Over the years, I've met many Russian speakers (from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Romania, Moldova, Latvia… pretty much all ex-USSR countries!), so even though I don't speak Russian myself, I've discovered few interesting things that I would like to pass on. These are mistakes quite unique to Russian speakers, so only a few things in this article may be of interest to a native English speaker.
Anyway, here is a list of 7 commonly misused French words, 3 pronunciation tips and a great big explanation on ‘articles, do they MEAN anything?’ (Spoiler: yes, they do!) . These should help you become a better double agent! Let's start with the word visiter.
Almost every day, I hear a student saying "J'ai visité…" and 90% of the time, it's wrong. Visiter is a special word, reserved for beloved friends and beautiful countries. It also work for places where you can gather knowledge, like a museum.
If you say:
● J'ai visité un ami. I visited a friend. Great that's good!
● J'ai visité le Canada. I visited Canada. Great! I hope you liked it.
● J'ai visité une usine. I did a tour of a factory. Good for you, you probably learned a lot!
● J'ai visité le médecin. I went to see a doctor. Sorry, but no. It can't be done, unless you know him socially.
● J'ai visité le théatre. I went to the theatre. Sorry again, you can't say that unless you mean you had a guided tour of the theatre itself.
When it's not for a friend, a country/town or a tour, we use the verb aller. I know, you find it too boring, not precise enough. I feel your loss of a good word, but that's just how we say it:
Je suis allée au théatre. Il est allé chez le médecin.
The word toujours (always) goes AFTER THE VERB. A sentence like "Je toujours dis…" (I always say…) is not acceptable in French. It should be:
Je dis toujours… I say always...
Losing that bad habit will takes weeks, but I'm confident you can manage it: just keep focussing on it.
3. "Utile pour la santé"
When I do TEFaQ practices (TEFaQ is French test for immigration purposes. The student needs to convince "a friend" to do something) I hear all the time "C’est utile pour la santé" It's useful for your health, and every time, I cringe. Just like for visiter, you're trying too hard. We simply say:
C'est bon pour la santé.
It's good for your health.
The word "bon" is very useful in French. Of course you can say something is délicieux (delicious) or ça a bon goût (it tastes good), but a normal French speaker would simply say c'est bon ! or c'est vraiment bon, unless it's spectacular (in which case he or she would use betters words like décilieux, succulent, excellent, etc.). So my advice is: keep it simple.
4. Plus bon, plus meilleur, plus mieux
If you say:
"plus bon" it's like saying "the more good".
"Plus meilleur / plus mieux" is like "the more better".
Both are repetitive and best described as ‘really bad grammar’.
● Better is meilleur or mieux.
● The best is le mieux or le meilleur.
But how to choose?
● If something is GOOD, it becomes "meilleur".
● If something is WELL, it becomes "mieux".
"That works well, that works better" is ça foncionne bien, ça fonctionne mieux.
"That's a good cake, that cake is better" is c'est un bon gâteau, ce gâteau est meilleur.
Many times, I’ve heard "Ce n'est pas comfortable pour moi" (It's not comfortable for me) when a person meant to say it's not practical / not convenient. Comfort is about a nice chair, a well-cut suit, a plush pair of slippers. Something useful translates as:
If you plan on passing a TEFaQ test, it's essential that you memorize this word.
On festive days, I hear "Je te félicite" (I congratulate you), but in French, you can congratulate someone only if they did something to deserve their success. So:
If you say:
● “Félicitations pour ta promotion !” Congratulations on your promotion!
Well done, yes, they worked hard to get it, so it's deserved.
● "Je vous félicite pour votre nouveau bébé !" I congratulate you on your newborn baby!
Again, fine! At least one of them worked hard for 9 months and possibly several hours for the delivery.
● "Je vous félicite pour votre anniversaire." I congratulate you on your birthday. Sorry, but no. You don't earn it really, birthdays just happen every year.
So instead of féliciter there is a selection of other things to say. If it's a special occasion such as a birthday, a National Day or similar, you can say:
Je te souhaite... I wish you...
“un Joyeux…" (Happy…) or " un Bon…/une Bonne…".
- Joyeux anniversaire ! Joyeux Noël ! Joyeuses Pâques ! Joyeux Halloween ! Joyeuse Saint-Valentin ! Joyeuse St-Jean-Baptiste (National Day in Quebec)
- Bonne Année ! Bonne fête ! (used for birthdays in Canada only)
Another useful word to know is “fêter" or "célébrer" (to celebrate). You could say:
Nous avons fêté mon anniversaire au restaurant.
We celebrated my birthday in a restaurant.
I've heard many times, "se rencontrer avec quelqu'un" (to meet up with someone). That involves 2 mistakes. "Se rencontrer"(i-e this verb with a pronoun) is not a mistake in itself, it means "to meet each other", so you can say "Nous nous sommes rencontrés au cinéma" (we met each other in a cinema). But, if you just want to say "I met Sophie in the cinema" you have to say:
J'ai rencontré Sophie au cinéma.
Did you notice? I didn't say "I meet with Sophie".
"rencontrer" + "avec" = forbidden, simple as that.
On the whole, Russian speakers' pronunciation is good. Your "R" sounds are neat, well done! Native English speakers envy you. In the Alphabet, only 2 letters seems to systematically cause issues: "C" and "O".
"C" is called "say" not "ess" ("ess" is this one: "S")
A "C" can be hard or soft depending on the letter that follows.
● If it's A, O, or U it means it's a hard K sound.
● If it's E, I or Y it means it's soft like an S.
By the way, these 2 rules apply to G as well!
The problem with "O" is that you don't work your facial muscle half as hard enough.
Most of the time, when a Russian speaker says "eau" (meaning "water"), I see a relaxed mouth and hear "EUH" when what I want to hear is a clear, short, enthusiast "O". For that, you need to pout a lot more. Keep in mind that "eau", "au" and "o" all sound the same. So, for example, "audio" is really just "ODIO" (NOT a-o-dio).
The last pronunciation problem I hear is a big one:
Mixing "il" and "elle" (he and she)
I hear these mixed up 10 times a day, and even by C1 level students. It should not be hard: il sounds like "EEL" and elle is just "L".
● Men: be careful with il and elle, otherwise you say "he…" when talking about your wife, and that will give the impression that you are married to another man!
● Mothers: you also need to be careful, if you are talking about your son and daughter (fils et fille), if you keep using the wrong pronoun, there will no end of confusion.
One last tip before moving on to the last section of this text: One pronoun per sentence is quite enough. Too often, I meet students who are keen to try to master all the hard stuff (often armed with old USSR grammar books). Don't.
Keep it simple. Master the basic stuff first. No one will be impressed if you use 3 pronouns in a negative sentence if 1) you don't put the words in the right order 2) you mix up your genders 3) you don't use the right verb tense 4) you skip all articles and 5) you say "he" instead of "she". Do you know why? Because it becomes a meaningless string of words.
The basic stuff might be "boring" but one needs to learn to walk before one learns to run.
Now, I've saved the hardest bit for the end. As you already speak English, I guess you came across articles already, and I bet that wasn't easy. You probably heard that there is 2 types of articles (déterminé and indéterminés they are called in French), but I bet you didn't really get them. So, let me try to explain them to you again:
Articles are clues, they allow us to understand the relation between things. They tell you if something is common or special, obvious or unique and if it belongs to someone. Let's imagine for a minute that we are spies. Our previous decoding system (let's call it The Dictionary) failed to translate little bits of French Code. The new system I'm suggesting will allow you to crack more info out of what you read and hear.
1) Le, la, les are determinate articles. They are the equivalent of "the" in English. It means the thing is either:
· special or
· obvious :
It can be obvious if the thing is unique (there is only one of its kind around) OR both the person who speak and the person who listen are familiar with the thing they are discussing because they talked about it before.
· it's a generalization meant to encompass all things in that category
Example A: Le chat est sur le lit. The cat in on the bed.
There is only one cat and one bed in this story, so it's obvious which cat and which bed I'm talking about. The cat and the bed could also a bit special; you can guess that the writer has seen them before.
Example B: J'aime le vin. I like all kinds of wine.
2) Un, une, des are indeterminate articles. They are the equivalent of "a/an" in English. It means that the thing is either:
· quite common
· interchangeable (i.e. not special)
For example: Je vois un oiseau. I see a bird.
Here, the choice of article makes it clear that the bond between the person who speak is speaking and the thing is looser: the bird is not special at this point, it's still interchangeable with other similar birds, and we can guess this is probably the first time the writer sees it.
3) Possessive articles, like mon, ma, mes, ton, ta, tes, son, sa, ses, notre, votre, leur are very useful too as they show ownership. Not using them can be odd. For example, I heard a mother told me, "Le fils va à l'école" (The son goes to school) when she was talking about her own son. To me, it was very strange to disown him like that!
So now, let's flex some muscle. Let's see what we can deduce from the following articles in this discussion between 2 spies:
- Regarde, j'ai trouvé un microfilm. Look I found a microfilm.
From this, I gather the person doesn't know how valuable the microfilm is, because they used "un", it means that's common / not special yet / interchangeable.
- Quoi !! Tu as trouvé le microfilm ? What! You found the microfilm?
Here it would be correct to assume Person No. 2 is more knowledgeable; he might be the boss of this operation. He or she knew about the existence of this bit of evidence and we can also gather there was only one microfilm that needed to be found in this room, otherwise he/she would have said "un des microfilms" (one of the microfilms).
- Oui, il était sous le tableau. Yes, it was under the painting.
Here, this comment helps us picture the room: We know right away that there was only one painting in this whole room, or if there were several paintings, we know this painting is special: they had discussed it before starting to search the room.
- Range-le dans ton sac, vite ! Put it away in your bag, quick!
Now, I can picture the scene a bit more; both guys have a bag. If there was only one common bag, he or she would have said "le sac" (the bag).
- Oh non, j'entends la police arriver ! Oh no, I heard the police coming!
From this generalization, I gather they don't know how many police officers there are yet, otherwise they would have said "j'entends un policier" (I hear a police officier) or "j'entends des policier" (I hear policemen).
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