Don’t be Afraid to Make Mistakes
Acquiring a new skill, whether it’s playing the piano or speaking French, involves making and correcting mistakes. In the beginning, you make many mistakes, and, as time goes by and your skill increases, these mistakes become fewer and farther between. And hopefully, they disappear completely.
When learning a foreign language, we make certain kinds of mistakes because we are trying to learn things such as sounds, words and constructions that do not exist in our language. By comparing the native language with the target language, we can predict the kinds of difficulties that learners will have.
Knowing in advance what are the most common mistakes and their origin, we can develop appropriate learning strategies. Here are five common kinds of mistakes that English-speakers make when learning to speak French.
Editor’s Note: Stanley Aleong is a language coach specializing in working with advanced learners of French and Spanish. His writes a regular blog on topics in advanced French at www.fluentfrenchnow.com. He has also developed some highly effective language learning tools for English, French and Spanish. These can be found at www.langcal.com.
1. Grammatical Gender
Totally unlike English, French classifies all nouns into two categories traditionally called masculine and feminine. Using the articles le (masculine) and la (feminine), we distinguish le père (the father) from la mère (the mother.) One can also use articles un and une to say un père (a father) and une mère (a mother.)
The reason this whole thing is so important is that many other words in a French sentence must change their form or ending in order to agree with the gender of the noun to which they refer. Compare the following two sentences:
Mon père est musicien. (My father is a musician.)
Ma mère est musicienne. (My mother is a musician.)
As you can see, the sentences use either mon or ma and musicien or musicienne in order to agree with père or mère.
As sentences get longer and more complicated, there are more elements that must be adjusted to reflect the appropriate gender. And more things to go wrong. I should point out that there are some really tricky situations where words can be spelled the same but have different genders and different meanings. These are words like le poste (the position) and la poste (the mail system), le manche (the handle) and la manche (the sleeve).
All of this can be a minefield this for learners of French. If you don’t pay attention, it is very easy to not use the right form and make a glaring mistake.
2. Verb Forms
The Fench verb system is probably the most difficult part of the French language for learners. It is very complicated with many forms that have to be simply memorized. Verb conjugation in English is a piece of cake compared to French. For example, look at the present tense of “to go” and its French equivalent, “aller.”
I go, you go, he/she/it goes, we go, they go
je vais, tu vas, il/elle/on va, nous allons, vous allez, ils/elles vont
You notice that the English verb form varies only between go and goes whereas the French has six different forms. French also makes a distinction between the singular informal you (tu) and the singular formal (vous). But the plural form for both the informal and formal you is vous.
This verb avoir is an irregular verb, meaning that the verb endings do not follow a simple pattern. The vast majority of French verbs are regular and follow certain patterns that simplify learning the conjugations. But there are enough irregular verbs, especially among the most common verbs, to make your life miserable in the beginning.
Why is this so difficult? As the above example pointed out, there is so much more to memorize than in English. The typical mistake here is to follow the English pattern and try to use one form everywhere.
As you can well imagine, the French verb system has other complications that I won’t attempt to explain here. The important point to keep in mind is that verbs are the heart of the French language and there are many forms to be learned by heart. So, keep your eyes and ears open.
3. False Friends
False friends are words from different languages that resemble each other but have different meanings. English and French have many words in common for historical reasons. Here are some examples:
Confidence in French means “private or secret matter,” and confidence in English is trust.
Conducteur in French is a “driver of a vehicle,” whereas a conductor in English directs an orchestra.
In French, the adverb actuellement means “at the present moment,” whereas in English actually means “in reality.”
Affluence in French means “a large crowd” but in English: “of much means or money.”
These kinds of mistakes are very common and difficult to get rid because they are so subtle.
4. Difficult Sounds
English-speakers have difficulties with certain sounds in French that do not exist in English. In the beginning these sounds seem nearly impossible to master. With time and lots of practice, the lips, tongue, mouth and ears will eventually get the hang of them. But the vast majority of adult learners will have a detectable accent in French because certain sounds are just never totally mastered. Here are some difficult sounds that are the source of mistakes in French.
The u sound of : lu, rue, bu, su, tenu, buvard
The eu sound of: peu, de, le,
The eur sound of: peur, leurre, beurre
The nasal sounds, in, ain, on, an, un of: pain, pin, bon, brun, an
Prepositions are little connecting words that we use primarily in front of nouns and pronouns. Typical prepositions in English are: in, out, of, on, for, off, as, in, etc. For example: on the table, in the car, off the wall, by the side, for you.
French has similar prepositions. The cause of many problems here is the fact that the prepositions are often used differently in both language. So, for example “by” in English is often translated by “par” in French. So “bitten by the dog” is “mordu par le chien.”
The problem here is that by in English has other meanings like: “by the end of the moth,” “by the hour” where the equivalent French preposition is different. Like the false friend, this sort of mistake is often difficult to eradicate once it has become ingrained.
How to Avoid these Common Mistakes
Now that you have an overview of the origins or kinds of different mistakes you will make or are making in French, you can develop strategies to eliminate or minimize them.
There are two things you can do. First of all, you have to be aware of the pitfalls. You know that grammatical gender is a problem area, so it is something that you have to always have present in mind. When you learn a noun, pay close attention to the gender.
The other thing that you must do is concentrate on these problematic areas. You now know what to practice and drill. Don’t waste time practicing the easy stuff. Work on the difficult areas. For example, we’ve identified the difficult sounds of French for English-speakers. Those are the ones to work on.
Keep practicing and don’t give up! Consistent practice is the key to learning a second language.