5 Embarrassing Mistakes English Speakers Make In French — And How to Avoid Them
Mistakes are an unavoidable but essential part of the language learning process. Sometimes they’re fussy little errors of gender or agreement that might make your French amis squirm. At other times they’re a befuddling confusion of syntax or conjugation. And then there are the times where you make such an embarrassing faux pas that everyone within earshot bursts into laughter and you look for the nearest hole to crawl into to die. We’re going to focus on this final category: stuff that English speakers say in France that is bound to lead to embarrassment. But don’t fret, because we’re here to highlight the most common French mistakes, so you can avoid them on your vacation.
Disclaimer: Embarrassing mistakes are very often inherently (if inadvertently) rude. This article is not for the easily offended!
1. Je suis chaud(e).
What you think you’re saying: I’m hot.
What you’re really saying: I’m horny.
What you should say: Il fait chaud. (It’s hot.) or J’ai chaud. (lit. I have hot.)
Some of the most common French mistakes happen because you’re trying to literally translate a word from English to French. Let’s say you’re recumbent on the beach in the South of France, rapidly turning fluorescent, when you decide to finally comment on how very warm it is. You turn to your amis, wipe your brow dramatically and say, “Je suis chaud(e),” and they burst into hysterics. You’ve just stated, in a disarmingly matter-of-fact fashion, that you’re horny. Take a cold shower, calm down, and learn the appropriate way to say that the weather is hot: Il fait chaud.
2. La chatte
What you think you’re saying: the cat (female)
What you’re really saying: the pussy
What you should say: le chat
You notice that the woman sitting opposite you on the metro is holding an adorable kitten. Attempting to make polite conversation, you say, “Votre chatte est très mignonne,” which you are pretty sure means “your cat is cute.” But the woman looks at you in disgust and then quickly changes seats. Why did your small talk attempt crash and burn? Because you were not complimenting her, ahem, pussycat. Unlike English, French has two genders: every noun is either the feminine la or the masculine le. Get the gender of a word wrong and you sometimes change the meaning — with very embarrassing consequences!
3. Tu es bonne.
What you think you’re saying: You are good.
What you’re really saying: You are hot (good looking).
What you should say: Tu es doué(e) (You are gifted) — or simply be more specific with your compliments.
Everyone loves a compliment, but after the chat/chatte fiasco, you decide to keep it simple. After her set at the jazz club, you compliment the singer with a simple, unambiguous, “Tu es bonne.” It’s only as the sting of her indignant slap sinks in, that you realize it’s not such an innocent statement after all. Another patron takes pity on you and explains that you just told the jazz singer, in quite vulgar terms, that you find her sexually attractive. You wonder to yourself if every sentence in French can be so easily misconstrued…
4. Des préservatifs
What you think you’re saying: preservatives
What you’re really saying: condoms
What you should say: Des conservateurs
Get these mixed up and you’ll be asking the waiter at the high-end French restaurant if there are condoms in the confit de canard. Your friend might discreetly correct you, but the others at the table will struggle to suppress their laughter.
5. Je suis plein(e).
What you think you’re saying: I’m full.
What you’re really saying: I’m full (of an unspecified substance) / I’m drunk / I’m pregnant (as if you were an animal).
What you should say: J’ai vraiment bien dîné. (lit. I really dined well.)
Here’s another one of those common French mistakes that come from trouble in translation. You make it through the rest of dinner without committing any more faux pas. Pleased with your accomplishment, and very satisfied with the amazing meal, you push your chair back from the table lay your hands on your belly and exclaim, “Je suis plein(e).” This time no one laughs. They just look at you like you’re an alien. That’s because “I’m full” does not directly translate. People will either think that your body is literally full of something, that you are suggesting in a rather strange way that you are very drunk, or (but this is very unlikely), that you are announcing your pregnancy the way a farmer would talk about his pregnant cow or pig.
Just avoid such confusion by saying, “J’ai vraiment bien dîné.”