Making a fool of yourself is a natural part of learning another language. Overall I am very happy with my progress in French but I have made my fair share of funny/embarrassing mistakes. After writing so much about my students’ mistakes I figured to be fair I should share some of my own with you guys!
Sometimes I misunderstand questions. I feel so stupid when that happens. Someone asks me a question and I start responding, then I can tell by their expression that I didn’t really understand…
Sometimes my accent gets in the way. I say a word just slightly wrong (at least to my ears), and people don’t understand me. One time I was speaking to someone about grammaire (grammar) and they thought I was saying grand-mère (grandmother). They asked me, ‘Whose grandmother? My grandmother? Your grandmother?‘ In my defense, they sound remarkably similar in French. Also, the difference between vingt (twenty) and vin (wine) gets me every time. Those nasal vowels are hard!
One time at the end of a meal I told Cyril’s parents ‘Je suis pleine,‘ a direct translation of our expression, ‘I am full’, but if you say it in French it means you are drunk.
One time, I was trying to explain to someone that most of my ancestors were Germans that immigrated to the US, but I mispronounced the French word for ancestors and instead kept saying the French word for incest.
At a party, I asked the host ‘Ou est la salle de bain?‘ (Where is the bathroom?). The host laughed and kindly explained to me that I should instead ask ‘Ou est la toilette?‘ (Where is the toilet?) because when you ask someone in France for the bathroom it sounds like you want to take a shower. Also, the toilet is sometimes in a little separate room apart from the bathroom anyway, so they might not direct to the right place if you ask for the bathroom.
I used to say ‘Est-ce que tu est fini?‘ (Are you finished?) Instead of ‘Est-ce que tu a fini?‘ (Have you finished?) Then Cyril explained to me that when I ask ‘Are you finished?‘, it sounds like I am asking if the person is done being made, like in the womb.
I make up words all the time. Sometimes I will take an English word, give it a French accent, and use it. This works for some words like immigration, weekend, bus, but not all the words I try to use it for. But I think a lot of people do that when learning another language. It is funny when my students try to guess what the English word is by pronouncing a French word in an English way.
One day in January, Cyril and I were walking somewhere and I remarked, ‘ Hmmm! Smells like firs!‘ In French, they call Christmas trees Christmas firs, and often just firs for short. Nearby there must have been a recycling drop off for the trees. Cyril was unnerved, ‘Well actually, you shouldn’t say that in French. It is an old expression that means someone is going to die soon. Coffins used to be made of fir wood. You actually really creeped me out when you said that…‘
One time I called a ‘crèche‘ a ‘crècherie‘. A crèche is a nursery, and adding erie to the end makes it sound like a place where they grow or make babies. A boulangerie is a bakery and a porcherie is where pigs are raised.
Cyril and I were planning our skiing trip with his aunt. She had offered to bring extra skiing gear from her stash at home for us to use during our trip. She asked me, ‘So what do you need?‘ I said, ‘First of all I need gloves and a hat.‘ I used the word chapeau for hat, but the french use a different word to say winter hat (bonnet). They thought it was hilarious because they imagined me going down the slopes in a fancy lady’s hat.
Even though I have forgotten most of my Spanish and Italian, sometimes random words will come out when I am trying to speak French. One time I asked Cyril’s aunt, ‘Can I please have a spoon?‘ Blank looks… ‘You want a what?‘ ‘Can I please have a spoon?…Oh wait, that is Italian, how do you say spoon again in French?’ I used cucchiaio instead of cuillère. There are certain words, like spoon, that I always use the Italian or Spanish word for. I don’t know why!
One time I asked Cyril ‘Est-ce que tu a mangé le reste de la pain (lapin)?‘ instead of ‘Le reste du pain‘. So it sounded like I asked if he had finished eating the rest of the rabbit instead of the rest of the bread just because I gave bread the wrong gender. Like other Romance languages, all nouns have a gender. They are mostly assigned at random (it seems to me anyway). Just another layer of things to memorize!
Cyril and I were biking in the countryside and we passed a sign that said Maçonnerie (masonry) and I didn’t see the ç and asked ‘what is a maconnerie?‘ Which sounds like ‘my stupidity’ (ma connerie).
A few months ago I had Cyril correct a cover letter that I wrote in French. French is tricky because a lot of words sound the same but are spelled differently. So spell check doesn’t catch my mistakes either. I wrote ‘alaise‘ when I meant ‘a l’aise‘. So instead of saying I was comfortable with speaking French I wrote about adult diapers.
I learn a lot of words by listening to and conversing with French people. Because of this sometimes I learn and use slang words that are inappropriate or too casual.
For example, during conversations with my vb friends, a lot of people I talked with used the word bosser. So I asked one of them, ‘What does that mean?‘ ‘Oh it is another word for work‘. Then I started using the word when I spoke, until Cyril heard me and explained to me, ‘Hmm, you shouldn’t use that word… that is slang, and with your accent it sounds like you are trying too hard to speak French like a local.‘ (Kind of like a guy with an Indian accent saying, ‘Yo, what’s up man?’)
One time I asked Cyril, ‘Can we go check out that exhibition?‘ He laughed and corrected me, ‘Exhibition is when someone is naked in public. Exposition is an art show.‘ And it is hard for me to remember the difference. To make it worse, Cyril ‘corrects’ me whenever I am using the right word because he thinks it is hilarious when I talk going to this or that ‘exhibition‘.
Until next time!