Language can be a funny thing especially when it isn’t your native tongue. When you study abroad in France, you’ll make mistakes in French. This is completely natural. The best advice I can give is to not be afraid to speak and correct the mistake when you can. Let’s take a look at some common mistakes Anglophones make when speaking French.
I’m sad therefore I rain
A similar spelling between words doesn’t mean they have similar meanings. An example of this is the verb to cry (pleurer) and to rain (pleuvoir). Although the first four letters are the same, the meanings of these two verbs convey two different actions, albeit wet ones. Many Anglophones make the mistake of saying je pleut (“I rain”) instead of saying je pleure (“I cry”). This is a silly error that I have made numerous times myself. To this day, when I want to talk about rain or emotions, I think a moment before speaking.
The romantic languages (French, Spanish, Italian) have 2 forms of “you”. In French the form “tu” is used for 1 person that you are familiar with and “vous” is used for 2 or more people as well as 1 person with whom you are not friends (ex: stranger or a professor). Many American students make the cultural and linguistic no-no of addressing their French professor as “tu”. This is considered disrespectful and depending upon how old and moody your professor is you may be scolded. To avoid this, address everyone older than you with “vous” and you’ll never be wrong.
French and English share a linguistic lineage and that is why many words in French look like English words. However, many of these similar looking words are false friends meaning they look like a word that you know but have a different meaning. Here is a quick list of the most common false friends in French that you will run into:
- un nom– last name, not first name
- une librairie– bookstore not library
- une bibliothèque– library
- un college-high school not college
- l’université or faculté (or more casual fac)- college
- le baccalauréat– high school exam not bachelors degree
- la licence– Bachelor’s degree
- un permit– license
- les bras– arms
- un soutien-gorge -bra (female undergarment)
- demander– to ask
Watch your language!
You may be wondering what cursing is doing on the list of common language mistakes. It has a genuine place, I assure you. Cursing is different in every language. Most curse words and expressions are not translatable. Because they are completely different, their meaning may not always stay with you. I know that for me, I don’t always realize the heaviness of what I said because there isn’t a relatable translation in English. When you are with your French college classmates and friends, you may hear certain expressions or words and start to adopt them in your own language use. Be careful to not always repeat what you say with your friends around your professors, host family, or loudly in public. Just because the words might not be offensive to you doesn’t mean that it isn’t offensive to others.
Enunciation is Key
As you get more comfortable with speaking French, your speed will increase. Sometimes a quicker speed can result in more mumbled speech. This can lead to embarrassing situations, especially if the new pronunciation has a more ‘romantic’ meaning. Let’s look 2 examples of how not enunciating can get the wrong message across. The first example comes from Judy at Ma Vie Française®. She warns that if you’re not careful pronouncing beacoup (many), you could end up saying beau cul which is nice butt! This would be really embarrassing if you were at a store and trying to tell the cashier that you want many of the same item but end up complimenting her derrière. The second example is one I witnessed in French class. An American student wanted to say baisser (to lower) but ended up saying baiser (which is a more vulgar way of saying “to hook up”). You could give someone the wrong idea if you only wanted to have something lowered and not hook up with them.
It can be intimidating to speak another language. The possibilities for mistakes are endless. Studying abroad will be your first experience actually living and speaking French continuously. Mistakes, or as I like to refer to them, learning curves, are going to happen. Do not be afraid to make mistakes, but apply corrections when you can and practice think before you speak to avoid really embarrassing situations.
Andrea Bouchaud is the author of Twenty in Paris: A Young American Perspective of Studying Abroad in Paris available on Amazon. Follow her on twitter at @twentyinparis for more tips, articles and advice on study abroad.