Introduction - Speed Up Your French: Strategies to avoid common errors (2016)

Speed Up Your French: Strategies to avoid common errors (2016)


This book is intended for English-speaking students, either at secondary school or at university, who have attained an intermediate level in French. It is designed primarily as a guide for self-learning, though it could also be used as a supplement to classroom materials, both for intermediate-level students and for more advanced students who need to revise particular areas of the language.

It focuses on the aspects of foreign language, such as false friends, idiomatic expressions, and the use of prepositions that typically cause English speakers difficulty in their production and understanding of French. The aim is to enable students to identify, understand and overcome their errors in order to become more competent and confident language users with a surer grasp of vocabulary and idiom, as well as grammar.

The illustrative examples that accompany the sections of explanation are as important as the explanations themselves in encouraging students to break old connections based on false analogies with English and form new connections and associations with other related French expressions. Students will develop their own learning strategies through active engagement with the material in the book, but at particular points mnemonic devices are suggested, both for immediate support and in the hope that they will encourage the creation of other self-tailored devices. Throughout the book, it is emphasised that the examples given can rarely be exhaustive, and students are advised, when appropriate, to consult a good bilingual dictionary or a reference grammar to further their independent learning.

Active learning is promoted by the extensive exercises and answer key for self-checking. In each chapter, the final exercise takes the form of a continuous text with gaps to be filled. Unlike the earlier sentence-based exercises, each of which relates to a particular section or sections of a chapter, this final exercise covers the whole chapter and serves as a revision tool.

It would be impossible to cover in a single book every type of common error, so a selection has necessarily had to be made. The author has deliberately decided not to write a revision grammar, but rather to follow the precedent set by the Spanish volume in the Speed Up Your Languageseries with a focus on vocabulary and idiom as much as on grammar. This book brings together a variety of material, accompanied by exercises, that is not readily available elsewhere in such a systematised form. We hope that it will enable students to improve their mastery of French not only by avoiding common errors but also by acquiring a deeper understanding of the language and a richer range of expression.

Chapter 1 deals with the gender and number of simple and compound nouns in French. The first part underlines how important it is for students to learn the gender of nouns so they can improve the accuracy of their spoken and written French. A list of general patterns helps to predict the gender of a noun, in some cases according to meaning, but more often according to ending. Notable exceptions are highlighted and attention is drawn to common problem nouns. Some subtleties of the language are then explored by discussing nouns that change meaning according to gender, e.g. un crème (a white coffee) as opposed to la crème (cream), or whose gender varies according to use, e.g. tous les braves gens (m.), but toutes les vieilles gens (f.). The second part of the chapter focuses on the formation of the plural of simple and compound nouns in French. It then highlights differences between the two languages in their treatment of the plural, discussing cases where a plural in French corresponds to a singular in English and vice versa. The final section of the chapter tackles common problems with adjective agreements, which arise as soon as matters of gender and number are considered.

Chapters 2, 3 and 4, though they deal respectively with verbs, nouns, and adjectives and adverbs, all focus on the phenomenon of ‘false friends’, which are a common cause of error for English-speaking students. These words look like English words, but they have a different meaning. In each chapter, there are two lists, the first consisting of ‘false friends’ proper and the second of words whose meaning overlaps partially with the assumed English equivalent. Example sentences are chosen to illustrate the meaning of the words in context and useful phrases are given to help fix them in the memory. Related words and synonyms are discussed, all with the aim of expanding students’ vocabulary and accuracy of usage.

Chapter 5 deals with common phrases and idiomatic expressions used with the verbs aller, avoir, donner, être, faire, mettre, prendre, tenir, tomber and venir. If students are not aware of the variety of ways in which these verbs are used and how often their meaning is not a literal one, e.g. venir de faire quelque chose (to have just done something), common errors of misunderstanding may arise. This chapter encourages students to add these expressions to their active, as well as their passive, vocabulary.

Chapter 6 highlights pronominal verbs like se débrouiller (to manage). English-speaking students of French are sometimes surprised by the frequency with which these verbs occur when there is no reflexive or reciprocal meaning at issue. This chapter explains how and why they are used, and distinguishes between the pronominal and non-pronominal usage of verbs like améliorer/s’améliorer (to improve). It also discusses the use of a pronominal verb to translate an English passive and the distinction, often problematic for an English speaker, between action and state, as in elle s’assied (she sits down) and elle est assise (she is sitting).

Chapter 7 examines so-called problem pairs and other misused expressions. The problems discussed in the first part of the chapter arise from pairs or groups of French words that students sometimes find it difficult to choose between. These include: verbs such as savoir and connaître; nouns such as le parti, la partie, and la part; the pronouns y and en; and the adjective meilleur and the adverb mieux for ‘better/best’. The next section of the chapter considers common French expressions that have more than one meaning, e.g. arriver (to arrive or to happen). The chapter concludes by highlighting some common French expressions that are sometimes misused, e.g. il s’agit de (it is a question of; it is about) or misunderstood, e.g. tu me manques (I miss you).

Chapter 8 deals with the use of prepositions. This is an area that can still cause difficulties even for quite advanced language learners, because usage is idiomatic and frequently different from English. The opening material is sub-divided into four categories (place, time, manner, measurement). Differences between the two languages in each category are then highlighted and mnemonic devices are provided to help reinforce the points. The remaining four sections of the chapter discuss: (i) common translation problems from English to French posed by particular prepositions; (ii) French verbs with two different usages, e.g. penser à and penser de; (iii) different constructions in English and French after a verb, e.g. dépendre de (to depend on); (iv) the translation of English phrasal verbs, e.g. ‘to swim across’, into French.

Chapter 9 presents spelling and more. It highlights key differences between French and English with regard to spelling, capitalisation and the presentation of numbers. It also focuses on particular features of French, such as the use of accents, elision and the notion of the aspirate ‘h’. The exercises enable students to practise the various conventions and hence improve the professional appearance of their written French.

Appendix 1 is intended to complement Chapter 8 by providing students with more detailed information about the usage of prepositions with names of countries and islands. Experience has shown that although general guidance, as given in Chapter 8, is a good starting point, students often need more specific guidance and more information than they can find in a dictionary about a variety of place names.

Appendix 2 provides answers to the exercises contained in the chapters of the book.