*This post includes language inappropriate for certain situations.
It’s been 15 years now that I’ve been studying French. I’ve taken courses in everything from Grammar 101 to A Study of Paris to African Detective Fiction; visited France and Québec on multiple occasions; lived and worked abroad; and now I find myself speaking the language every day here at the Alliance. Though I know I regularly saturate my sentences with grammatical mistakes and English-isms, most of the time I make myself pretty easily understood.
Despite this, I still find myself frustrated by certain terms or registers of language that a 7 year old French-speaker would know easily. It’s like having a toddler’s communications skills (Up! Want up!) and a teenager’s height and gangly limbs. Nevertheless, I’ve become accustomed to frustrating. What gets me is the outright gaffe. The kind that results in that awkward secondhand cringe on the part of your listener and the uncomfortable correction from whoever it is that lets you know tu as mis le pied dans le plat – you really put your foot in it.
Yesterday, this language baby-teen made just such a faux pas by calling a group of children les gosses in a semi-professional message. Enfants:gosses as children:kids*, thought she. And beau gosse: that’s a compliment! Easy peasy.
Right here is where connotation and context reared their ugly subtle heads. Though it is a synonym for children, upon closer and frantic inspection, she realized that gosse can sometimes be a bit too familiar – aligning more with rugrat or brat, even, in its least formal connotations - and that parents may not like to be told that their ankle-biters were invited to an event. Juste un tout petit peu gênant…
And so, in the hopes of sparing you similar mistakes, here are four other nuances to keep in mind that, if uttered carelessly, may bring shame on those who fail to watch their tongues:
Cou vs. cul (neck vs. a**)
Perhaps it was from too often catching anglophones in this particular French pronunciation trap that “pain in the neck” became the acceptable-in-public option for “pain in the you-know-what.
Unfortunately we can’t demonstrate the difference in sound via text, but ask a French-speaker that you’re on friendly terms with to demonstrate the difference in the “ou” and the “u” sound here and avoid telling someone that you love the new tattoo on their bum or like to wear your scarves around your rear end. (You can also give this video a shot. Just don’t be distracted from your lesson by the garble at the beginning)
“I’m full” ≠ Je suis plein/e
An anglicism that we have probably all used at the end of a meal to say we’ve had enough to eat. But watch out; the direct translation of plein as “full” can be a sneaky faux ami. Though it can indicate that a container of some sort is full, it’s also used to refer to pregnant animals. If you want to tell your host you don’t want any more to eat when they offer you seconds, try a simple non, merci or je n’ai plus faim.
Je m’en fous (I don’t care)
Maybe you don’t. But in front of your boss or your new girlfriend’s mémé (grandma): çela t’est égal, or peu import. Maybe tu t’en fiches if granny is a little sassy.
C’est chiant / ça me fais chier (It’s annoying)
We read it time and again that the French love to swear, and surely the same can be said of Americans, but there’s a time and place for everything. It’s true that this phrase is commonly heard in any variety of environments, including the office, but odds are its among coworkers that have already established a more relaxed relationship, as with the English “It’s pissing me off.” If you need to avoid the uncertainty, some acceptable alternatives include c’a m’énerve/c’est énervant, c’est pénible, and c’est frustrant.
Nevertheless, the maxim remains: if you don’t try you will never know. When you make a mistake, apologize and take it in stride. I may indeed have gone to bed last night still kicking myself, but the truth is that had I not continued to try the word out, I may never have been corrected.
*FYI, if you do want a more colloquial word for enfants society will happily accept gamin/gamine.
What blunders have you made as you learn a language? Share your oups moments in the comments and help a fellow learner out!
-Jennifer Pietropaoli, AFDC Communications Associate