From being overfamiliar to mixing up your homophones, language tutors share their advice on avoiding common faux pas
Getting led astray by false friends
“Un préservatif” is a condom. Not jam. Don’t try and buy some to take home for your gran. This word is similar in a lot of Romance languages: preservativo (Spanish), preservativo (Italian), preservativo (Portuguese), prezervativ (Romanian).
Lindsay Dow, Lindsay Does Languages
Reading French like it is English
In French we simply do not write exactly what we hear and we do not say all that is written down. For instance, a typical beginner’s mistake is to apply the same thought process when reading English as French. A famous example is the word “Paris”, which many beginners pronounce with the “s”. The general rule is that in French we do not pronounce the last consonant unless it is followed by a vowel. There will always be an annoying exception but it is only there to confirm the rule.
Katia Mohandi, director, Home Language
Making a statement instead of asking a question
In everyday spoken French, questions tend to be asked with a syntactic structure that is identical to an affirmation. For example, “Tu veux du pain?”(You want bread?) If you remove the question mark this sentence becomes affirmative. In this case, the only marker signalling interrogation is intonation: the tone must be raised at the end of the sentence. It’s a common error to forget to raise the tone at the end. This can get you into difficult situations as you can accidentally make a statement instead of asking a question – eg Vous ne venez pas? – translating as “Are you not coming?” or “You are not coming,” depending on intonation.
Benoît Guilbaud, senior French language tutor, Manchester University’s language centre
Forgetting there is life outside of your textbook
A book is a great way to practice writing, grammar and vocabulary, but it doesn’t make you speak. To practice your listening and speaking skills, you need to listen to the radio, watch TV, debates and films, meet and speak to natives without being scared of making mistakes.
I recommend my students watch and listen to anything they are interested in, whether it is beauty, cooking, news or travel. Listen or watch one of these every day in the background while travelling, dusting, cooking. Soon you will start to understand one word, then three. The more you do it, the quicker you’ll improve.
Sophie Marette, managing director, Voulez-vous parler
Mixing up homophones
A difficulty for French learners is that there are so many homophones: for example, verb conjugations that are pronounced the same but spelt differently (“tu es” v “elle est,” “tu vas” v “il va”, etc).
We conducted an experiment in March 2013 where we reorganised early lessons in a way that didn’t introduce two homophones in the same lesson. This improved retention by 1.5%.
Gina Gotthilf, head of international growth, Duolingo
Taking a back seat
You learn languages: you’re not taught them. It is crucial to have people that you can ask questions when you are stuck, but you need to find questions to ask them yourself. Start by learning and using a few words and phrases. You’ll find questions start popping up. Then find someone to answer those questions for you.
Ben Whately, chief operating officer, Memrise
Directly translating phrases (with embarassing consequences)
Sometimes, it’s important to remember that a phrase in a particular language doesn’t necessarily have a direct translation or comparison in the native language. Try to learn whole phrases or chunks of language that mean what you want to say.
At dinner, my British guest directly translated “I am full” as “Je suis plein”, which means “I’m pregnant” – and not in a good way either as “être pleine” is for pregnant animals only. Learn the whole phrase: “je n’en peux plus” (I can’t take any more) to avoid animal-like pregnancy at dinner times.
Malika Arrais, language tutor at The Language Gallery
Getting bogged down in practical vocabulary
It is tempting to think that it is most useful to be able to say things like “Where is the bus stop?” that have a clear, practical function. But your real first aim should be to get to a point where you can enjoy a conversation. If you can make someone laugh in the language, if you can feel the excitement of a real human connection, then your motivation to keep on learning will soar – and remaining motivated is the most important part of learning a new language.
Ben Whately, Memrise
Being overly familiar
French learners always seem to have a problem when using “tu” and “vous”. Remember: “vous” is for your boss or a stranger and “tu” is for a friend. British learners of French tend to use “tu” for everyone because it is the easier form to remember. Use it incorrectly in the wrong context, and you just seem … well, a bit disrespectful.
Malika Arrais, language tutor, The Language Gallery
Forgetting to record your progress (and your cringey mistakes)
Sometimes it can feel like you’re never going to improve. Record your progress: make little videos on your phone, or write some sentences in a notebook. Nobody has to see but you. A few months down the line, look back, cringe, and then be proud of how far you’ve come.