1- French is a funny face language.
What most French learners experience when they try to speak French with natives is real frustration: people don’t understand you, and look at you with with a perplexed expression on their face as if you’re an idiot. They simply don’t engage in conversations with you or they switch to English.
The first thing you need to bear in mind is that people won’t understand you if you say French words using your mouth the way you do in your own language.
And I’m not talking about accent. I’m talking about AR-TI-CU-LA-TION.
To speak French, you’ll have to put on your French mouth (lips, tongue, vocal cords…). Easier said than done, obviously.
That’s where the funny face idea comes into play. French is a language of precision, including the way you pronounce letters, syllables and words.
When you make a funny face to a child, you exaggerate the amplitude of your face movements, the length of your facial expressions and sometimes the duration of the sounds you make.
Try this: pick a multiple syllable French word and listen to its pronunciation online, then repeat it in front of the mirror, you’ll see how your face has to move, exaggeratedly, to produce all these sounds. That’s your funny face routine.
Over the years I’ve had countless students whose experiences with French were transformed the day the decided to go along with the funny face trick. Suddenly they were understood!
Some mistakes remain, accent can be heard but the language spoken is clearly identified as French. It’s the first step in communication: using the same code, right?
2- French is a connecting language
In class, the comment I make the most about what the students say during conversations is : “Il manque un mot”, meaning “a word is missing”.
Almost every time this missing word is a small connecting word and 9 times out of 10, this word is que or de.
Have you noticed the number of small words we use in French? De, que, à, qui, me, le, lui…
Whereas other languages can be very synthetic, like English, French uses a lot of “connecteurs”, these usually very small words that link words or groups of words together.
So of course, a perfect example of this is “Qu’est-ce que c’est ?”, meaning “What is it/this?”
But, if you literally translate this question, you get something like this: “What is this that it is ?”
You see that in this sentence, and generally in French, you need to do two things: make sure that what you’re referring to is clear, sometimes at the risk of being repetitive (double ce) and use que to connect the parts of the sentence in which there’s a conjugated verb.
This is an extreme case because we actually have a shorter version of this question : “qu’est-ce ?” but it’s very formal and no one really uses this.
So here are a couple of examples of incorrect sentences I typically hear in class in which “il manque un mot”. Can you find it?
Je pense Paris est magnifique
J’ai téléphoné mon ami
3- The French don’t say Comme ci comme ça!
Or Sacre Bleu, or Pot pourri…
It remains a mystery as to why some French teachers still teach “Comme ci comme ça” as an answer to “Ça va ?”
It’s not that it’s incorrect, it’s just that nobody says that! This is the number one expression that immediately stigmatizes you as a foreigner whose French is a bit strange.
You know when a non-native speaks your language and uses an expression you only heard once in a 1940’s movie? That’s «Comme ci comme ça»!
There are tons of expressions like this in French and a lot of them are used in other languages, and particularly in English.
Typically, these words are either old fashioned or they have a different meaning in today’s French. «Sacre Bleu» ou «Comme ci comme ça» are examples of old fashioned words. You’ll hear them in old French movies from the 30’s or the 40’s.
«Rendez-vous» is one of these words that can have a slightly different meaning or be used rather differently: it tends to be a date in English as opposed to any regular meeting in French and it’s even used as a verb in American English which is completely impossible in French (the verb is avoir rendez-vous).
So how do you know which words fall in this category and how to use them?
Well you don’t, unless you listen, listen and listen! Expose yourself to the language as much as you can and observe: movies, songs, podcasts… and of course do a lot of reading. Also, ask the French you meet, they’ll be happy to explain!