Broken English

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Broken French in Ottawa, Spring 2011

For some reason, I don’t speak English with a typical French accent—but I can imitate it if needed. I don’t really know what I sound like in English. Better than in Spanish, I hope. Most people can probably hear my accent when I talk but they can rarely tell where I’m from.

I don’t feel as self-conscious about my English as I used to be, probably because I’m fluent now. Besides, I spend my days editing, reviewing, writing and translating documents in both official languages. Obviously, my English is good enough for that.

That said, there are mistakes I keep on making, no matter how many times I catch myself and correct them.

Take the word “jeans” for instance. I still catch myself saying “my jean is…”, using the singular, like French do. On a side note, Feng used to find the way I used to pronounce American brands hilarious: “Nikeuh”, “”LEH-vees”… But I get my revenge when he says “DanONE” for “Danone”!

So what other tricky words? “Neighbourhood”. For the life of me, I can never spell it right, and I manage to write it differently every single time. And I’m not even remotely dyslexic (which, ironically, it’s another hard-to-spell word). “Connection/connexion”, I can never remember which one is the French spelling and which one is the English one. Same goes with “address/adresse”, although this one is a bit easier. On the other side, I have no problem writing “anaesthetized” or “conscientious”—go figure! Note that I’m still human, I can’t write “Czechoslovakia” without spell-check.

I also suck at spelling out loud in English and I blame it on the fact I’ve never learned the language formally. Spelling the alphabet is presumably one of the first things English as a second language students learn but I skipped that stage. Even before I came to Canada, “z” was “zed” to me because in French, it’s “zed” too. I can never pronounce “g” and “j” right. I know one is “jee” and the other is “jai” but in French, it’s the opposite and I always get mixed up. “It’s not the end of world,” you are probably thinking. Well, maybe not but when your full name is “Juliette Giannesini” it certainly is an issue. When receptionists look for my name in the system and can’t find it, I tell them to check under “Guliette Jiannesini” just in case. And now, you know why I picked a three-letter Chinese nickname—it saves me the torture of spelling it. Too bad I can’t book appointments under “Zhu”!

Prepositions sometimes still confuse me. Do you “look at the window”, “look by the window”, “look out the window”, “look out at the window”, “look through the window”? I hate these little words, “at”, “to”, “by” etc., especially in English, because they can totally change the meaning of a word, such as “to work/to work out”, “to pick up/to pick on someone”. But it’s the same in French—I remember, my students had a lot of issues with prepositions and I often resorted to saying “it’s idiomatic” to those who complained about it.

I finally adopted the Canadian English spelling and it now feels more natural but it confused me for a long time. I mean, aren’t “color” and “colour” the same thing? Can’t you guys agree on the spelling once and for all? That may actually be the origin of my trauma spelling “neighbourhood”!

I no longer speak franglais but because I’m living in Ottawa and work in both in English and in French, I’m used to quickly switch between one language and the other, not to mention we sometimes speak Mandarin at home. A side of my brain contains a French dictionary and the other one an English dictionary. Even the punctuation changes. See, in English there is no space before a colon but in French there is one. In both Quebec French and English, there is no space before a question mark or an exclamation mark but in Parisian French, there is one. And so on…

Welcome to my world. Most of the time, I don’t even know which language I’m thinking in. Did I even write that article in English?


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Spelling suck. Honest. I have to always remind myself when to use lose and loose. And if you think Czechoslovakia is hard, try Liechtenstein 😉

  2. I had to laugh when I thought of you trying to spell your name for appointments. I work with someone with a very long Ukrainian family name and it’s torture to listen to her spell it out, letter by letter, every single time. I prefer the phonetic alphabet for this purpose, except that mostly only the travel and aviation industry (and military, of course) use it.

    If you think that’s bad, think of what it’s like for Filipinos who get stuck with misspelling of both the country and our nationality ALL THE TIME. Here are some common variations:


    My geography professor said it is the most misspelled country in the world.

    And it’s a bit of linguistic cruelty that Filipinos cannot even pronounce their own nationality or country because there is no ‘f’ sound in the language — it becomes the ‘p’ sound. Blame it all on Spain: the Philippines was a colony for 400 years and is named after King Philip II of Spain.

    • That’s funny! It’s true that I always pause when I write the Philippines, I always have to double-check whether it’s a double “p” or a double “n”. I didn’t know there was no “f” sound in the language though. Tagalog sounds familiar to me because of its Spanish roots.

      I didn’t know the origin of the country’s name!

  3. I know exactly what you mean! I can’t keep up on neighbourhood (or is it neighborhood? argh!), address, etc… and I completely mess up the meaning of some “predefined phrases” and then the whole sentence stops making any sense. I’m glad that native speakers have the patience to read carefully and catch the real meaning of my words 🙂

    • Idiomatic sentences are hard to learn in every language! Spanish and French are fairly close but some expressions really puzzled me at first.

  4. Oh I got one that P always confuses himself with. “Close” the lights. As in turn off the lights. I asked him if he was going to close the door instead? And there are funny words that got him too, like Pomegranate, and a few states that would be very confusing if you never heard the name…

    And spellings yup, they confuse me as I grew up with American English, then learned British English in Switzerland and come to find that many people still use American here and I don’t know which way I should go… But as I was taught in TOEFL, speak the language you learned and grew up with!

    Herbs, verse saying “ERBS”
    Pasta, vs saying “paaaaasta”
    Labour, vs Labor
    Armour, vs Armor
    Advise, vs advice
    there are many more but I’ve forgotten lately…

    • I adopted Canadian English because it’s fairly standard here at work but I still see a lot of U.S. spelling. The built-in spell-check in Word helped me learn Canadian English spelling thanks to language localization!

  5. G and J are so hard from english to french too. And I too have the issue of a name with both, not my own, but my son’s who’s is J…. G….. Not only is his christian name unknown in France, but there is always a pause when I have to spell it as my mind goes through the “do I say “jee” or “jai” dilemma?”!

    • A lot of French names are unknown in English as well. A friend of mine is Marion and people always have trouble pronouncing her name!

      Glad to see I’m not the only one who has issues with “g” and “j”!

  6. I love this post. How interesting to learn about your English language problems! Most of the blogs I read talk about how hard it is to learn French, but the street goes both ways.

  7. I’ve found that the rules for capitalization are very different in English and French. I used to wonder why the French don’t capitalize much, usually just the first letter of the first word in a title. After lots of typing I realized that the French way was better ’cause it’s so annoying having to hit the SHIFT key all the time!

    • True! I keep on removing caps in English at work because people tend to overuse them. It’s okay for titles but you just can’t Capitalize Every Word You Feel Is Important!

  8. This post made me laugh. Even I have trouble with English, even though I learned it at the age of 3. I don’t have the correct grasp of gender (because my first language doesn’t have gender), and my prepositions are just all over the place.

    • Really? I wouldn’t have thought so, you write beautifully. I didn’t know Tagalog didn’t have gender… if that’s you first language. Because Spanish does, I would assume it does too.

  9. Hi there! I recently discovered your blog – it’s awesome! I can’t say I’ve read every single entry, but I’ve read many, many of them! This post is so true!!
    I’m from Argentina and just wanted to let you know that we no longer have the coins problem :).
    Have a nice day!!

    • Hello and thanks for taking the time to comment!

      Ah, I’m glad to read Argentina has more change and coins now. This was in 2008, I guess things changed the past few years! I still love Argentina, coins or not 😉

      • Hi again! Well, it really took a long time for the coins situation to get better! It only got better at the beginning of this year because all the buses started having the option of paying with a card (Monedero or SUBE), the same one we can use to pay the subway.
        I’m glad you still like it!!!
        I’m moving to Quebec in August. Maybe I’ll see you around if I go to Ottawa.
        Have a great day!

        • Oh, that’s cool you are coming to Canada! I hope you will enjoy it. I’ll come and bug you for an interview after you arrive here 😉

          I remember at the time we wondered why Buenos Aires doesn’t use a card system. Glad to see it’s been implemented!

          • Sure!! I’ll love to be interviewed by you, you make sensible questions! It’ll be my 3rd time in Canada: 1st time I was an exchange student for a year, 2nd time, a tourist for 2 months, and now a resident!! Can’t wait!!

  10. I learned English the hard way, I was an exchange student in the US and I learned it by listening to others and the TV shows (Friends, Seinfield and ER). It was a pain, for months I could not communicate nor understand my classmates. Suddenly, one day I was able to understand everything and now I am happy since the language comes as second nature to me.
    As per the pronunciation, I am glad I kept my Spanish accent and I usually tend to overemphasize the H sound since it is similar to the J sound in Spanish. My friends say that when I say Hotmail, it sometimes sounds like Hhhhhhhhhhhotmail 🙂

    • 😆 I find Spanish speakers don’t have a strong accent in English (nor in French, although most have issues with the “j” which is not “r” in French). I like accents… make a country more interesting!

      And I also watched a lot of Friends episodes when I first learned English!

  11. That’s a funny post! I like how you mis-spell your own name. 😀

    Prepositions… Every English-as-a-second-language speaker’s nightmare!

    • Oh, tell me about it! But French also has a lot of prepositions, and so does Spanish… and come to think of it, so does Mandarin!

  12. I can’t get the plural forms down in Spanish- so you have one up on me! I’m always self conscious speaking in another language!

  13. This made me laugh, and I could definitely relate. Although I’m nowhere near fluent in German already sometimes I find myself forgetting the English word or writing the word in German instead of in English. I struggle with prepositions as well.

    • I often come up with “new” French words based on the English 😆 It’s hard to switch from one language to another like that!

  14. I speak a little german…I have been told that I have an english accent and I am from kentucky…:O I thought I had it rough

    Deutsche is odd for example W sounds much like V and V sounds much like F

    examples: wasser,weiß ß=ss was

    ch doesn’t sound like cha but more like a hissing noise

    look up the german phonetic for milch

    Personally I think we should all go to a single world language for the sake of unity and peace because I believe most of the world’s conflicts come from a lack of communication/education, but after thinking that I always wonder if the effect on cultural heritage would really be worth it.

  15. For giving one’s name for reservations and such, it is well worth learning the standard (NATO, ICAO, etc.) phonetic alphabet.
    Typically when faced with a bad phone connection or unusual names people make up their own words on the fly, but that leads to all kinds of trouble. It takes only a little practice, and then you’ll be able to confidently say “my name is Zhu – that’s Zulu Hotel Uniform – no, not Juliett Echo Whiskey”, rather than struggling with, “Z like, uh, uh, xylophone – no wait, I mean like, uh zebra”.

    As for Canadian English spelling… There are lots of people who think that Canadian English is just some arbitrary mixture of UK and US English. It’s not, and there are quite standard spellings that are in many cases different from both. For example in Canada we write centre (not center) and colour (not color) like the Brits, but we write tire (not tyre) and curb (not kerb) like the Americans. Then there’s the question of -ise vs -ize. And strangest of all is license (the verb) vs licence (noun). The best reference is Joe Clark’s site at where he has an ebook for sale, and a (free) downloadable Canadian spelling database.

    Love your show…

    Tango Oscar November Yankee

    • You know what, I might do just that, this is a great solution! Makes a lot of sense too because I noticed I’m not the only one with spelling issues.

      “Tyre” and “Kerb” look weird to me. However, I’m still a bit confused with “centre” and “center”. But Canadian English spelling is well-worth using!

  16. Hi Zhu,

    Interesting post.
    And the topic is so a propos because the Lusosphere is combating the “Acordo Ortográfico” between all Portuguese speaking nations. The purists (mainly in Brazil and Portugal) do not agree with the proposed changes and so we use Britain as an example: they write “colour” and “neighbourhood” and they do not intend to change it. Neither do Americans. Nor should they; so why should we?

    In our case it was a political matter (Socrates signed the “acordo” with Lula…see where I’m getting at?); but both Brazilian and Portuguese purists are trying to revert it. Our different ways of expressing Portuguese is enriching to the Language itself (as long as we respect basic grammar).

    But I digress…

    Your brain is rich with information and that is a blessing!
    If you were in my family you had to deal with much more languages than that: Portuguese, Italian, English, French, Spanish, Ronga & Xangana (Mozambique), Swahili, German, Greek and Hebrew…so, yeah…I feel you!!


    • I think it’s good when each country/area keeps its own spelling quirks and local lingo. Makes the world a richer place! We need more differences, not everything can be globalized.

  17. I guess I went through some similar stages.
    The funny thing is that I was fine with prepositions before, but now I keep having doubts.
    When I’m marking essays is the worse because I keep wondering if it’s them or me! and then I’m unable to write at those times.
    I think I’m ok with spelling though. I can actually say the alphabet backwards, which I’m really proud of!

  18. I think I’m mostly using US spelling because somehow I can’t switch the spell-check to Canadian English on my computer. I don’t mind though, I hate writing letters that aren’t pronounced. I’d like to have all languages using IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). It would be much simpler! 😛

  19. I was so happy with my English all these years. And now I live with someone who corrects my preposition and genders. Why can’t I say “I want to wash her” when talking about the bike, or say “put him inside” for the umbrella? I am forgetting all this. 🙂

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