Transference errors

French transference errors

A transference error is a certain type of mistake, common to foreign language learners, which can be particularly difficult to stop making. The hardest part is becoming aware of the error; once you’ve done that, it’s just a matter of figuring out the correction and practicing your way to perfection.

Transference errors occur when students assume that aspects of their native language apply to the one they’re learning: they transfer the rules of one language onto another. These types of errors can be tricky to overcome because students are typically unaware that they’re making them. When you want to say "eagle," for example, and realize you don’t know how, you’re aware of this gap in your knowledge and you can look it up in the dictionary or ask a friend. But transference errors are much more difficult to spot – you usually need someone to point them out to you, or you need to explore contrastive analysis (the study of structural differences between two languages) in order to pinpoint the ones you’re making without even realizing it.

Grammar gaffes – Gaffes grammaticales

Beginning and even intermediate students often assume that they can say something in French just by changing the words, without looking at the underlying grammar. But there are many structural differences between English and French (indeed, between any two languages), so you definitely need more than a bilingual dictionary to communicate effectively in a new language.

Here are just a few big differences between English and French:

  • Adjective position: English adjectives go in front of nouns, but most French adjectives go after them.
    a red car – une voiture rouge
  • Articles: French uses articles far more than English.
    I like chocolate. – J’aime le chocolat.
  • Articles with professions: The one time that English uses an article but French doesn’t.
    I’m a teacher. – Je suis professeur.
  • Present progressive: This verb form doesn’t exist in French, which just uses the simple present.
    I’m writing a book. – J’écris un livre.

Error check: Your Kwiziq studyplan will find these and other errors in your French grammar knowledge, and our friendly A.I. KwizBot will test you until he’s sure you’ve overcome them.

False friends – Faux amis

English speakers learning French are fortunate that so many words are spelled the same or very similarly in the two languages. However, they don’t always mean exactly the same thing; assuming that they do is a transference error.

For example,

  • actually ≠ actuellement
    actually = en fait
    right now = actuellement
  • eventual ≠ éventuel
    eventual = final
    possible = éventuel
  • to hate ≠ hâter
    to hate = haïr
    to hasten = hâter
  • robe ≠ une robe
    robe = un peignoir
    dress = une robe

Error check: There are thousands of "true friends," but don’t automatically assume that similar words have similar meanings – always confirm with a teacher or dictionary.

Idioms – Idiotismes

Another common transference error is the word-for-word translation of idioms (idiomatic expressions) into a foreign language. Idioms are particularly tricky because they often don’t make much sense when you really look at the words, and the foreign language equivalent may be straightforward or equally non-sensical upon analysis.

A few examples:

  • to accuse someonejeter la pierre à quelqu’un (literally, "to throw the rock at someone")
  • like two peas in a podcomme deux gouttes d’eau ("like two drops of water")
  • once in a blue moontous les 36 du mois ("every 36th of the month")
  • same differencebonnet blanc et blanc bonnet ("white hat and hat white")

Error check: Once again, dictionaries and native speakers are your friends, as are these expressions lessons from our Education Partners:

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Author info

Laura K Lawless

Laura is Kwiziq's Language and Marketing Coordinator. Online educator since '99, Laura is passionate about language, travel, and cooking. She's American by birth and a permanent ex-pat by choice - freelancing made it possible for her to travel extensively and live in several countries before settling permanently in Guadeloupe. Laura is the author of Lawless French, Lawless Spanish, and other websites and books on French, Spanish, English, and vegetarianism. She spends most of her spare time reading, playing with food, and enjoying water sports.

Comments: 6


23 January 2016

A transference problem I have difficulty with is the placement of adverbs. In English the rules are "soft" or suggestions based on emphasis, but apparently rules are much firmer in French. Are there good ways to learn the right way to learn adverb placement in French?


25 January 2016

1 replies

Is "idiotismes" really a good translation for "idioms"? :)

Laura K. Lawless

26 January 2016

1 replies



28 January 2016

Je me fais moine... Thanks :)


27 August 2016

OMG! There are so many, many rules. Will a person who may not be able to visit France ever be able to speak the language?

Javad Khalafbeigi

31 August 2016

Hi dear Laura I am looks like you love language I have B.S in electrical engineering when I am thinking about myself

capacity I like linguistics branch my mother language is FARSI or PERSIAN the branch of INDOEUROPEAN language

My university language was english any way I would like learning FRENCH by help with you best regards JMAX

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