Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Never trust les faux amis

One of the dangers in learning English as a second language is assuming that what works in French should more or less work in English.

This mother tongue interference (sometimes known as laziness) may appear to fast track your English, but often results in entrenched errors. You can lose valuable time in your English lessons ‘unlearning’ bad habits.

The similarities between French and English (as against say French and Japanese) make it naturally more tempting to, consciously or unconsciously, let your mother tongue interfere.

For example, French speakers adore the verb profiter.

Nous avons profité du soleil et nous sommes allés nager.

French speakers know the word profit exists in English and often assume it can be used in the same sense. 

However, the equivalent phrase in English would be:

- We made the most of the sun and went swimming – to make the most of something

- We took advantage of the sun and went swimming – to take advantage of something

 Advice: the verb to profit (which means to get something useful from a situation) is rarely used in English, unlike French.

We profit from our mistakes (learn from)

Companies will profit from the tax breaks.

 The noun profit is also problematic for many French speakers. A profit is a financial term to describe the money that you make in business or by selling things, especially after paying the costs involved.

Fox TV made a profit of $1.2 million last year.

The French equivalent is bénéfice. This term is often confused with the English word benefit.

The noun benefit is an advantage; a helpful or useful effect that something gives you.

 - I've had the benefit of a good education.

- Unemployment benefits is money given to unemployed people on a monthly basis by the government.

Companies make profits or losses. They do NOT make benefits. But they may offer their employees certain benefits, such as a health insurance or paternity leave.

These examples of problematic vocabulary are called “false friends” or faux amis. These are pairs of words or phrases in two languages that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning.

If the word exists in both languages, is there a relatively safe crossover? The sensible answer to this is NO; which brings me to a classic faux amisensible (Fr) and sensible (Eng).

English: sensible = intelligent and responsible. Jane is a sensible young woman for her age.

English: sensitive (has both a positive and negative sense) describes someone who is aware of and able to understand other people and their feelings and emotions. George is a sensitive and caring man. Or the more negative meaning: easily offended or upset. George is very sensitive about his weight.

I am also a little sensitive about the direct translation of the expression, c’est parfait (that’s perfect), an overused French expression to indicate polite agreement or to show your appreciation for something.

In English the use of perfect is dominated by its main definition: completely correct; exact and accurate, without fault or weaknesses. When I tell a client that I will contact them next week with a proposal, he or she often replies: That’s perfect! I am waiting for your call.

Well, I’m sorry to say, it’s not perfect. It’s my job and I do my best, but it’s not perfect. It might be ‘good’ or ‘great’ or even ‘wonderful’.

Advice: Don’t say ‘It’s perfect!’ as a form of politesse. But you can say:  Great! Excellent! Very good! or simply Thanks or Thank you or even just a simple Okay is fine.

 But you can say: The car is in perfect condition. She speaks perfect English. The weather was perfect.  It is a perfect day for a picnic.

 J’attends votre appel is a popular French expression. However, if you say: I am waiting for your call, I would imagine you sitting next to the phone, hour after hour, twiddling your thumbs, waiting for me to ring you. Just like you wait for a bus, or read a National Geographic magazine while you wait for the doctor in her waiting room.

The better response is I look forward to hearing from you.

This is a classic polite phrase that is used both in spoken and written English in a variety of situations.

 Formal professional (spoken and written):

I look forward to hearing from you

I look forward to meeting you

I look forward to seeing you

I look forward to receiving your proposal

 General usage (less formal):

I am looking forward to my holiday in Australia.

I am not looking forward to my exams.

I look forward to seeing her again.


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