Classic Mistakes When Learning French

Learning a new language can certainly seem like a daunting and overwhelming task. Getting your head around all that grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation is challenging enough. Yet when it boils down to a one-on-one conversation with a real French person, the mistakes we make are often of a much less academic, and much more embarrassing, nature. From faux amis to faux pas, below are some of the most common mistakes we tend to make and where to find out more about them.

False Friends

Perhaps the most infamous source of bilingual confusion comes in the form of the faux ami, or false friend, i.e. seemingly simple translations with often identical spelling which actually mean something else entirely. Sometimes as basic as understanding that the French "grand(e)" is a better fit for "big" than for "grand" or that "les bras" are your arms rather than the plural of your breast-supporting undergarment, these faux amis can also be to blame for much more embarrassing slip-ups.

Confessing to "avoir envie de quelqu’un", for example, could land you in a bit of a pickle when you’re understood to sexually desire this special someone rather than to simply envy their good fortunes. A better choice would be the verb "envier" ("je t’envie") - that is, unless you really are trying to execute some shameless sexual advances.

Among the numerous other deceptive mistranslations we could find ourselves making is the particularly treacherous "préservatif". For this term does not refer, as we may expect, to chemicals which allow us to keep our invisible crust bread or microwaveable burger in the cupboard for days on end, but rather to the delightful rubber blanket which prevents unwanted pregnancies. Asking at the supermarket if there are any of these in your food shopping will certainly get you a confused glance at the least.

For a more comprehensive list of false friends, have a look at this link:

Unintentionally Being Rude

For even the most well-mannered of English speakers, it can be dangerously easy to insult, annoy, or even scare a French person and remain completely unaware. Greetings are the first things we tend to get wrong and are crucial when it comes to giving good first impressions impression. The usual hug accompanied by "Hi, how are you?" does not go down well at all in France: a hug is far too intimate; "salut" is too informal, saved only for people you know well and "ça va?" is only used when you really want to know the answer, not simply as a way of greeting anyone and everyone. Instead, a handshake, a kiss on each cheek or a plain and simple "bonjour" will suffice. For more detailed advice on this, click here:

In addition to greetings, one of the trickiest things for native English speakers is the use of "tu/toi" and "vous". These two pronouns only have one translation in English, "you", making the two French options very easy to confuse. Unfortunately, picking the wrong form of these second person pronouns, namely "tu" in place of "vous", is one of our most common faux pas and is almost guaranteed to immediately offend a French person. For example, my friend once told me a story about how she raced from one end to the other of a bustling market in Paris, chasing down an old lady who had left her handbag at a stall, kindly attempting to return it to her. Having caught her up she asked "c'est à toi?" - the lady frowned, seized her bag and marched off. Although others might be more sympathetic such a situation, it’s still a good idea to get your tus and vous right. Check out this article for a full explanation:

Complete Misunderstandings

It's happened to all of us: you're in the middle of a conversation with a French native and all is going swimmingly until, suddenly, a string of words comes out of their mouth and you are left wondering what on earth they just said as they stare at you intently, awaiting your response. So, of course, you smile, you nod, you say "oui oui" and you pretend you understood everything perfectly.

At the time this seems a great deal less embarrassing than having to admit that you didn't understand and asking them to repeat themselves. However, as the conversation continues you become more and more lost, realising that the earlier sentence might have been crucial and being forced to confess that, in fact, you have absolutely no idea what's going on.

The majority of the time, politely asking someone to speak more slowly or just to clarify what they mean can save you many an awkward situation like this. After all, not much will make you seem more foreign than when you burst out laughing at a work colleague telling you about his most recent knee operation or answer "oui" when a charming Frenchman enquires about what expensive cocktail you fancy drinking next.

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