Seven beginner mistakes in French to avoid

From false friends to memorising vocabulary, we look at the common errors you can make when you begin to learn the language

Learning a new language is all about embracing mistakes
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1. Avoid directly translating

Trying to directly translate from English to French does not only make the sentence sound unnatural, but it also makes your life much harder!

While in English you may have 10 different ways to express a certain point or opinion, when you are learning your second language you will likely only have one or two ways to say the same thing.

Rather than trying to translate word-for-word what you want to say in English and getting stuck, use what you already know to your advantage.

Even with a fairly limited vocabulary, there is usually a way to overcome difficulties and get your point across.

Read also: Try these eight daily life hacks to improve your French

Do not get caught up trying to find a specific word that you would have used if you were speaking English. Instead, take stock of the words and structures you do know and use them to formulate what you want to say.

2. Do not be afraid to ask for help

Being scared to ask for help is perhaps the biggest mistake a language learner can make, and it is also probably the most common, especially for those with English as their first language.

If you have grown up speaking English, you are used to other people around the world speaking it too. You are, therefore, rarely in situations where you need to ask for help with communicating.

In my experience, people learning English as a second language are both more likely to ask for help and more likely to want to be corrected, because they have grown up learning different languages and understand the importance of getting help to improve.

When you are learning a language, and especially when you are living in the country where the language is spoken, literally every exchange can be a learning opportunity.

Ask the French people around you to correct you; when you do not understand a word or a phrase, ask them what it means - even better if they explain what it means in French!

Do not waste the chance for what is essentially free teaching, and also the occasion to form connections with people. You will be surprised by how many people want to help and the friendships you can form as a result.

3. Avoid memorising vocabulary by category or alphabetically

This may seem like the most straightforward way to learn new words, but learning by category tends not to work in your favour.

For example, if you sit down one day and decide to learn foodstuffs in alphabetical order, while you may be able to retain the information as a list, you are much more unlikely to be able to recall the words in everyday life ie. when you are trying to use the vocabulary.

It also means that you may forget or confuse the meaning with another word in the same category.

Vocabulary lists are definitely a good idea, but these are usually most effective when they are completely random - jotted down when you hear a word for the first time is perhaps the best way to maintain these lists.

Another good way to cement new words into your brain is to use each new word you learn in a sentence - this helps you to establish context and will make it easier to find the word the next time you are searching for it.

4. False friends

Faux amis, false friends - the downfall of so many learners that can get you into both tricky and hilarious situations!

If you have watched Emily in Paris, you will be familiar with the scene where she asks for a croissant with “preservatif” in a cafe, thinking she is asking for a croissant with jam.

Unfortunately, “preservatif” does not mean preservative in the English sense, but rather a condom.

Read also: Six classic French films to improve your language skills

There are so many of these - albeit most are slightly less embarrassing - ‘sensible’ in French means ‘sensitive’, ‘assister’ means ‘to attend’, ‘attendre’ means ‘to wait’.

It is well worth having a list of these pinned to your wall to constantly remind yourself, or a trusty vocabulary list with them all written down.

5. Do not follow your native pronunciation

Pronunciation is hard and this is true of any language.

Before getting upset about how difficult some French words are to pronounce, think about the English words “could” (the silent “l” causes problems) or “through” (the combination of “th”, “ou” and “gh” is a nightmare for non-native speakers).

France loves a silent sound too - for example, the “ent” at the end of the ils/elles (they) construction is not pronounced in spoken French, and a single “s” at the end of a word is usually silent unless the next word in the sentence begins with a vowel.

When speaking French, try not to follow your native pronunciation patterns. Learning the alphabet in French is a good way to understand better how words are pronounced.

Otherwise, listening and speaking to French people is the best way to get your head around it and get used to the different sounds.

6. You can drop the ‘ne’ in spoken French

French people hardly ever use the “ne” when talking in the negative, instead just using the “pas”.

While you do need it in written French, in spoken you can drop it - not only does it make the sentence easier to say but it will make you sound more Francophile!

7. Do not be intimidated by other language learners

If you are an expat in France, you will likely have other anglophone friends who may have differing levels of French.

When you are in a group of learners who speak better French than you, it can feel intimidating and make you less likely to practise your language skills.

It comes back to rule number one of language learning - do not be afraid - but it is especially true with other learners. You should be a support network for each other and can use other learners to boost your own skills.

There will always be people better than you, but use them to make yourself better!

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