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It struck me as another one of those colloquial phrases that differentiate English from French. I wrote to a friend, "Je me tiens les pouces" to wish her luck (literally translates as holding my thumbs). I didn't tell her I was "crossing my fingers" but she sent me back an emoji of this: 🤞 ! Another way the French-speakers have had to adapt, there is no emoji of someone holding their thumb. The older generations of French-speakers are not familiar with our English expression.

If you search for "pouce" or thumb in the emojis, you will find 👍 👎 and "doigt" gives you this 👌 as well (finger).

Can you think of another translation twister? When I made the decision to speak French without fear, I didn't care if I was wrong, if my phrases were anglicized, if the gender of the words was mixed up (and then mixed up again). The advantage to this "dive in head first" attitude paid off. It gave me the confidence I needed to put together a sentence and be understood. It gave me the courage to put myself out there, the brashness to be part of a conversation, the grit to search for the right vocabulary.

Yes, you will get the typical "rolling eyes" from some people who are uptight and cringe at the mistakes and de-grammaticalized sentences you've invented. Don't worry. Be bold, have the nerve to move forward, and you will see results. What you might be lacking is the fearlessness to construct a bad sentence. When you stumble through your mislaid words and pronunciation, the listener probably understands 80% of what you are saying... it is enough for them to mentally place the puzzle pieces and respond to you.

I was brought up in Geneva by American parents who never really learned French. They had all English-speaking activities, friends, and work. As I went to the International School, I also didn't really practice French outside of a 40 minute class. Little did I realize that somehow the vocabulary was in the very, very back of my memory and the day I decided that I was ashamed of my lack of language skills, I threw myself in. During my first job, my boss gave me 3 months to improve my French before hiring me on a permanent basis.

I realized that I would say la bière and le bière in the same sentence, that I couldn't pronounce the brand of cookies LU, that I blundered saying that I was sure that I was about to have my neck slashed (off with my head) but pronounced it as having my butt cut (cul instead of cou), but survived it all with a recklass attitude of abandon.

My words of advice:

  • Just go for it and you will see an improvement.
  • Doing nothing gives you nothing so make the effort.
  • People usually admire someone who makes the attempt.
  • Push yourself to have one conversation per day, however small.
  • Watch French-language TV, in particular children's shows are great for simple understanding.
  • Join a class, or club, or activity in French.

Don't worry, some expressions can be translated directly such as elbow grease = huile de coude.

Je me tiens les pouces pour que tu prends confiance en toi!


By Lisa Cirieco-Ohlman