Je n’ai entendu que des bribes de conversation.

Je n’ai entendu que des bribes d’une conversation.

zhnay ah-tah-dewk day breeb dewn kaw-vair-sah-seeYAW. Click below to hear this.*

All I heard was snatches of conversation.

It’s all in the little words! The ones that connect the big words together. And don’t let yourself be betrayed by false friends…

Let’s say you are a real beginner in French. Or else let’s say that you are the impatient sort who tends to overlook details and pays attention only to the salient points. Either way, you might be tempted to see only the three biggest words: entendu, bribes, and conversation. And you might make a stab at understanding the sentence this way: I heard bribes in conversation.

But this is no conversation about bribes, and you heard very little that you could prove to the investigating police officer. Une bribe is a scrap, a snatch (not a snitch!), a bit. Des bribes de conversation are snatches of conversation that you can’t string together in any meaningful form. It’s a faux ami, a false friend that looks like an English word but means something else.

And ne…que means only, no more than, which further limits the extent of your understanding of what was happening. You may have heard nothing at all, except isolated words.

So, without paying close attention to all the words in a sentence, you are hearing only des bribes de conversation, and you may badly misinterpret what you think happened, much like this sentence.

*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file:

je_nai_entendu_que_des_bribes.mp3

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