Faux Pas Fridays

We’ve been talking a lot this week about language skills (or lack thereof). So I thought it would be fun (though it might simply prove traumatic) to share some of our more egregious mistakes in French. Let’s call it ‘Faux Pas Fridays” (though my ‘false steps’ happen every day of the week).
Twitter 365 Project - Day 122
When I first moved to France, instead of going the common route of teaching English, I decided to teach Pilates. You might remember that I had a brief (failed) stint dancing in New York. One valuable skill I picked up along the way (aside from mimicking statues in postmodern movement pieces) was Pilates.

Turning up in Paris with no job leads, I advertised in English-speaking places (bookshops, expat forums, etc) offering private classes. I had a few clients (I have a few tales about them, too), but only three weeks into my stay, a French studio contacted me to see if I could teach at their studio.

I explained – in painfully broken French – that I didn’t actually speak French, so it might be difficult to teach in French. “Don’t be silly. You can show what you’re doing,” the owner kept insisting. “And your French isn’t that bad.”

Yes, she was hard up.

Having no other options, I decided to go for it. I had four days to prepare. Not only would I be teaching in French, but it would actually be my first time teaching. Ever. That’s right, I had a mat certification, but I had never actually taught before.

How can I possibly do this? I thought. I was going to have to memorize a full hour’s lesson, word for word.

For any of you who have taken Pilates (or yoga, for example), you know that these disciplines have a unique language all their own, never mind translating the lingo.

Besides a crash course in anatomy vocabulary (pelvis, glutes, ‘core muscles’), I also had to figure out how to say some pretty tricky phrases – and see if they actually meant anything.

“Pull your navel to your spine,” I tried out on Jerome.

“What?” he asked, staring at me blankly.

“It’s an image to help people with an exercise. Did I say that correctly?”

“Um, I guess those words are correct,” he said doubtfully. “But I really don’t know if people are going to understand.”

No kidding.

‘Relax’ was the name of the studio, but I was anything but relaxed when I turned up that first Monday. Exercise isn’t such a big thing in France, so the students in my class were not only, well French-speakers, but they also had no idea what Pilates was. I, with my sorry French skills and an oversaturated brain would have to introduce Pilates to them. Oh the poor darlings! They had no idea what was coming.

I’m pretty sure the students in that class got barely 10% of what I said. Or, let’s be real – it was not their fault – I probably made sense less than 1/10 of the time.

I had a cheat sheet of exercises scribbled on a sheet next to me. I knew I would be so rattled, that I would need some reminder of what to do next when panic set in.

Now we’re going to roll like a ball! I’d say, going into one of the most classic Pilates exercises. If you’ve never heard that before, I’m sure it sounds insane. (The students couldn’t decide whether it was because I couldn’t speak French – true – or because it really was what I wanted to say – also true).

An unconventional education, but learning French for me consisted of living with a boyfriend who didn’t speak my language and teaching Pilates to people who had no idea what I was saying. I learned to get by pretty quickly that way, but not correctly. If my French still seems bizarre (it is), blame it on those factors.

I could fill a book with examples of how ridiculous I sounded in those classes, but here are a few choice examples:

“Keep your hips still” (immobile). I was under the impression this is what I was saying for a few months. That is, until one of my regulars quietly pointed out – oh, after about the 100th time of repeating it – that I was actually saying something closer to immeuble (building). “Keep your hips building, people!”

Steph doing PilatesLa Défense

I also paid special attention to tell people to “lower” their leg (baisser), rather than (sorry! excuse my French!) “f***” their leg (baiser). A very, VERY dangerous similarity, especially for someone like me, a lost cause as far as French phonetics goes.

Some of those first students, bless their hearts, became regulars and stayed with me for a year. I’m sure it was for the entertainment value, as well as the exercise. (“Build your hips! Hump your leg!”) I can’t tell you how grateful I was for their kindness, though. Those lessons could have been the ruin of me – the shame, the humiliation too great to bear. Instead, they gave me confidence. Sure, I sounded like a fool, but I was leading a class and people were actually listening! (Who’s the fool now?)

When I get embarrassed about my French (often) I remember those as my daring days. If I could stand up and teach in French when I barely knew how to speak it, who am I to be so timid now?

How about you? What are some of your worst French faux pas? They can either be social blunders (the true meaning of the phrase faux pas) or language mistakes like I’ve offered. I’ll give a shout out on Fridays to some of the best examples!

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25 Responses to “Faux Pas Fridays”

  1. 1 Melane March 5, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    Why just yesterday:

    Melanie: Merci a vous pour venir!

    5 French-speaking Americans + 1 Frenchie: MERCI D’ETRE VENU!!!!!

    Yeah…10+ years of french classes, 1 french major, 5 years in Paris…I am a STILL a walking faux pas!


    • 2 parisimperfect March 5, 2010 at 4:18 pm

      Ok, this just shows you the state of my French. At first I didn’t get the error. You know why? Because the way you said it is how I construct my sentences! Boy, this is really going to teach me a lot. Thanks for a great example!


  2. 3 Janet March 5, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    Hey Sion!

    I just couldn’t help it when I noticed the topic of French faux pas – that’s a great entry. 🙂 Here’s your first faux pas – my husband is French Canadian, and so obviously they speak French with their own set of slang. We were visiting for Christmas one year, I can’t remember, and my high school French is okay but I’m definitely not comfortable with. I was testing out my skills though, which his parents who were sitting with me in the room with the Christmas tree. I was commenting how nice the decorations are, in particular the Christmas balls. Yeah, right after I said it, did I remember that “boules” not only means “balls” but also “breats”, or rather “boobs.” Yeah – his dad started chuckling and i just turned red and played dumb. Good thing his parents are pretty easy going.

    There’s nothing like being forced to speak the language to get fluent. Props to you for taking on French! 🙂



    • 4 parisimperfect March 5, 2010 at 4:16 pm

      Janet! That’s a great example! And I’ve just learned something. (I will *not* put boobs on the Christmas tree 🙂 ). Thanks for stopping by! How are you dealing with French in Brussels?


      • 5 Janet March 5, 2010 at 4:32 pm

        Not too badly. I’m taking French classes which sometimes is like pulling teeth. There are a number of students so activities sometimes take longer than they should. 🙂

        The most confusing thing is the small differences between Belgian and France French. Meals? There’s breakfast, lunch, dinner: petit dejeuner, dejeuner, and diner. Belgium? Dejeuner, diner, and souper. Except not everyone follows that convention, so I can never tell if I’m making plans for lunch or breakfast with someone.

        I’m going to have to stick with it when I go back to the States though – join some language groups or something. Isn’t it amazing how the majority of people here speak at least two languages if not more?

        So is Jerome learning English from you? I loved reading how you two met. 🙂



  3. 6 parisimperfect March 5, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    Hey Janet. Wow, that would be confusing! I can only handle one kind of French at a time.

    As for Jerome’s English. Well. Since I moved here, we thought we’d get me up to speed with French and then he’d do English. RIGHT. Learning French is neverending, so that timeline doesn’t work. This year we’ve finally started English days and French days. We still speak about 95% in French, but now I say more things in English. He doesn’t always understand me, but he’s getting better. And it’s a nice relief for me! 🙂


  4. 7 lydia March 7, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Hello Sion
    My first job when I arrived in France was to teach English to a couple of boys who lived in a chateau. One day I was asked to organise and run a birthday party for them and all their little french friends. The grand day dawned and their guests, plus mothers and younger siblings arrived and kept on arriving. There were far more than I anticipated and indeed, I completely lost count of how many children I was dealing with. Soon everyone was high on sugar and ‘e’ numbers and the noise levels became unbearable. I decided it was time to play a quiet game (sleeping lions) where everyone lay down and if they moved they were out. The trouble was, I couldn’t remember how to say ‘lie down.’ Unfortunately, in the tiny pocket dictionary I had on me, the word *LIE* was next to the word *LICK* . You can imagine the looks I got from all the assembled parents as I merrily shouted to all the children to LICK THEMSELVES. Strangely enough, no one corrected me… but their amused faces and the fact that none of the children lay down as instructed, told me that something was very wrong…


    • 8 parisimperfect March 7, 2010 at 1:10 pm


      That’s a brilliant example! Nothing like making a faux pas in such a public setting. That’s why my Pilates classes were so funny – I *had* to say *something*, even if I didn’t know exactly how to say it. Sounds like you know exactly what I mean. I can just picture the scene at that birthday party. Very funny that no one corrected you. I had the same experience. You can always tell, though, when you’ve said something wrong… 🙂


  5. 9 PigletinFrance March 8, 2010 at 10:04 am

    LOL! I love pilates but its hard enough to understand a class in English if you’re a beginner! I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for you to get through those first lessons! Baiser/Baisser has been a mistake I’ve been making for years… Well done for your perseverance!


    • 10 parisimperfect March 8, 2010 at 12:52 pm

      Haha. Yeah, I’m pretty sure my first students thought I was a real weirdo 🙂 Turned out to be such a positive experience, though. Can’t believe how nice they were! I have a hard time getting into exercise classes in French, and I’m actually familiar with what we’re doing! Can’t imagine how it must have sounded when they didn’t know 1) what Pilates was and 2) their teacher could barely form a sentence 🙂


  6. 11 pariskarin March 10, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    I have a lot to catch up on, comments-wise! I have been checking in and skimming, but wanted to come back to let you know I liked what I read.

    Funny thing — I have been going to yoga on and off for a year now, and have had the opposite problem — the instructor uses French and I don’t know it very well! It really has helped to learn a little French. I would be good at Simon says in French if it involved things like “contract your pelvic floor and abdomen,” for example, lol. I can imagine how stressed out you would have been trying to teach a whole class — a first time! — in French.

    “Build your hips! Hump your leg!” I laughed so hard at this! 🙂

    What I admire most is that you were thrown into sink-or-swim situations right off the bat, and honestly, that is really the best way to learn. My MA in teaching English to speakers of other languages which involved quite a few courses in language acquisition informed me this is true, as have others who have lived it.

    I have not yet really been thrown into the pool and my sense of shame around not knowing how to say anything yet prevents me from trying to swim. Sooner or later, I hope I find my own diving board. I want to be able to communicate with others, but the need is definitely going to have to outweigh the fear before I will venture in.

    I am so glad the students were kind! 🙂 I a


  7. 12 pariskarin March 10, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    Whoops. Somehow I hit Submit before I was finished. I was going to write I also got a good chuckle over your commenters’ stories! Thank you, everyone, for sharing!


    • 13 parisimperfect March 10, 2010 at 9:40 pm

      Thanks for stopping by again to show the love. Yes, people have shared some *great* stories in the comments (get ready for your shout-outs, people 🙂 ).

      And WOW! You have an MA in ESOL? That’s amazing! You could definitely help French speakers learn English, don’t you think?

      Sink or swim. Yep, definitely a good way to learn, but man, it can be overwhelming sometimes. Good thing about embarrassing moments, though – they make great stories! 🙂


      • 14 pariskarin March 11, 2010 at 9:58 am

        I just read Erica’s contribution there and BWAH HAH HAH HAH HAH!! That is *awesome*; Definitely the winner! 😀

        Yeah, an MA in ESOL and have taught on and off since 1990. Now all I need are those pesky working papers and I am good to go, lol. *sigh* It’s been one of the big ironies of being in France for me: highly qualified to teach English and no way to do it! Soon, though, I hope. 🙂 I am starting to get some contacts for private students, too, so things may start looking up.


  8. 15 erica March 10, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    How about this great one? My francophone friend who spent a few years in the States, would unconsciously translate idioms from French to English when he needed to make a point. I used to do that too in the transitioning years from French to English.
    His most fantastic one, and keep in mind that he did not realize what he was saying, was when he translated the idiom “Sauter du coq a l’ane” which is what people do when they change the subject abruptly. His translation? You jump from the cock to the ass!


    • 16 parisimperfect March 10, 2010 at 10:48 pm

      Oh. my. goodness. Ahem, we might have a winner. Definite shout-out material, Erica. But blushing me, wow, don’t know if I can bring myself to write that!

      And P.S. Didn’t know that idiom even in French. Jeez. Do people actually say that? I’ve obviously been missing a lot 🙂


      • 17 erica March 11, 2010 at 7:07 am

        Yeah, it’s in reference to a story about animal farms that stood next to each other, from the smallest (the rooster, le coq) to the largest (the donkey, l’ane) In between, a cat, a dog, etc….. Thing is, I can’t remember the story about the farm animals.


      • 18 parisimperfect March 11, 2010 at 12:13 pm

        No kidding. Who would remember the story after that quote? 🙂


  9. 19 Leesa March 11, 2010 at 8:42 am

    Hi Sion…

    I’m stopping by after seeing you on Keith’s blog- A Taste of Garlic. I LOVE Pilates and can’t find it really here.. though I’m sure Paris has some places, I live down in Antony, south burbs…

    Are you interested in joining me and a group of “Anglophones” and other Frenchies… spouses, friends, etc… for a picnic mid Apirl in the Parc de Sceaux?? I’m organizing a picnic for then, but all depends on the weather, really…
    Anyhow… I will stop back by your blog and check it out some more..
    Take care,


    • 20 parisimperfect March 11, 2010 at 12:08 pm

      Hi Leesa. Thanks for stopping by! And for the invitation. I’d have to get back to you on that. Plus, with this weather I can’t quite believe it’s ever going to be warm again 🙂
      Take care,


  10. 21 Angela October 5, 2013 at 10:40 pm


    I just came across your blog by accident, as I was searching how to find pilates jobs in Paris. I realise this entry was a while ago but any advice you could give me would be helpful.

    I am a dancer, Osteopath, Pilates instructor form Australia looking for work in Paris. I am currently taking french classes in France however my french is broken.

    Any ideas where I could start looking for work?



  1. 1 Faux Pas Friday: Nice Boules! « paris (im)perfect Trackback on March 12, 2010 at 4:43 pm
  2. 2 Summerflings, We Were Evergreen « paris (im)perfect Trackback on June 22, 2012 at 1:40 pm
  3. 3 The Pleasures of Routine | paris (im)perfect Trackback on October 28, 2014 at 2:32 pm

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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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