by Améraldor is a lot more reliable in my opinion, since it would work even for particular individual whose choice of words might be off the claimed standard.

« Je rentrais du tennis. Comme d'habitude, après une bonne heure intense, je suis assez chaud et j'ai envie de baiser mon copain. »

Well, after an hour of tennis, and intense tennis that is, the need for a two-second interaction through kissing a boyfriend, or more generally a lover, would be a weird one to express. Though the longer type of interaction, the one unambiguously meant here, is also somewhat weird to express to a third-party.

And as mentioned in the comments below, the verb baiser is nowadays used mostly, if not exclusively, to indicate a sexual intercourse. It is perhaps the only acception used in Europe (I’m not sure, but the comment makes it sound like it), but in Quebec, the other acception (to give a kiss) is still used, though not as widely as before, and not in the majority of the cases anymore either. I was pointing in that rought direction when I used the word unambiguously, but it might have been a little too discrete to do the work. So here is the full statement. Thanks to Jeremy Grand.

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    I appreciate the additional explanation on the "toujours" example. It is helping me to realize that, when learning any second language, figuring out meaning based on context is not a straightforward thing to do for all words that have different meanings.
    – silph
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 21:34
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    @silph So true. When learning English, I was struggling to make sense of the words, trying from them to understand the context, or how people that had a different perspective than mine on the world were judging the current situation. Ultimately, it would have been easier to go the other way: we as humans shared a lot more than I thought at the time, and judging on the situation to understand the words might have been an easier way to go. Best of lucks to you with French! Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 23:33
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    L'exemple avec toujours malade je me dis qu'un sujet qui n'a pas été abordé c'est comment on le prononce, l'intonation etc. j'ai l'impression qu'en étirant le toujours ou en accentuant ou en rehaussant ses deux syllabes on met l'accent sur l'aspect répétitif, la fréquence etc. Merci !
    – user3177
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 7:00
  • @Améraldor Très vrai! Je modifierai sous peu pour inclure cette très pertinente remarque. Merci. Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 17:05
  • je pense que pour souligner côté répétitif, tout le temps est plus adapté, et sera la forme la plus utilisée. Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 9:34

Based on my experience, the answer is in your question:

Is this a case where some meanings are just more used than others, but you would have to be immersed in the culture to understand which is more often used?

In my Country (Cameroon), French and English are national languages (Here we use to say "Cameroon is bilingual not cameroonians :D ). We also learn German and Spanish at school as LV 2 = Langue Vivante 2.

I will underline Vivante which means you need to live a language to learn it well.

The two needs of a language are Grammar and Vocabulary and, I don't believe you will be able to get your Vocabulary from books.

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