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.
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.
- 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 someone – jeter la pierre à quelqu’un (literally, "to throw the rock at someone")
- like two peas in a pod – comme deux gouttes d’eau ("like two drops of water")
- once in a blue moon – tous les 36 du mois ("every 36th of the month")
- same difference – bonnet 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: