Lesson #267 (Part 2): Common Issues French Speakers Struggle With In English

This is the second part of our Lesson, in which we look at some challenging points for French students studying English with the help of British author Frances Burney’s writings.

👉 If you haven’t read Part 1, please do read it first – everything will make more sense once you do!

📝 #12 THE DIFFERENT MEANINGS OF ‘EDUCATION’ (ENGLISH) AND ‘ÉDUCATION’ (FRENCH)

At first glance, these two words look like they mean the same thing: the English ‘education’ and French ‘éducation’.

✍️ However, the English word mainly refers to schooling, the experience of being taught academically at school, college, or university.

On the other hand, a French ‘éducation’ includes much more: it describes upbringing (the manner and lifestyle in which a child is raised), discipline, even taught manners (proper and polite behaviour towards other people), as well as schooling. In French, when someone is said to be ‘bien éduqué(e)’, they are being described as ‘well-raised’ or ‘having a good upbringing’, not just ‘well-educated’ in the academic sense.

Notice how even British novelists from the 18th century believed that ‘a French education’ was more comprehensive:

📙 “She talked very much of taking me to Paris, and said I greatly wanted the polish of a French education.”

– Frances Burney, Evelina

If a French person wants to describe a person’s education in their broader sense, she or he will do well to specifically mention its other aspects (e.g., ‘upbringing’) so that her/his English-speaking audience can grasp its more comprehensive meaning.

📝 #13 ‘SENS’ (FRENCH) VS ‘SENSE’ (ENGLISH)

As with our previous point, the French word ‘sens’ – which is often mistranslated as ‘sense’ – has a much broader meaning than the English word.

‘Sens’ (French) includes a sense of purpose, grounding, and direction that is lacking in the English word.

✍️ Conversely, the English word ‘sense’ refers to ‘practical awareness’, as in the phrase ‘common sense’. Notice this meaning in the following quotation from one of Fanny Burney’s letters:

📜 “And now I cannot resist telling you of a dispute which Dr Johnson had with Mrs Thrale, the next morning, concerning me, which that sweet woman had the honesty and good sense to tell me.”

– Frances Burney, from ‘Journal Letter to Susanna Burney, late June 1779‘ (emphasis mine)

✍️ ‘Sense’ in English can also mean a kind of ‘sensory awareness’, such as our sense of smell, etc.

For this reason, when a French speaker wants to talk about something having ‘sens’ – as in ‘une carriére qui a du sens’ – it may be best to use a word like ‘purpose’ to express this idea (e.g., ‘a career with purpose’ or ‘a purposeful career’).

📝 #14 ‘TO VISIT’ VS ‘VISITER’ VS ‘RENDRE VISITE À QUELQU’UN’

This is one of those points that confuses English speakers as much as French speakers!

In English, we have one word – ‘to visit’ – to describe

1) the act of going to someone’s house, or

2) going to an attraction site such as a museum, or even

3) travelling to another destination.

Notice how all these aspects are captured in different quotations from Fanny Burney’s writings below:

📜 “I have had a visit from my beloved, my kindest Father – and he came determined to complete my recovery by his goodness.”

– Frances Burney, from her ‘Journal’ entry on 23 June 1778 (emphases mine)

📜 “I meant to have added some little account that might have been interesting to you of my visit to Windsor …”

– Frances Burney, from her ‘Letter to Georgiana Waddington, 2 October–11 November 1796‘ (emphases mine)

📜 “I shall enter more fully into our affairs by another conveyance that is promised me by an American lady who purposes to travel and visit England in about 6 weeks.”

– Frances Burney, from her ‘Letter to Dr Burney, 5 May 1805‘ (emphases mine)

In French, ‘visiter’ means to go into a specific building for the purpose of looking around inside it. So the French will use ‘visiter’ to describe the act of inspecting a house before buying it, or going to a museum.

On the other hand, in French ‘rendre visite’ is used specifically to describe the act of going to meet someone, especially in their home(place).

Perhaps this distinction has more of an effect on English speakers of French rather than French speakers of English (since the English ‘visit’ is correct and applicable in nearly all the situations mentioned). 🤔 That said, it is a point of differences between the languages worth being aware of!

📝 #15 WHAT IS A ‘COMEDIAN’?

This is one of those ‘false friend’ kind of words that, because it is spelled similarly in both languages, can be mistakenly translated as the same.

The English word ‘comedian’ refers to someone who entertains others through jokes and comedic stories. 😆

The French word ‘comédien(ne)’ refers to an actor or an actress.

📝 #16 ‘FUNNY’ VS ‘A LOT OF FUN’

When French students want to describe how something was ‘a lot of fun’ or ‘great fun’, they tend to turn the noun ‘fun’ into an adjective and end up saying ‘it was funny’.

⚠️ This is another ‘false friend’, as the English word ‘funny’ is not directly connected to ‘fun’.

✍️ ‘Funny’ actually means ‘entertaining’, ‘humorous’, ‘laughable’, and sometimes ‘odd’ or ‘remarkable’. It is closer in meaning to ‘drôle’ or ‘amusant’.

📜 “[In] short, she has 3 ruling passions, each of them so strong, it would be difficult to say which predominates: and these are Dress, Admiration, and Fun – simple, honest, unrefined Fun.”

– Frances Burney, from her ‘Journal’ entry from June 1777 (the emphases are her own)

📝 #17 ‘PROPOSED’ VS ‘SUGGESTED’ OR ‘RECOMMENDED’

When we want to offer a suggestion or an idea for someone’s consideration, we use the verb ‘suggest’ or ‘recommend’ in English more than ‘propose’. This contrasts with the French preference of ‘proposer’ instead of ‘suggérer’ in their language.

📜 “… if you can help me to suggest something that will not sound disrespectful or improper …”

– Frances Burney, from her ‘Letter to Charlotte Cambridge, 12 June 1786′.

✍️ It is important to mention this because while the English word ‘propose’ does mean to ‘offer’ (and in the past was often used in this way), it now has a strong connection with the idea of offering marriage to someone. 💍

For example, if I were to say, ‘My friend David proposed to me that we go to a concert’, English speakers would immediately start imagining that David offered marriage (and they would probably forget all about the proposed idea of going to a concert)!

This misunderstanding could be avoided by saying, ‘David suggested that we go to a concert.’ 🎶

⚠️ So be careful how you use the word ‘propose’ in English!

📝 #18 ‘DOCTOR’ VS ‘MEDICINE’

The French word ‘médicine’, as a scientific practice or profession, is translatable as ‘medicine’ in English.

On the other hand, while in French the practitioner is called a ‘médicin’, in English we use the word ‘doctor’ (or ‘medical practitioner’).

We also use ‘doctor’ as a title of address for someone who has completed an academic doctorate (e.g., PhD) at university. This is usually written simply as ‘Dr’ in front of the person’s surname. However, if an English speaker talks about a ‘doctor’ in a general way (without specifying their name), it is likely they are referring to a medical doctor, a ‘médicin’ in French.

This line from Fanny Burney’s early Journal describes a painful memory in her life, a time when her mother was dangerously ill:

📜 “[One] Evening, when Mama was very ill, being anxious to hear the Doctor’s opinion, he came up stairs.”

– Frances Burney, from her ‘Journal’ entry on 24 November 1773

📝 #19 ‘STRANGER’ VS ‘FOREIGNER’

📜 “In truth, she did the honours of the Hall to me, with as much good-nature and good breeding, as if I had been a foreigner of distinction, – to whom she had dedicated her time and attention.”

– Frances Burney, from her ‘Letter to Susanna Phillips’, February 1788

The French word ‘étranger’ is usually used in the way we use ‘foreigner’ in English: that is, to describe someone from another country.

✍️ However, the English word ‘stranger’ – which is often mistranslated by French speakers to mean ‘étranger’ – is anyone we don’t know or haven’t met before, and it often has a negative connotation. For example, as children my mother used to tell us, ‘Never talk with strangers’, and it carried with it a sense of an unknown danger.

That said, a ‘stranger’ doesn’t always have a negative connotation: it all depends on the context. Here is another example from my own life, again relating to my mother who often chats in a friendly and open way with people she doesn’t know. I have sometimes asked her afterwards, ‘Who was that lady you were talking with?’ and she answers, ‘Oh I don’t know! She was a complete stranger but we just started talking about …’

👉 So please remember: a ‘stranger’ doesn’t always refer to a dangerous person!

📝 #20 WORDS TO DESCRIBE FOODS

The words ‘fat’ and ‘salty’ are words that French people sometimes make mistakes with.

This is because the French word ‘gras’ is not the same as the English word ‘fat’. 👉 In English, only a person or a creature can be described as ‘fat’.

✍️ So ‘gras’ should be translated instead as

– ‘having a high fat content’,

– ‘fatty’ (more informal) or

– ‘greasy’ or ‘oily’ (these two last words mainly describe how the food feels, while still letting us know that the foods have a lot of fat in them).

✍️ As for the French word ‘salé’, it really refers to words that in English we describe as ‘savoury’ – the opposite of sweet and having a mild salt flavour.

On the other hand, the word ‘salty’ in English means something that has almost too much salt.

We sometimes use the word ‘salty’ in a sentence to complain about the amount of salt in a food (and ask for a glass of water to rinse it all out):

‘The popcorn was so salty – I need a drink now!’

👉 So make sure to use ‘sweet and savoury’, not ‘sweet and salty’, instead when you want to describe our two main food flavours.

📝 #21 ‘GOOD’ VS ‘RIGHT’

‘Good’ and ‘right’ are often mixed up!

✍️ In English, the word ‘good’ (describing the ethical, moral, or excellent quality of something) is the opposite of ‘bad’, while ‘right’ (meaning ‘correct within a context’) is the opposite of ‘wrong or incorrect’.

For example,

✒️Tom: I sent her a card but it never arrived.

Anna: Oh that’s disappointing. Do you have the right address?

Here are other examples:

✒️Most people think of Mother Teresa as a very good person.

✒️ I went to the market and found that most of the fruit on sale were good (of good quality), although a few apples were rotten.

When Fanny Burney was describing the famous Dr Samuel Johnson once, she used ‘right’ (meaning ‘correct’):

📜 “Dr Johnson was certainly right and most right with respect to the argument …”

– Frances Burney, from ‘Letter to Susanna Phillips’, 31 October 1782 (the emphasis here is her own)

And here she uses ‘good’ to talk about the moral excellence of what she experienced in her life:

📜 “… gratefully shall I ever remember a thousand kind expressions of esteem and good opinion which are now crowding upon my memory.”

– Frances Burney, from her ‘Letter to Hester Lynch Thrale’, 4 April 1781

As always, by practicing using these words in different contexts (and making some mistakes!) you will learn exactly where to use them rightly and correctly. 😊

That is all for our Lesson this week. I trust that every person reading this – even if you are not from beautiful France! – found at least one point worth reflecting on in our Lesson.

As always, you can send me any questions you have about this Lesson through my messaging form here.