No one likes to get caught in an embarrassing language blunder.
When you’re a learner, however, it’s bound to happen at some point.
Mixing up words that sound alike, confusing your tenses, losing your accent…we’ve all been there!
But while making a mistake can feel like the worst thing in the world when it’s happening, it can actually teach us a surprising amount about the language we’re learning.
While French and English have many similarities and common points, some of them surprising, there are also a number of essential rules that differ between the two. From time to time, it’s easy to get your wires crossed!
Although there’s no need to panic if this happens, familiarizing yourself with some of the most common mistakes can help you perfect your French and avoid social awkwardness.
Before we get into those common mistakes, let’s take a look at what areas of French are generally the most challenging for learners.
Tricky Parts of French That Might Trip You Up
When you’re learning French, it’s likely that you’ll hear a lot about “false friends,” but as a beginner, you might not be sure what these actually are.
Faux amis, or false cognates, are words that look the same as their English equivalents, but actually have completely different meanings. It can be easy to assume that, by applying a French accent, we can communicate the same thing, but some of the time, this simply isn’t the case.
There are many common false friends to look out for, such as monnaie (change), librairie (bookshop) and coin (corner).
You’ll pick up on the majority of these over time, so don’t worry if you make a mistake earlier on!
One of the biggest differences between the French and English languages is the use of gendered words. While the English language only applies genders to people identified as having a gender, the French language uses it alongside all nouns and articles.
For example, singular indefinite articles un (a/an) and une (a/an) in French refer to an unspecified person or thing, and must agree with the noun they are modifying.
If you’re talking about a single amount of something, such as un livre (a book) or une pomme (an apple), you’ll use the singular indefinite article.
The masculine indefinite article un is used before nouns that are masculine in this form while the feminine indefinite une presents nouns that are feminine.
As well as this, possessive adjectives like “my,” “your” and “his/her” have a gender that must agree with the nouns they modify. In the masculine form, these are written as mon/ton/son (my/your/his), and in the feminine form as ma/ta/sa (my/your/her).
At the same time, nouns also have masculine, feminine and plural forms, which are most easily detected when they’re written down.
The noun “cousin” in French appears in its masculine form as cousin, its feminine form as cousine and its plural form as cousins.
So depending on the gender of your cousin, you would use either the masculine or feminine article to describe them, alongside the matching masculine or feminine noun.
Therefore, a female cousin would be described as “ma cousine” (my cousin) or “une cousine” (a cousin).
These rules generally apply to most French nouns and articles, but in some instances, the gender of the articles or possessive adjectives used can change: Generally, when a feminine word starts with a vowel, it will take the masculine article or adjective instead. More on this below!
Trying to translate from English to French
Direct translations from English to French work from time to time, but more often than not, they can end up sounding a little clunky to French natives. While using a literal French translation of an English statement can work if you’re really in a bind, for the most part it pays to really think about how wording might differ between the languages.
For example, while French and English use the verbs avoir (to have) and être (to be) in many similar cases, there are some which differ. For example, when describing your age in English, you can say “I’m 30 years old.” But in French, you would say “J’ai 30 ans” (I have 30 years).
Although French people will be able to understand what you’re saying either way, learning differences like these at an early stage can really pay off and make the language much easier down the line.
If you’re learning French and are worried about making mistakes, don’t be! When learning anything new, everyone makes mistakes of some kind. Having perfect control over the language is something that will only come to you over time. Sometimes, making errors is the only way to really progress!
However, increasing your awareness of the most common (and therefore easily avoidable) mistakes that learners make is one of the best ways to improve your understanding of French. So let’s take a look at some of those possible flubs below.
Was It Something I Said? 9 Common French Mistakes Learners Make
1. Translating “I miss you” directly
If you’re staying in France as a foreigner, then it’s likely you’re going to miss something or someone from home at some point. When saying “I miss ___” in French, however, you need to take care.
The verb manquer (to miss) uses a different sentence construction in French, and saying “Je te manque” actually means “you miss me” rather than “I miss you.”
To our English-language minds, manquer messes with the word order in a sentence. It switches around the subject and the speaker. If you want to say “I miss you” in French, you would say “Tu me manques.”
While getting to grips with the word order can be difficult, there’s an easy way to remember this: “Tu me manques” can be translated as “You are missing to me,” which puts the speaker and the subject in the correct positions.
Putting your nearest and dearest in the prime spot in the sentence will help you to no end; they are the most important thing, after all!
2. Saying “ma amie”
Talking about a friend in French might seem like one of the easiest things you can do, but it actually messes with the gender agreements more than you would think.
In many cases, words that begin with a vowel sound are preceded with a consonant in French. While saying “ma amie” might seem like the grammatically correct way to describe a female friend, when spoken aloud, it just doesn’t sound right.
To describe a male friend in French, you might say “mon ami” (my friend). It would therefore make sense to use the feminine possessive adjective ma (my) when describing a female friend, but for this word, something different happens.
Running two vowel sounds together does not happen often in the French language. In order to flow when spoken aloud, feminine nouns that start with a vowel actually take the masculine possessive adjective (mon).
So in order to talk about a female friend (amie), you would say “mon amie,” running the final consonant sound into the first vowel. While the feminine noun amie refers to the gender of the person being spoken about, the masculine possessive mon is put it place in order to create a liaison between the words when they are spoken aloud.
Regardless of gender, you must use mon to mean “my” in front of the word ami(e). You can’t hear the difference in spoken French, but you can see it when it’s written down: A male friend will be written as “mon ami,” rather than the feminine “mon amie.”
The French language might be gender-specific, but when it comes to your buddies, it’s all-inclusive!
3. Mixing up rencontrer and retrouver
The verb rencontrer (to meet) might seem simple enough, but in fact, it’s used only in very specific circumstances. While you might be tempted to use it in all examples of “meetings,” it specifically describes bumping into someone on the street, meeting someone by chance or meeting them for the first time.
If you want to talk about meeting up with your friends on purpose, then you must use the verb retrouver (to find).
The best way to remember the difference between the two words is to activate your inner detective and imagine every meeting as a sleuth-like mission. When you make your way out to meet your friends, you must find them in the crowd and pinpoint their location. Reunited, you can have your meeting or appointment!
4. Confusing pour and pendant
In English, we typically describe periods of time using the word “for.” When talking about how long we have lived in a city, for example, we will say “I have lived here for five years.”
Although the word pour (for) in French is deceptively similar to its English counterpart, it isn’t always used in the same way. The French language does not use “for” when describing periods of time, instead relying on pendant (during) to do the talking.
When you have listened to French people speaking English, it’s likely that you have heard them say something like “I was in Paris during five years.” This is a great way to understand how they use pendant and an interesting insight into literal translation in reverse.
While pendant can be used to describe the majority of time frames, there’s one crucial anomaly: If you want to refer to a future time frame, you can use pour.
For example, to say “I’m leaving for three weeks,” you would say “Je pars pour trois semaines.” It might seem a little confusing at first, but after a few goes at it, you’ll be correctly using pour and pendant without a second thought!
5. Jumbling up c’est and il/elle est
In French, it’s all about the little details and even though simple phrases like “it is” can seem simple, it pays to take care when describing specific things.
Both c’est and il/elle est can be used to say “it is” or “he/she is,” but are applied in very different circumstances.
Typically, c’est can be used in two situations: before masculine adjectives to describe general conditions and before articles like un (a/an) or le (the).
In the first instance, c’est could be used if you want to describe how something looks or feels. For example, by saying “C’est beau ici” (It’s beautiful here). As beau is the masculine form of “beautiful,” you can use c’est when making the statement.
As well as this, c’est can be used before articles like un/une (a/an) or le/la/les (the). If describing a specific object or person using an article, you can use c’est beforehand. For example, you might say “C’est un bon professeur de français” (He’s a good French teacher) or “C’est une bonne amie à moi” (She’s a good friend to me).
On the other hand, il and elle can be used when there’s no article in the sentence. To say “She is beautiful,” you would say “Elle est belle,” or to say that something is broken, you might say “Il est en panne.”
6. Not understanding penser à vs. penser de
When you’re learning French, you might yearn for the ability to send your nearest and dearest long, heartfelt letters, penned in one of the most romantic languages in the world.
Saying that you’re thinking about someone, in French, can be a really touching thing to do, but unless you get your grammar right, you could be making a big mistake.
While in English, we would say “I’m thinking of you,” the French language doesn’t work in the same way. In order to express the same sentiment, you would need to say “Je pense à toi” (I’m thinking at you).
On the other hand, if you wish to ask what somebody thinks about you, you can ask, “Qu’est-ce que tu penses de moi?” (What do you think of me?)
7. Misplacing adjectives
One of the first things we learn in French is that when using adjectives, the word order is changed.
We’re taught that while English places adjectives before nouns, French does the opposite.
It turns out, however, that it’s not quite so clear cut! In some instances, the French language follows the same word order rules as English.
While most French words use the traditional sentence structure of placing a noun before an adjective, there are a number of French adjectives that appear before the noun they modify. The most common adjectives that come before the noun are:
Bon — good
Mauvais — bad
Petit — small
Grand — big
Joli — pretty
If you want to describe a pretty girl, then, you’re perfectly right to say “la jolie fille,” rather than “la fille jolie.”
While these are exceptions, rather than the rule, it’s important to remember which adjectives come before a noun. As soon as you see one in a text, or hear one spoken out loud, try to make a note of it and remember it for the future. Doing so will improve your French to no end!
8. Using visiter to talk about paying someone a visit
Paying a visit to someone in France might just be the best way to improve your conversational skills, but you have to make sure you know how to describe the act itself! While you might be tempted to say “Je vais visiter ma grand-mère” for “I’m going to visit my grandma,” it won’t get you very far in French.
Instead, you would be much better off using rendre visit à (to pay a visit to) in order to communicate the same thing. Visiter can only be used in specific circumstances, such as when you’re visiting a place or attraction, rather than a person.
9. Using attendre for “to attend”
If you’re lucky enough to attend a conference in French, then you’ll probably want to brag about it. The problem is, simply saying “J’ai attendu une conférence” doesn’t communicate “I attended a conference.”
While it might sound similar to the English word, in French, attendre is actually another false friend that means “to wait.” If you want to say that you attended something, you must say “J’ai assisté à…”
Making a mistake in French might seem like the end of the world, but when it comes to your comprehension, it can be incredibly useful.
Embarrassing conversational blunders can stick with us for much longer than the best French lessons, reminding us to pay attention to specific parts of the language.
So while taking note of the above will definitely help you get your French right, it’s also important to remember that everyone slips up from time to time.
The best thing is to correct yourself, pick yourself back up and get back on that language learning road!
And One More Thing…
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