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…
4) Ordering, drinking, eating
When ordering in a restaurant or telling someone what you’ve had for lunch, in French we use the verb prendre and not “have” like in English:
Don’t say: J’ai un café
SAY: Je prends un café = I’m having coffee (I’ll have a coffee).
5) Shopping for food
This is a tricky one because it doesn’t at all translate directly from English:
Don’t say: J’achète la nourriture.
SAY: Je fais les courses = I buy food (I am shopping for food).
6) To cook
There is an actual verb cuisiner and you should use it. La cuisine also means “cooking” and “kitchen”. We rarely ever use la nourriture in this context which means food; we use it mainly to talk about food in general to say how expensive it is or to ask if there are any food stores… but otherwise, you should be using the word la cuisine or the verb cuisiner.
Don’t say: Je fais la nourriture
SAY: Je cuisine/Je fais la cuisine = I’m cooking.
Don’t say: La nourriture dans le restaurant est bonne.
SAY: La cuisine du restaurant est bonne = The food in the restaurant is good.
7) The weather
The favourite subject when making small talk and for an ice breaker: talking about the weather! For typical phrases such as “it’s a nice day”, “it’s hot today”, “it’s cold today”, “it’s a bad day”, we don’t use the verb “to be” like in English but the verb faire – a very popular verb indeed…
Don’t Say: Il est beau aujourd’hui.
Say: Il fait beau aujourd’hui = It’s nice today.
8) Watching a programme on TV, listening to the radio
Again, because of direct translation of prepositions from English to French, it is easy to add the wrong ones.
Don’t Say: J’ai regardé sur la télé or J’ai écouté sur la radio.
SAY: J’ai regardé cela à la télé ; J’ai écouté une belle chanson à la radio = I watched that on TV; I heard a beautiful song on the radio.
9) Bank accounts and money
A similar situation exists in choosing the correct preposition for talking about bank accounts. In English, one says that he/she has a certain amount of money “in” an account. In French, the preposition to use is sur.
Don’t Say: J’ai dix mille euros dans mon compte en banque.
SAY: J’ai dix mille euros sur mon compte en banque = I have ten thousand euros in my bank account.
And it should also be noted that “money” cannot be translated as monnaie as we frequently hear. In French, “money” is argent, while monnaie means “small change”. And change means “currency exchange”; faire du change = to do currency exchange.
Don’t say: C’est beaucoup de monnaie. Je n’ai plus de monnaie !
SAY: C’est beaucoup d’argent. Je n’ai plus d’argent ! = It’s a lot of money. I don’t have any more money!
10) Visiting a friend
In French, the verb visiter is used mostly for tourism or discovering a new city and not for visiting a person. When we want to say that we’ve visited someone, a friend, a family member, we need to add another verb in front of visite: rendre = rendre visite à …
Don’t say: Je visite ma mère.
SAY: Je rends visite à ma mère = I’m visiting my mother.
If you’re visiting a professional service like a doctor or a lawyer, then it would be more appropriate to use aller voir = to go see or aller chez = to go to…
Don’t Say: Je vais visiter le docteur.
SAY: Je vais voir/ je vais chez le docteur = I’m going to see the doctor.
When speaking about flying , we rarely ever use the verb voler which litteraly means “to fly” (and also “to steal”). In French we use voler mostly when speaking about birds or when someone stole something. As for flying in an airplane, we add prendre in front of the noun vol = prendre un vol.
Don’t say: je vole à New York.
SAY: Je prends un vol pour New York = I’m flying to New York.
12) It’s OK/It’s alright…!
D’accord is used when you agree or accept an invitation/a suggestion/a task which needs to be done.
Example: Tu veux sortir avec moi ? = Do you want to go out with me ?
Oui d’accord ! Je veux bien! = Yes OK ! I would like that!
But to say that it’s alright, that it’s OK/permitted to do something, we use the verb aller:
Don’t say: C’est d’accord de m’appeler.
SAY: Ça va de m’appeler = It’s alright to call me.
13) Having a good time/bad time
Again, another situation where the verb “to have” is not the appropriate verb in French to ask someone if they had a good time… We would need to use the verb passer or the verb s’amuser.
Don’t Say: As-tu du bon temps ?
SAY: Passes-tu du bon temps ? Est-ce que tu t’amuses bien ? = Are you having a good time? Are you having fun?
14) Excited about doing something or seeing someone
The word excité in French is a bit risky as it can be interpreted as sexually excited, so to avoid any potential misunderstanding, it is best to use the verb se réjouir !
Don’t say: Je suis excitée de te voir !
SAY: Je me réjouis de te voir ! = I look forward to seeing you!
Merci et à bientôt!