Pencils ready; phrasebook in hand / eager French student; there you stand / however, beware as you go, of any pitfall / that may cause you to want to chuck it all!
Starting an exposé of potential pitfalls when learning French with bad poetry is especially apt, seeing as bad poetry should be avoided at all costs.
So should said pitfalls.
In all seriousness now... language learning is an endeavour not to be undertaken frivolously. After all, communication is one of the pillars of civilisation. Thus it stands to reason that doing so in a second language proves social evolution theories.
But that's probably not the reason you want to learn how to speak French.
Many aspiring francophones fell in love with the way the language sounds, and then with the way they feel when on holiday in France, and finally decided that the boost in cognitive ability makes the effort of learning well worth the price.
Holding steadfast to a goal, even in the face of adversity, can sometimes be challenging; especially if you have no idea, from the outset of your venture, what adversity you might face.
Superprof urges you to read this article, first!
Before cracking open that French book, downloading any language learning app or uttering your primary bonjour, take a look at these mistakes beginners at French learning inevitably make.
Not through any fault of theirs. Please don't misconstrue our premise as indicative that French language learners are a sorry lot!
It's just that the French language is fraught with difficulty, from letter sounds that do not exist in our native tongue to unconventional arrangements of vowels and consonants.
But then, dear French learner, those are the very aspects of language learning that you've set your cap to master, isn't it?
Allons-y! Let's uncover together the best roadmap for avoiding mistakes while learning French!
The Ten Most Common Spelling Errors in French
Accurate spelling, in any language, is a hallmark of quality on behalf of the writer. It demonstrates a high level of intellect as well as a respect for presentation and, from the writer's perspective, for his/her audience.
Let's face it: By yor best beef heer! would most likely end up in a lot of rancid beef being thrown out because, who would trust any butcher that could not advertise his products correctly?
Just as you would carefully assess your appearance prior to exiting your home, so should you ensure your every written word would satisfy any discerning eye.
The trouble with spelling in French is compounded because of that language's comparatively high ratio of homonyms; words that sound alike but aren't necessarily written the same way, or that represent similar concepts.
Add to that the fact that French, like any other romance language, makes use of diacritical marks, or accents – either to give meaning to their words or to indicate a formerly missing letter.
And, under select Cs, you might be required to squiggle a cedilla... leaving off any of them might cause your words to be considered improperly spelled.
The French language could hardly be called phonetic, and the chances for misspellings in French are high.
How can you skirt that sinkhole?
Spelling of Homonyms
Homophones, which fall under the broader umbrella of homonyms, are words that sound the same but are spelled differently.
Consider this word set: sein, saint, sain, seing, ceins, and ceint are all pronounced the same, despite their obviously different spelling.
Respectively, they represent: breast, saint, sane, signature; gird your loins, and surrounded by.
Picture your teacher's reaction to a composition that includes the sentence: my brother is a breast, rather than my brother is a saint!
The danger with writing homophones lies not in accurate spelling but in spelling the intended meaning's word accurately.
In instances such as these, spell checkers are no help: they may well overlook your correctly spelled incorrect homonym, because they cannot distinguish context.
This problem is not endemic to French spell checking: how would your English word processing programme know whether you meant to write bear – the animal, also carrying a burden; or bare – nude?
So in English, as in French, a language that is overwhelmingly populated with such words.
To quote a popular line from France's iconic comic strip series, Astérix: cette guerre civile est guère civile.
This comic play on words translates to: this civil war is hardly civil, with the French words for war and hardly being homophones.
Fortunately, in English a civil war being civil is not put to the question; in French, however, unless you know exactly which homophone goes where, you will likely end up with a spelling mistake.
Misplacing or Omitting Accents
The accent aigu, the forward-slash accent, features only on the letter E. There's a handy grammar tip for you!
Generally, it is used to denote the fact that the letter S used to follow, in words such as: école, écoute, été...
In case you were wondering, our word for learner, student, came from old French: estudiant. Can you see the English version within that archaic spelling of the French word?
Most likely, nobody besides linguists and academics care that an S used to be present in modern French words that have an E accented in that manner.
Not even your French teacher cares, other than the fact that if you forget to draw that accent, you will be charged with a spelling error.
Our tip for avoiding this potential stumbling block: study word etymology, and learn how to place diacritical marks correctly!
Shhh! Silent Letters in French
Not only is the French language plagued with absent letters commemorated by accents, but their vocabulary boasts a wealth of words with all letters present and accounted for, with some embracing silence.
That is really not so unusual; we suffer our fair share of them in the English language, too: the K in knife, knee and know are sterling examples of such.
Remember, earlier in this article, we mentioned that French is in no way a phonetic language?
That means that there are so many French words that aren't spelled as they sound – as opposed to English, where fully two thirds of the vocabulary consists of so-called sound words.
To secure success in spelling in French, we supply these small pointers:
- As in English, the E at the end of most French words is silent
- unless it bears an accent!
- The H is always silent, whether it is aspired or mute
- treated as a consonant or a vowel, for the purposes of linking and liaising
- The S at the end of most words is silent
- examples include: vous, nous, temps, champs
- The X at the end of most words is silent
- consider prix, deux and the irregular plurals: choux, chateaux, bateaux, and journaux
Naturally, there are exceptions to every rule, such as French numbers dix and six – where the X makes an S sound.
Please keep in mind that French is an extraordinary language, fraught with logic. So, should you encounter any spelling rule exceptions, rest assured that there is a good reason for it.
How to Avoid Spelling Errors
Of course, there is no guarantee that you will become a champion speller, taking prize after prize at any spelling bee... not that the French host such events, to begin with.
However, francophone countries such as Canada and select lands in Africa do compete for the ultimate title of champion speller!
Still, proper spelling is important for many reasons and, being an avid learner of French, surely you wish to get it all right.
How can you minimise your risk of misspelling?
1. Just as you did in school, when learning to write your native language, you should use any new French words you learn as much as possible, in every way possible: speaking them, writing them, using them in French conversation.
Especially if you handwrite them, neural pathways in your brain will quickly and automatically build recognition of correctly spelled words, meaning you will spell them right every time!
2. Avoid using a spell checker. As previously mentioned, these utilities have no concept of context, therefore it will be incapable of distinguishing a right from wrong homophone in your text.
However, it will tell you if you've spelled words correctly, regardless of your intended meaning, so maybe there is value in applying them on occasion!
Learn to use a French dictionary.
It is true that, unless you know how to spell the word you intend to use, traditional bound dictionaries are not much help.
Conversely, electronic dictionaries and dictionaries online offer word suggestions or automatically complete the word you are investigating, and that can be tremendously helpful!
Learning to spell in French is no more difficult than in English; really, it is just a matter of following the rules.
And now, you know a few of them. Surely you'll pick up more as you become more advanced in French studies!
What are the Most Frequently Occurring Grammar Errors in French?
At the outset of your language learning experience, when your eagerness to ply your skills at French speaking is at its highest, you may find that you make unintentional errors with French grammar.
And, that's OK! The best way to learn is from your mistakes, aver the wise!
Gender agreement is perhaps the biggest potential for error as you learn French grammar.
Words in French are each assigned to a gender, masculine or feminine, according to certain word characteristics.
That means that, not only must the article reflect that noun's gender, but so must also the verb ending and any adjective used.
In English, we have no such concept, and our default article is the. Doesn't that make things simple?
In French, contrary to our language, the definite articles le, la and les are not the default; the partitive de, de la and des are. Or, as a fall-back, un or une – the indefinites which correspond to our a or an.
That perhaps explains the French native speaker's propensity to use the unnecessarily!
The correct use of articles in French depends greatly on knowing the gender of the noun.
That makes the ability to determine a noun's gender critical in avoiding this grammar faux-pas.
Verb Usage Errors
Linguists argue that the French language is beset of more moods than tenses, an academic argument that does little to help the students sitting in French for beginners courses.
What might help is knowing that two of the most common irregular verbs in French, être and avoir – equivalent to our to be and to have, are used the most!
While it might be tempting to simply transpose our use of those verbs into French, to do so would make for a lot of mistakes because, especially to describe conditions in French, you would say I have, rather than I am.
Those translations are in fact the correct way of describing those and other human conditions.
In other instances, the French are on board with the usage of to be:
Can you say I am angry in French? How about I am tired?
Describing environmental conditions, such as temperature or precipitation, are generally written with it makes, rather than it has or it is.
In English, we would say it is windy; in French the correct phraseology would be he makes some wind – il fait du vent.
Comprehension of these distinctions in using these auxiliary verbs will lead to fewer mistakes in using French expressions relating to such conditions.
Naturally, as these errors are bound to feature in the course of your learning the language, you will also make unintentional mistakes in speaking French.
The Most Common French Pronunciation Errors
Learning a foreign language inevitably brings on much hilarity; not because the activity is a huge source of fun and highly entertaining, but because working one's mouth around the sounds of another language takes a measure of skill.
Especially as you study French, you may find your mouth not moving in such a way as to make even the most innocuous of sounds, such as the French U, correctly.
You may have discovered this deficiency from your very first session in beginner French classes, when conjugating the verb avoir:
j'ai, tu as, il a...
and, already, you are confronted with inadvertent failure!
French teachers do their very best to help English speakers learn this sound that does not exist in their language, to try to make the French you sound right, rather than coming out as too.
NOTE: the French language already incorporates that OO sound we're so familiar with: think of words such as soupe, tout, and both versions of ou – one with and one without an accent, meaning where.
You can best master the French U by reverting to your childhood.
Have you ever made a fish face? Pressed your cheeks in while pursing your lips? That is the exact method of making this unique French sound!
Another potential for trouble is in making the French R sound.
Rather than rolling it as Spanish speaking calls for, or arching the back of your tongue so that the sides touch your molars – the way the English R is spoken, the French equivalent is all in the throat.
You may compare the French R sound to the Scottish CH, as in Loch, or the German Bach.
Isn't that a handy tip? Here are some tips to help you with your French pronunciation.
How Double L Words are Spoken
Some sound like -ye and others like -le, but how can you tell which ones?
Let us look at this French vocabulary, that you most likely learned in your basic French course: balle, ville, bulle, elle, and mille.
Yes, there is a rule for how such words are spoken!
If any vowel save I precedes the double L, that letter combination sounds like -le.
If the vowel I precedes that double consonant, it generally sounds like -ye, as in fille, aiguille, feuille...
Yes, there are exceptions to that rule, some of which are listed above.
The word bouilloire, which contains that double-L construction, is considered among the most difficult by anyone studying French.
Here are a few more...
The Survey says: Hard Words to Say in French
The French word for frog, grenouille, is also reported as hard to say. In spite of its R sound and triple vowel combination, you can master it by breaking it into syllables: grr-noo-yeuh.
Would you believe that the French city, Rouen, is reportedly a cause of embarrassment for some? Not the city itself, but pronouncing its name: some say wrain, other aver it is roon... neither is correct.
Try it for yourself: Roo-ahn will get you close.
Perhaps the most contentious word, so voted by native French speakers and advanced French learners alike, would be their word for locksmith.
Serrurerie not only contains four of those hard to master French Rs, but there is also a difficult U, smack in the middle of them!
For more words that pose problems for French class attendees and alumni alike, you may enjoy this article.
For more exceptions to this exceptional language, please read on!
Rule Exceptions in the French Language
As you go about your French lessons and learn all about French culture on your way to fluency as a francophone, you may feel encumbered by the seeming inconsistencies of this language of Molière.
You learn the rule, you apply the rule and, oh! Guess what? There's an exception to the rule!
The fact is, becoming fluent in French means encountering fewer rule exceptions – in grammar, spelling and verb conjugation, than in English.
And, while many who work so hard to learn French words and phrases apply themselves to diligently studying all of the language's rules, we would urge you to study the French grammar exceptions instead.
Such as... you ask?
Rules for Gender Agreement
The rule about a sentence's article agreeing with its noun, which should agree with its verb ending, which should agree with any adjectives is solid; a good one to know and follow.
The rule about never mixing genders in a sentence, on the other hand, is breakable.
You can most certainly use masculine and feminine nouns in the same sentence, so long as you remember that the masculine prevails.
Un acteur doué; une belle actrice – a talented actor and a beautiful actress. Now, let's put them in a single sentence:
Des acteurs doués et beaux – the article has been changed to its plural form, only the noun's masculine form is used, and that gender prevails through both adjectives.
The rule that the masculine prevails pertains to pronouns, too: when speaking of a mixed gender group, you would only use the plural masculine pronoun.
Did you notice the ending for actor and actress above?
The rule for titles, as applied to male and female workers, generally holds that there will be a different ending for the female of the species, save for the position of interpreter.
If you are a female practitioner of real-time translation of French dialogue, your job title would remain masculine!
As there is no such concept as grammatical gender in English, surely this aspect of mastering French phrases poses complications for the beginner and intermediate French learner.
Let us now add fuel to that fire by throwing another log on!
We've already disclosed that everything, including uncountable nouns such as milk and tea – what we would preface with some, are assigned a gender.
Did you know that, in French, ephemeral intangibles are also treated to a gender?
It is quite possible you've felt the love, but have you ever been plagued by the jealousy?
You got it! Love is considered masculine and la jalousie is feminine!
you want to learn language; to understand and communicate in French, acquiring language skills is, of course, Job 1.
Understanding the intrinsic value of this wonderful, mellifluous language will not come from your language lessons, but from appreciating its distinct differences and everything that makes it both charming and beguiling.
That means, in turn, that you must recognise its exceptions and eccentricities as well as its logic and order.
Hopefully, we've brought you a measure of both, and wish you the best of luck in you ongoing efforts to learn to speak French.
Bonne chance, dorénavant!
Now that you are well on your way, why not Google 'French course London' to see what your next step could be!