This isn't quite a first look, since I already have some experience with French, but that doesn't mean I can't still do a basic exploration of the language as I would do with any other language I don't know.
French is an official language in 29 countries. It is spoken by 136 million people as a primary language, by 190 million people as a second language, and perhaps another 200 million people as an acquired foreign language.
It ranks #2 (behind English) among the world's most influential languages, and is among the 8 on my "complete world traveler" language list. The French language has also had a significant influence on English, including thousands of loan-words which are used every day.
General characteristics of French
I already wrote a brief introduction to the French alphabet, so I won't go back into great detail about that again. In short, the French alphabet is a Latin alphabet similar to that of English, but with a few extra decorations for some of the vowels. The R's are throaty, as in English and German, rather than rolled as in many other langauges.
The most interesting aspect of French pronunciation is the dropping of consonant endings. Actually, I'm not an expert speaker of French, and I don't have much experience hearing it spoken by native speakers, but I suspect that these endings aren't completely dropped, but rather severely de-voiced. (If a reader could give me some clarity on this, I would greatly appreciate it!)
French grammar is very similar to that of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, owing to their shared Latin roots. But the similarities are most striking with Italian, with which the French language shares more than 90% of its vocabulary.
A typical Romance language, French uses a standard subject-verb-object (SVO) structure. It has an extensive system of verb conjugations to reflect any of more than a dozen verb tenses, moods, etc. A T-V distinction exists to show proper respect to people who are not familiar.
There is no declension, so word order is important and determines the role of each noun in a sentence. Nouns are generally preceded by articles, and there is both a definite and an indefinite article. The French language has two genders — masculine and feminine. Articles, nouns, and adjectives must all agree in gender and plurality.
Overall, it's the pronunciation that I find most interesting about French. I love to read it out loud, even when I don't understand what I'm saying, because I enjoy the art of dropping endings and adding them back when the next word starts with a vowel. When you're doing it right, you know it intuititvely, because there is a poetic, musical quality to the language.
Of course it's hard to do it right. In addition to the pronounciation — which is challenging enough already — French also has an even stress. This is very difficult for an English speaker, because we're so accustomed to stressed syllables in all multisyllabic words. I believe it's this even stress that gives the language its romantic, seductive quality.
All in all, it's an excellent language to learn, and one that I certainly wish I knew better than I currently do... but all things come in their time. I will certainly have my opportunity to improve my French in due time. And it's nice to know that this year's Italian studies are possibly helping that!