Through our experience at Learn French at Home teaching French to adults most of whom have either moved to France or else wish to do so, we regularly hear a number of common and very typical mistakes or what you could also call an unusual turn of phrase that most often results from translating directly and literally from English to French. These common errors are what differentiate a French native speaker from a foreign French speaker. We have chosen the expressions or words which make a difference to a native French person’s ear!
Comment vas-tu ? or Comment allez-vous ?… It’s probably the first question we ask our students before starting a lesson. In English, the reply is “I’m well, I’m fine”, so it is natural for an English speaker to wish to translate the reply as such into French. It doesn’t work if you translate directly and use the verb “to be”! The French use aller to indicate how they are, they feel…
Don’t say: Je suis bien when replying to Comment allez-vous ?
SAY: Je vais bien = I am fine.
2) When speaking about an obligation, or something that must be done
In English, “it’s necessary to…” is a common way to express obligation and the word “necessary” in English is directly translated as nécessaire de, BUT we do not use it as such in French! Every time a French person hears c’est nécessaire de…, they immediately know the person is not a French native.
How do the French express “it’s necessary to…”, “we must…”? Well, use and abuse the verb falloir. It communicates the fact that something needs to be done and this is why it can only be conjugated with the subject pronoun il.
Don’t say: C’est nécessaire de…
SAY: Il faut…= It is necessary to…
For things that need to be done:
Il faut appeler le plombier = We must call the plumber, it is necessary to call the plumber.
Il faut apprendre le français = We must learn French, it is necessary/needed to learn French.
Pour venir chez moi, il faut aller au centre ville et il faut tourner à droite au grand rond-point, etc… = To get to my place, you must go to the city center, then you have to turn right at the round about, etc.
If you start to listen carefully to a French person speaking, you will be surprised to find out how often they use il faut! Go ahead and use it!
Important note: the negative form of il faut : if you hear il ne faut pas…, then it becomes a prohibition!
Il ne faut pas être en retard au travail = One must not be late for work (it’s a prohibition).
3) Timetables, making appointments
Again, because of direct translations, the wrong prepositions are used when referring to days of the week:
Don’t say: sur lundi, dans le matin…
SAY: le lundi, le matin = on Mondays, in the morning…
Example: Je suis libre le lundi = I’m free on Mondays.
Note that putting the definite article in front of a day of the week usually expresses something that happens in general every Monday or Saturday.
Je travaille lundi = I work this coming Monday.
Je travaille le lundi = I work on Mondays (every Monday).
Don’t say: Je vous parle à vendredi
SAY: A vendredi ! = I’ll speak to you/see you on Friday!
Note: In French, we don’t say that “I’ll speak, write, see you on …”, we just add the preposition à in front of the day of the week and this automatically indicates that you will either see, write or speak with that person on that day – it’s already planned!
In the following case, the choice of verb and word is not appropriate:
Don’t say: Je voudrais faire un appointement.
SAY: Je voudrais prendre (un) rendez-vous = I would like to make an appointment.
Note that “rendez-vous” in French is not a romantic appointment; it is an appointment for business or at a service place such as a hairdresser, doctor’s office, lawyer’s office, etc…