If you’re learning French, trying to keep track of all of the rules while you’re just trying to have a conversation can be frustrating. Here are some of the biggest mistakes Anglophones make when speaking French, and how to work on fixing them:
If you’re talking to people you don’t know well, or worse, one of your French professors, this is probably one of the worst mistakes you can make. While people used to working with second language learners and English speakers will probably let it slide, some, especially in the older generation, will be slightly offended.
In other words, if you’re planning on studying abroad in France, vouvoiement is the ONE thing you MUST master before you leave.
In fact, using “vous” isn’t harder than using “tu” – it’s just hard to remember to do it since there’s no equivalent in English, and Americans especially tend to be very familiar with each other. Not the French. They’ll use vous for years before passing to tu, and find it perfectly normal.
So how do you go about solidifying your vous? If you’re currently in a language class, ask your teacher to have a weekly Formal Day, in which all students use vous with each other. We did this in an Italian class I took in college, and it really helped make the formals come more naturally. You should also use vous with your teacher and anyone in the French department at all times, even if they allow you to use “tu.” And finally, when you do your French grammar homework, practice saying all of the sample sentences aloud using vous instead of the prescribed subject. By practicing a few minutes per week, you should master the vous in no time.
2. Emphasizing words in French like you’re speaking English.
One of the most egregious errors Anglophones often make is trying to emphasize different words to add meaning to a sentence, as you can easily do in English. Take the following example:
I ALready ASKED her if she was coming.
If you try to say it in French like you do in English, you’d come up with this:
Je lui ai DEja deMANdé si elle allait venir.
Except nobody would understand what you’re trying to say. In French, the emphasis on different syllables must stay the same, and you have to use other ways to convey emphasis. In this case, the emphasis is trying to show annoyance, which can be shared through tone of voice and how quickly you say the sentence (faster = more annoyed, as if you were snapping).
So how do you break this habit of speaking French like it’s English? Practice. Listen to French people, to see how they emphasize different ideas and emotions when speaking. Sometimes they add verbal clutches to indicate surprise: “Bah, je ne comprends pas, je lui ai déjà demandé si elle allait venir.” Other times, it’s strictly tone of voice, pacing, and facial expression. Try practicing with friends or in the mirror, saying certain expressions with different emotions: surprise, anger, happiness, or try recording your voice saying certain things and then listening to and evaluating how you sound. Speaking like a French person, in manner and expression, is one of the most difficult nuances to master in French, so don’t worry if you don’t get it right away. It will come.
3. Overlooking the Subjunctive mood.
Since the subjunctive doesn’t exist in English, we often forget to use it in French. French teachers who tell us “it’s a written tense” and “the French don’t even know how to use the subjunctive” don’t help the situation. And besides, they’re flat-out wrong. French people can and do use the subjunctive regularly and correctly, especially if they’re college educated.
First things first. How do you make the subjunctive?
- You take the 3rd person plural form of the verb in the present tense. So for aimer, it’s ils aiment. For choisir, it’s ils choisissent. For prendre, it’s ils prennent. And so on.
- Take off the -ent ending: aim-; choisiss-; prenn
- For the “boot” subjects (je, tu, il/elle, ils/elles) add the regular present tense endings: je choisisse, tu choisisses, il/elle choisisse, ils/elles choisissent.
- For the first and second person plural, add “-ions” and “-iez”: nous choisissions ; vous choisissiez
4. Forgetting your MRS. R.D. VANDERTRAMP verbs.
The rules for deciding whether to use être or avoir as an auxiliary for a past tense verb are relatively simple, but easy to forget. Use avoir with all verbs, except reflexive (se maquiller, s’habiller, se rendre compte, etc.) and Mrs. RD Vandertramp verbs. Here’s a list:
M- mourir: to die…Je suis mort(e)
R- retourner: to return…Je suis retourné(e)
S- sortir: to go out…Je suis sorti(e)
R- revenir: to come back….Je suis revenu(e)
D- descendre: to go down…Je suis descendu(e)
V- venir: to come…Je suis venu(e)
A- aller: to go…Je suis allé(e)
N- naître: to be born…Je suis né(e)
D- devenir: to become…Je suis devenu(e)
E- entrer: to enter…Je suis entré(e)
R- rester: to stay…Je suis resté(e)
T- tomber: to fall (down)…Je suis tombé(e)
R- rentrer: to re-enter…Je suis rentré(e)
A- arriver: to arrive…Je suis arrivé(e)
M- monter: to go up…Je suis monté(e)
P- partir: to leave…Je suis parti(e)
Now here’s where it gets complicated:
- Verbs based on Mrs. RD Vandertramp verbs also use être, even if they’re not on the list. This means verbs like repartir, retomber, remonter, redescendre, etc. all use être because they are derived from words on the Vandertramp list.
- All reflexive verbs and verbs that use être must agree with the subject. So, because I’m female, I use “je me suis habillée,” “je suis allée chez le coiffeur,” and “je suis née en 1987.”
- EXCEPT when there’s a direct object involved. Then the rules get crazy. For example, you can’t say, “je suis descendue l’escalier,” it’s “j’ai descendu l’escalier.” Similarly, it’s j’ai sorti la poubelle.
- And even though se rendre compte is reflexive, you never make rendre agree with the subject because of the direct object “compte” that follows: je me suis rendu compte (no matter whether you’re one man or seven women) and similarly, je me suis fait piquer par la moustique (in this case, it’s a complement, not a direct object, but the same rule applies).
5. Not putting your adjectives in the right place.
In English, there’s only one option for adjective placement, and it’s always before the noun. You can’t say “an awesome house” or “a house awesome” depending on what you mean.
In French, though, some adjectives ALWAYS go before the noun, some ALWAYS go after, and sometimes adjective placement is determined partly by the adjective you choose, and partly by what you mean by the adjective.
In general, the rule is this: objective adjectives go after the noun, subjective adjectives, generally ones related to size, physical beauty, age, “goodness”, and numbers go before the noun. So it’s “une grande maison bleue,” “ma vieille maison,” “la première écharpe que j’ai achetée,” “une belle écharpe” or “une écharpe rose.” But there are some exceptions, as you can’t say, “une laide écharpe,” – it’s “une écharpe laide.”
There are some adjectives that add a specific nuance to a sentence depending on whether they are before or after the noun. For example, “l’homme pauvre” is a man without a lot of money, while “le pauvre homme,” is a man to whom something bad has just happened. Similarly, “mon ancien prof de français” and “mon prof de français ancien” are two totally different things – the first means “my former professor,” while the second means “my ancient professor!” Don’t mess that one up. And “ma cuisine propre” is my clean kitchen, while “ma propre cuisine” is my own kitchen.
Finally, some adjectives become part of certain nouns to take on a different meaning. “Une petite fille” is a young girl, while “ma petite fille” means the granddaughter of the person who’s talking; you can’t really say “une fille petite,” you’d say “une fille plutôt petite” or “assez petite,” or “de taille petite,” to show you mean “small” rather than “young.”
6. Using English words when you don’t know the French word.
It’s not too hard to imagine why using English words in French when you don’t know the French word might be a bad idea. A friend of mine, who is allergic to beets (bettraves, in French), once told her fiancé’s family: “je suis allergique aux beets.” They looked at her strangely, and couldn’t help laughing, since “bite” in French is a vulgar word for the male genitalia.
And French teachers around the Anglophone world warn their students about saying they dislike food with “beaucoup de préservatifs,” since the word does NOT mean preservatives, but condoms. I don’t like condoms in my food, either.
So unless you’re speaking French with people who speak English well and who will know what you mean, play it safe and look up a word if you don’t know it.