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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

The 21 most annoying ‘false friends’ in French

Avoid ghastly gaffs in French-speaking Switzerland by reading our handy guide.

The 21 most annoying ‘false friends’ in French
Photo: feelphotoartz/Depositphotos
French is littered with pesky ‘faux amis’ – words that look or sound the same or similar as English words but mean something entirely different. 
 
They can be harmless, inconvenient, or downright embarrassing. Here are some of the irritating false friends to watch out for if you are living or travelling in French-speaking Switzerland. 
 
1. Excité
 
You want to tell your Swiss French friend you’re very excited about something? ‘Excité’ sounds like the word you should use, right? Unfortunately not. You just told your friend you were ‘aroused’, probably not what you were going for. ‘Enthusiaste’ is better.
 
2. Apologie
 
So you’ve accidentally let out a loud burp at a dinner party. Cringing of embarrassment, you quickly issue an ‘apologie’. The only trouble is that in French, you’ve just told them that you ‘condone’ or ‘justify’ such table manners. ‘Pardon’ and ‘excusez-moi’ are both polite alternatives.
 
3. Blesser
 
While a well-meaning English-speaker might feel the temptation to throw out a ‘blessez-vous’ when someone sneezes, try not to. In French, the verb ‘blesser’ doesn’t mean ‘to bless’ but ‘to injure’. The expression to use here is ‘à vos souhaits’. Incidentally, ‘injurier’ means ‘abuse’.
 
Don't say 'blessez-vous'. Photo: Knut_Wiarder/Depositphotos
 
4. Chair
 
Looking for a chair at a party? Use the word ‘chaise’. ‘Chair’ in French means flesh and you might get some weird looks if you tell the party hosts you’re looking for some.
 
5. Slip
 
This one could easily get your knickers in a knot. Especially since ‘slip’ in French translates into ‘men’s briefs’. If you’ve slipped on the snowy Swiss streets and you want to tell your friends about it, better to use the verb ‘glisser’.
 
6. Bras
 
While we're on the subject of underwear, it’s best not to go into a shop’s lingerie section and ask for un ‘bras’ (silent s) – you’ve already got two of those; they’re your arms. The word for a bra is ‘soutien-gorge’.
 
 
7. Piles
 
You have a brutal headache and you head to the local pharmacy in search of pills to cure you. But don’t say ‘piles’, since that actually means batteries.
 
8. Batterie
 
Speaking of which, don’t ask for a ‘batterie’ if your camera/watch/gadget has run out of power, because that means both ‘drum kit’ and an artillery grouping. 
 
9. Librarie
 
Ask for the ‘librairie’ and you’ll be directed to a bookshop (where you have to pay) rather than a library (which is free). The word for library is ‘bibliothèque’.
 
Looking for the library? Don't ask for the 'librarie'. Photo: Kevin Wong/Flickr
 
10. Sensible
 
An easy one to get wrong, you might think ‘sensible’ means the same in both English and French, but that’s not so. In French it means ‘sensitive’ – probably not the best word to use when describing yourself in a job interview. Try ‘raisonnable’ instead.
 
11. S’introduire
 
One of the most two-faced of false friends is the verb ‘s’introduire’. Naturally, you would think it means ‘to introduce’. It actually means ‘to penetrate, insert or enter’. So next time you meet a group of Swiss French people and you want to suggest you should all introduce each other, the verb you’re looking for is ‘se présenter’.
 
12. Luxurieux
 
Yes, ‘de luxe’ means luxury, but if you want to say ‘luxurious’ don’t try to say it with a French accent, because it will probably come out as ‘luxurieux’ which means ‘lustful’ or ‘lascivious’ – and that luxurious hotel you spent the weekend in starts to sound more like a swingers club. 
 
 
13. Préservatif
 
Everyone knows this one. ‘Préservatif’ doesn't mean ‘preservative’ at all – it’s actually the word for ‘condom’. Not one to muddle up.
 
14. Ignorer
 
You can use ‘ignorer’ to mean ‘ignore’, but that’s not the most common usage. Most of the time if someone says ‘j’ignore…’, it means they don’t know something (ie, they are ignorant of…). If you want to express the English meaning of ‘ignore’, you should try the more long-winded ‘je ne tiens aucun compte de…’
 
15. Deception
 
If your friend is telling you about a big ‘deception’, don’t assume that someone’s tried to pull the wool over their eyes. The word doesn’t have the same sense in French – it actually means ‘disappointment’. Likewise the verb ‘decevoir’ means to ‘disappoint’, not ‘deceive’. Deception/to deceive in French would be ‘tromperie’/’tromper’.
 
16. Monnaie
 
Monnaie doesn't mean money, it means loose change. So technically it's easy to pay for things in French-speaking Switzerland when you have no 'monnaie' – you could have notes, after all – but if you have no money, well then you're going home empty handed. 
 
No change? That's monnaie, not coins. Photo: Marcel Grieder/Flickr
 
17. Coin
 
On the subject of money, ‘coin’ in French has nothing to do with cash – it means ‘corner’ or ‘neighbourhood’.
 
18. Ancien
 
No, your friend’s ‘ancien’ husband isn’t really really old, he’s just her ex – ‘ancien’ usually means ‘former’, rather than ‘ancient’. 
 
19. Attendre
 
You’re telling a mate about this great event you’re off to – but don’t use ‘attendre’ to mean ‘attend’ or they’ll look at you a bit funny because it means ‘to wait’. Instead, use another false friend – ‘assister à’ – which doesn’t mean ‘assist’ but ‘attend’. Got that?
 
20. Sale
 
If you’re out shopping and want to know if something’s on sale, don’t use ‘sale’ in French – that actually means dirty. Sales in the shops are called ‘soldes’. 
 
21. Action
 
Speaking of which, the word ‘action’ in French-speaking Switzerland has nothing to do with physical actions. It’s another word for ‘sale’ or ‘special offer’ – a good word to look out for in the usually pricey Swiss shops.
 

LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Seven fascinating ways written and spoken German differ

Even with High German, the differences between writing and speaking are stark.

Seven fascinating ways written and spoken German differ
The Swiss and German flags fly near German parliament. Image: WOLFGANG KUMM / DPA / AFP

You’ve spent hours learning the difference between Genitiv and Dativ, poring over complicated article tables and mastering complicated word order rules… only to step off the plane in Germany and realise you can barely understand a thing. 

Fear not – this is a common experience for many language-learners. The German you’ll read in your textbooks is not the same as the German you’ll hear on the street, so here’s a list of seven important differences to help you hit the ground running. 

And don't get us started on Swiss German – that's a whole other kettle of hot cheese.

1. Word order

German is notorious for its difficult word order, with subordinating conjunctions such as da and weil sending the verb to the end of a clause and tying non-native speakers in knots.

Whilst the importance of correct word order will be drilled into you in language classes, you’ll often find native German speakers themselves shirking the rules.

READ ALSO: 12 signs you've mastered the German language

Sentences with multiple clauses can prove difficult even for native speakers, who will often opt to keep the verb where it is rather than sending it to the end.

Ich habe gestern den ganzen Tag im Bett verbracht, weil ich war so müde (correct formulation: weil ich so müde war). 

I spent the whole day in bed yesterday because I was so tired.

Germans will also often play with word order to emphasise certain aspects of the sentence, even if it is not technically grammatically correct. 

Ich putze das Haus gerade (correct formulation: ich putze gerade das Haus)

I am cleaning the house at the moment.

2. Past tense

When Germans tell stories or speak about what they got up to last weekend, you’re much more likely to hear the present perfect rather than the preterite. 

With the exception of some verbs, such as haben or sein, many native speakers would find it strange to speak with the preterite in everyday life.  

If you’re in doubt during a conversation, opting for ich bin gefahren (I went) rather than ich fuhr will always be a safe bet. 

READ ALSO: Eight of the most common (and funniest) mistakes German learners make

3. Mixed up cases

The case system in German can take years to master, and learning the correct uses of the dative and genitive can be a particular sore point for many non-native speakers.

However you’ll see many native German speakers making the same mistakes on a daily basis. 

The genitive case is being used less and less in spoken language, with many simply replacing it with the dative equivalent. 

Take the preposition wegen, for example: technically this word should be followed by the genitive case, but you’ll often hear wegen dem Wetter (due to/as a result of the weather) instead of wegen des Wetters in everyday conversation.

A similar phenomenon occurs with the possessive genitive:

When talking about ‘Steven’s car’, for example, Stevens Auto (correct German formulation) becomes dem Steven sein Auto (replaced with dative). 

For many native German speakers, using the genitive when speaking now feels unnatural and stilted – in fact, this ‘mistake’ has become so widespread that many Germans now mix their cases up when writing.

4. Abbreviations

Much like in English, German speakers are also partial to shortening words where possible. So much so that it’s not uncommon to hear multiple abbreviations within the same sentence. 

Popular Abkürzungen (abbreviations) include the shortening of articles, for example eine to ‘ne, or the merging of words such as fürs for für das.

Ich brauche einen Computer fürs Studium.

I need a computer for my studies. 

Es war ‘ne tolle Erfahrung! 

It was a great experience!

READ ALSO: Ten German abbreviations that will have you texting like a true native

5. Swallowed sounds

Similarly, German speakers will often drop the letter at the end of a verb, losing the ‘e’ sound to make a sentence flow more smoothly. 

This doesn’t work for all verbs, but it is most commonly heard with verbs such as ich habe (I have) which becomes ich hab’ or ich glaube (I believe) which becomes ich glaub’.

Verbs in the plural form can also be shortened, with wir gehen (we go) becoming wir geh’n and sie sehen (they see) becoming sie seh’n.

6. Modal particles 

Spoken German is also littered with small words that are incredibly difficult to translate but very important to help understand the context of a sentence.

What is more, the intonation used when pronouncing these filler words is key to interpreting the tone of the speaker, meaning they don’t work as well when written on the page. 

READ ALSO: Das ist ja mal wictig: The complete guide to German particles

One of the most common of these is halt – it comes from the verb halten (to stop), but is often used to add ‘colour’ to sentences, to express a tone of resignation or to buy time when someone is unsure of what to say, just as with ‘like’ or ‘just’ in English.

Other untranslatable modal particles include doch, eben and mal – whilst they can originally be confusing, language learners soon get a feel for when they should be used. 

Du hast mir nicht geschrieben! 

You didn’t send me a message!

Doch! 

Yes I did! 

Das Ding ist halt, dass immer noch so viele Fehler beim Sprechen mache.

The thing is that I still make so many mistakes when I speak.

Sollen wir bald mal was zusammen machen?

Should we hang out together soon?

7. Slang 

Last but not least are the widely used slang words that pepper everyday speech, especially amongst young people. 

Many slang terms vary from region to region, but they’re much more common in spoken language than in written language as they suggest a degree of informality.  

Words such as krass and geil can be used to show you’re impressed by something, whilst the question Na? has become a common colloquial greeting.

Want to sound like a true native when you speak? For a deeper look at German slang, visit our guide here. For Swiss German, click here. 

 
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