Learning a new language involves mistakes – lots of them. Mistakes are inherent to learning language and you will notice that even native speakers of a language make mistakes as babies and need to be corrected. Learning language is a lot like learning music or dance, or playing sports. You just don’t begin by being ready to dance an evening-length ballet. You spend lots of time squeaking out notes on a violin before being able to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. And you miss many goals before actually making one.
Having said that, I'd like to point out the most common mistakes that learners of French make, since being aware of these can help us to move past them more quickly. In this way, we might be less likely to just grab at the tools available to us, which means falling back into patterns in the language(s) with which we are already familiar. I will discuss the most common mistakes made in pronunciation, grammar, and translation.
French has quite an even rhythm, which is very different from a language like English, in which one syllable within a word tends to be much more heavily accented than the rest. Even Italian, another Romance language that shares a lot of linguistic and literary tradition with French, places emphasis on specific syllables within words and phrases. Changes in pitch in French tend to be more gradual. To address this issue, pay close attention to the gradual rising and falling of native speakers’ voices over the course of an entire sentence. If you were to draw this, it would look like a continuous line traced in a gentle arc over the words of each sentence.
Some French learners make French sound a bit too Spanish. This could just be an issue in regions where neither language is dominant but where you would be more likely to hear Spanish than French. We love Spanish, but remember that French is a distinct language, needs a more even rhythm, less rolling of the r (although there are francophone regions where this occurs), and much more restraint from pronouncing final consonants. Most final consonants in French are not pronounced. The final consonants n and m, for instance, are there to indicate nasalized vowel sounds, as in the sentence “Un bon vin blanc”. In that last word, the final c does not indicate anything phonetic so, going backward from the end of the word, we have an n after an a, meaning that the a is nasalized.
French Consonants and Vowels
Another issue with French is over-aspirating consonants, which I cover in my article - French Pronunciation: The 4 Elements You Need to Master It. French consonants tend to be a lot less aspirated than languages such as English and Chinese. Gliding vowel sounds, which I cover in that same article, are another issue people have when pronouncing French. Try and maintain pure vowel sounds by keeping the tension in your vocal cavity for the duration of pronouncing the vowel.
French grammar has a reputation for being complex. Based on this reputation, we can assume that there are a lot of opportunities to make grammatical mistakes, but I will just focus on some of the frequent errors that learners make.
Using the wrong articles for words is one of the most common mistakes, especially among beginners, whose knowledge of the genders of nouns, determiners, adjectives, and pronouns, has not yet been reinforced by extensive exposure.
Using the correct article for a word involves knowing which word you are going to use in the first place, rather than searching for your word after having already uttered a definite or indefinite article. Compare these hesitant answers to the question “Quel animal apparaît dans le recueil des poèmes de Baudelaire?”: “The ... hmmm ... cat?” and “Hmmm ... le chat?” If you are initially not sure of the animal in question, you won’t know the gender of the animal, so it would work better to say “Hmmm ...” before you come up with the answer rather than begin with an article, given that it might have to change after you go over your animal options.
Another mistake English speakers make is to use the conditional mode when they are talking about past events, particularly events for which they should use the imperfect tense. Whereas in English we say, “When we were little we would go for walks in the park”, in French we say “Quand nous étions petits nous faisions (not ferions!) des promenades au parc”. For some reason, English-speakers transfer the would pattern onto French when it is not needed.
Prepositions need to be memorized. Their use does not always correspond with prepositions used in other languages, even when they directly translate, e.g. sur “Bienvenue sur France Culture” – when you are listening to a radio station, but when you want to say you're on the phone, you would say “Je suis au téléphone” rather than “Je suis sur le téléphone” which means you're literally sitting on your mobile.
The most methodical use of prepositions is for geographic prepositions, since you use à for cities, en or au (occasionally aux for plural forms) for states and countries, depending on their gender, and en for all continents besides Antarctica, since these are all feminine. If you decide to pay a visit to emperor penguins, you would say “Je vais dans l’Antarctique”.
French verbs that are followed by prepositions should be learned with their prepositions. Some French verbs can take more than one preposition. The use of different prepositions often changes meaning, e.g., “Je pense à toi” – “I’m thinking about you” vs. “Qu’est-ce que tu penses du film?” – “What do you think of the film?” The second example reflects having an opinion. Also, there are French verbs that need a preposition when the object is a person, but not when the object is a thing, e.g., “Ils ont offert le cadeau au professeur”.
Sometimes people make up past participles that don’t exist. Even native French speakers might do this, since some past participles are very irregular, but think about how weird it would be to hear “J’ai prenu ces livres à la bibliothèque” instead of “J’ai pris ces livres à la bibliothèque” and remember that using one of these made-up auxiliary verbs sounds just as bizarre. So even though the infinitive pouvoir resembles vouloir, remember that the past participle of pouvoir is not pouvu. Avez-vous pu vous en souvenir?
If you try and translate everything word-for-word, you might run into issues. Words and structures in different languages don’t always match. This is why speaking a new language opens your brain to new ways of thinking. You just don’t think of things in the same way. Even the concept of time changes. Think of how the imparfait vs. passé composé might feel to an English speaker or to a Chinese speaker and of the new perceptions of time these speakers might experience once they are able to grasp the nuances between these two tenses.
Idiomatic expressions are an example of how meaning can be translated without using the “equivalent” words you would find in a dictionary. “I know it like the back of my hand” in English would be “Je le connais comme ma poche” in French.
The order of words can also be different depending on the language you are speaking. If you like something in English you begin with you as the subject, continue with the liking, and end with the thing, which is the object of the sentence. You could use that order with the verb aimer in French, i.e., “J’aime ces fleurs”. Or you could use the verb plaire and then the word order changes to begin with the thing that you like “ces fleurs”. In this case the new sentence is “Ces fleurs me plaisent”. Think of it as the flowers being pleasing to you. The flowers, being the subject of the sentence, take a plural conjugation and you are the object, “me”. It’s more like the Italian “Mi piacciono i fiori”.
The most important thing to remember when approaching a new language is that while some of the tools you already have from the language(s) you already know could help, it is important to keep an open mind and not have too many preconceptions about how language should work. There are always new and interesting phonetic, structural, and idiomatic aspects to a language that you are learning, and French is the same. Breaking up some of the patterns you are used to helps to incorporate these new patterns into your speech and writing. It might take repetition or new imagery or new combinations of lip and tongue movements to produce a new sound, but the more you refer directly to the new patterns, the more natural they will become, and you will find it easier to work through some of these difficulties that you encounter when learning French.
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