Speaking French Fluently But Not Accurately
Sometimes I can be picky. Linguists will tell you that fluent French conversational ability really means that you can speak in a fluid manner without too much hesitation or searching for words. Fluent French conversation however, does not necessarily mean speaking accurately, that is to say, with impeccable grammar and choice of words.
This may sound like splitting hairs, but every day I see or hear people who can converse in French fluidly but make all kinds of mistakes, big or small, that a native speaker would never make. The problem is that most people are totally unaware of their mistakes because nobody has ever corrected them.
Learning from mistakes in your French conversation
I want to look at a series of common mistakes that illustrate the pitfalls of speaking French fluently but inaccurately. In keeping with a convention in linguistics, improper words or phrases will be indicated by an asterisk.
The word for car or automobile in French is une voiture, une auto, une automobile, un véhicule. There are also some slang words such as une bagnole or une tire in France and un char in Québec.
Which one to choose? There are differences between these words, but for our purposes the most common or universal word is une voiture. (I should point out in passing that despite its spelling, véhicule is LE véhicule and not *LA véhicule.)
Just a little historical note. Voiture in French also means carriage or wagon. In French train stations, you will hear the conductor call out “En voiture'” for “All aboard.” And many years ago, a horse-drawn carriage was called “une voiture hippomobile.”
Let’s say that you are looking for a second-hand or used car. Here is something you might te tempted to say:
*une voiture usée
Tempting but incorrect. Actually, the above example is not incorrect. The adjective usée is being confused with usagée. Usé and usagé do not mean the same thing. Usé means worn-out or worn-down. You could speak of “des idées usées” to mean old, worn-out ideas.
Usagé on the other hand means used or second-hand. So, the following form is better:
une voiture usagée
This is good. But wait a minute; there is better. Look at the following form:
une voiture d’occasion
What in the world is “d’occasion”? It’s sort of funny looking, but that is exactly how one says second-hand in French. This applies not only to cars but to pretty much anything that is not brand-new.
In Quebec, you will also hear:
une voiture de seconde main
In English, we can make the distinction between a brand-new car (never previously owned) and a new car (one different from the one I already have). French makes the distinction between:
une nouvelle voiture (a new car)
une voiture neuve (a brand-new car)
I’m assuming that no reader here would ever say “*un nouveau voiture.” This is a terrible but not uncommon mistake.
Notice here that “nouvelle” is in front of “voiture” whereas “neuve” comes after. You could say “une voiture nouvelle”, but the form “une nouvelle voiture” is more common. On the other hand, you would never say:
*une neuve voiture
In passing, note that the masculine form of “neuve” is “neuf.” So, you will see signs saying “véhicules neufs et d’occasion.”
Let’s start making complete sentences. Here is a terrible mistake:
*Je regarde pour une nouvelle voiture. (I’m looking for a new car.)
This is a terrible translation of “look for.” Yes, “regarder” does mean “to look” but not in this context. One must use “chercher.” The next example is better but still incorrect:
*Je cherche pour une nouvelle voiture.
Unfortunately, this is a very common mistake that stems from the translation of “for” in “look for.” This is not necessary. The correct form is:
Je cherche une nouvelle voiture.
Now, let’s say someone has found a car for you. You might hear:
J’ai trouvé une voiture pour toi / vous. (I’ve found a car for you.)
Nothing is really wrong with this construction. Just make sure that you do not mix up “pour toi” and “pour vous.” French makes the distinction between the informal or casual “toi” (you) and the formal or plural “vous” (you). Since English has only one “you.” English-speakers tend to mix up “tu” or “toi” and “vous.” Be careful. Using “tu” when you should use “vous” is very rude.
Although the above construction is correct, here is a more idiomatic version:
Je t’ai trouvé une votiure.
Je vous ai trouvé une voiture.
This version is less of a direct translation from the English and uses an interesting construction in French where the indirect object pronoun “te” or “vous” is put in front of the verb instead of after with the preposition “pour.” Here is another example:
Ton père t’a acheté un cadeau. (Your father bought you a gift.)
Coming back to cars, what about the old car that you want to replace? You could say something like:
Ma vieille voiture est presque finie. (My old car is on its last legs.)
Notice here the correct use of “être finie.” A common mistake many learners make is to say something like:
*Es-tu fini/e ? (Are you finished.)
when they want to ask if you have completed something. Here they should say:
Avez-vous terminé ?
As you can see, you can speak French fluently but still make all kinds of mistakes. The unfortunate thing about these kinds of mistakes is that they are hard to detect because you make them so easily or fluently.
The only way to not make these mistakes is a) have them corrected by a tutor or a teacher and b) avoid them by learning the right form in the first place. I’ll admit that this is easier said than done.
Putting it all together in a French conversation
Here is a short example of a conversation that illustrates what we’ve discussed and some more material that you might find useful if you are ever looking for a car.
–Je cherche une nouvelle voiture.
–Neuve ou d’occasion ?
–D’occasion bien sûr, j’ai pas beaucoup d’argent.
–Mais qu’est-ce qu’elle a ta voiture actuelle? Elle fonctionne bien, non ?
–Ouais, elle roule mais elle vieillit, tu sais. Elle est presque complètement finie. Mon garagiste m’a dit que j’en avais pour deux ou trois mois. J’ai pas envie d’y mettre d’autres sous. (Yeah, it runs but it’s getting old. It’s on its last legs. My mechanic said it would only last two or three more months. I really don’t feel like putting more money into it.)
–D’accord, je vois. Et alors, que cherches-tu comme voiture ?
–Ben, comme celle que j’ai maintenant: petite, quatre portes, genre Honda Civic, pas trop vieille quoi. Disons trois ou quatre ans, cinq ans max, à condition d’être en bon état.
–Quelle couleur ?
–Ç’a pas d’importance, mais pas noir. J’aime pas les voitures noires. J’aime bien argent. Je trouve ça cool.
–D’accord. Écoute, si je vois quelque chose d’intéressant, je te ferai signe.
–Merci. Ce sera super gentil.
There’s a lot going on in this little dialog. Notice for example that the negative marker “ne” disappears most of the time in spoken French. “je n’ai pas” becomes “j’ai pas.” There are other things that I’ll address in future posts.
When spoken fluently, the above French conversation is an example of fluent, accurate and idiomatic French. The main point here is that if you are not careful or corrected, you can speak French very fluently but not accurately. Keep that in mind and pay attention to how native speakers really speak.