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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

The most common and embarrassing French language problems laid bare by Twitter

So anyone who has been a French language learner will know that it doesn't always go entirely smoothly, and sometimes you end up confused, confusing or just downright mortified.

The most common and embarrassing French language problems laid bare by Twitter
Photo: Giulio_Fornasar/Depositphotos
We all have our own personal horror story of the time we got some French very wrong – often revolving around that cruelest of false friends excité (let's just say that it does not mean excited in the sense of you're looking forward to meeting the new boss).
 
But it may comfort learners to know that at least they are not alone in this, and the Twitter hashtags #frenchproblems #franceproblems and #frenchlanguage have been laying bare the sheer scale of the confusion that exists out there.
 
 
Le or La? The need to get your genders right for French nouns leads to all sorts of problems and mockery, even when you are rightfully complaining about your issues with France as this tweet below reveals.
 
 
Here are a few of our favourites, from mishearing words, mispronouncing something crucial to the knotty social problems like using tu and vous that are blissfully absent in English.
 
Of course the simplest error is getting the word totally wrong and saying something wildly different to what you actually wanted to convey.
 

 
The French word la gomme might sound like it means chewing gum, but it actually means eraser. 
 

 
 
The word avocat can, confusingly, mean both a lawyer or an avocado in French. Hopefully the context will help you decide which is which.
 

 
The French verb râper means to grate, which is why you often see bags of fromage râpée in the supermarket. The French word for rape is violer.
 
Then there's the pronunciation, which can be a minefield for both Anglophones speaking French and French people speaking English.
 
 
 
This rugby league fan was presumably trying to offer his congratulations to Perpignan based club Catalan Dragons, the current holders of the Challenge Cup. But the French word for champions – les champions – sounds very similar to les champignons – the mushrooms.
 
In French sometimes a word is more than just a word, sometimes its about conveying social status as well.
 
 
 
 
 
The words tu and vous both mean you, but while tu is informal and used for someone you are friendly with or someone who is significantly younger than you, vous is used as a mark of respect and is considered polite with someone who is either older or who you don't know very well. (See below for a handy flow chart explaining further).
 
 
Similarly, salut is informal and should only be used with people who are friendly with, while bonjour is more formal. If you're trying to be friendly and get a bonjour back you can consider yourself snubbed.
 
And speaking of the word salut, it can sound like another word in French Salaud, which means “bastard”. Don't mix them up. In fact there are many French words that sound the same and you really don't want to mix them up. Cou (neck) and queue (slang for penis), par example.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Then there's that old favourite, the French numbering system which has been baffling English-speakers for decades. 
 
 
 
 
And finally, don't assume that French is going to be the same in all Francophone countries
 
 
 
PS If you're still confused about the tu/vous issue, someone also tweeted this handy explainer which will at least give you a laugh as you wrestle with the problem.
 

 
 
 

Member comments

  1. My worst… when I arrived and need wood treatment for the very empty house…
    Very minimal french (this was twelve years ago) and I asked at the counter of the local brico something roughly approximating to “je ermm… voudrais ermm… uh.. le preservatif pour mon bois?” Well it broke the ice…

  2. I once told people I went on my holidays to the mountains between France and Spain – the “Periné”, and an English-speaking friend, whose dog had just had babies, was speaking to a French person saying that she had “2 chiots and et 3 chiottes”.

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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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