It's interesting that in French and Spanish "les [noun]" can refer to either the general category of [noun] or a specific set of [noun].
For instance, "les enfants sont jolies" can mean either "the children are pretty" (referring to a specific set of children) or "children are pretty" (the general class of children).
I guess it's just context that determines which interpretation to take.
Jmromer, this is an interesting observation. Does anyone know whether we could use "Des enfants sont jolies" to mean "Children are pretty"? Which is better to refer to a general group (or non-specific group) of children in French : "Les enfants sont jolies" or "Des enfants sont jolies"?
Les enfants is used when referring to a specific group of children. It is also used when referring to a general group of children.
Les enfants = those children right there
Des enfants = some children but not all
Les enfants = all the children in the world, all members of a community or group of children.
If you know you are referring to all the students in the class then you use les. If you don't know then you use des.
Les enfants (all the children) in that class are noisy. Des enfants (some of the children) in that class are noisy. Les enfants (just that particular group of children we talked about earlier) are noisy.
Which is better depends on context, what the speaker is trying to say.
It's a problem for English speakers because we just drop the article any time we feel like doing so and leave it up to the reader/ listener to figure out what was meant. Because we drop the article we haven't developed an article that expresses generality.
But in French you can't just drop an article, it has to be included. Unfortunately, they didn't develop an article for generality either. They just gave le/ la/ les a dual role.
Elephants are both "grands" (tall) and "gros" (fat/heavy). But since they are tall anyway, the French usually say they are "gros" if it is about male adults, if that has any relevance, as in the case of comparison between African elephants and Asian elephants, for example.
Le éléphant = hard to say because one word ends in vowel and the next starts with vowel thus l'éléphant.
les éléphants = easy to say because one word ends in consonant and next starts with vowel.
The process of dropping one of the vowels and joining the two words together with an apostrophe is called elision and is used where ever the condition comes about. H is often silent in French and is considered a vowel for the purposes of elision.
We are not at school, so you can use a dictionary: