False friends: Spotting and avoiding common linguistic traps
You’re reading a book in a foreign language that you’re trying to learn, and you spot a familiar word. It’s similar to one in your mother tongue, so it must have a similar meaning, right? Er, wrong. Stumbling across these words can be a bit like when you think you recognize an old friend walking across the street, but when you get closer, you realize it isn’t who you thought.
Within the world of languages, words that look or sound similar but mean completely different things in different languages, are known as “false cognates” or “false friends.” And, when you’re learning a new language, false friends can easily trip you up.
Where do false friends come from?
Many languages share common origins so some similar-looking or sounding words will actually be, well, real friends, and still mean pretty much the same thing. For example, the English and Spanish words accident and accidente, or the English and German words for a dad — father and vater. These are known as cognates.
But not all cognates are created equal; as languages evolve the meanings can shift separately too, resulting in word pairings that look like cognates but actually aren’t. Cue: false cognates, or false friends. These are often found in groups of languages with shared etymology such as the Romance languages (including French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian) or the Germanic languages (like German, English and Dutch).
Some false friends look the same, others sound the same
Pain [English – French]
Let’s take, for example, the word pain. In English, these four letters describe feelings of hurt — you’d feel pain if you broke your arm. Meanwhile, in France, pain is the word for bread, so ordering a pain au chocolat from the café will result in a sweet treat, not a trip to the hospital.
Burro [Italian – Spanish]
Though spelled the same, in Italian burro means butter, and in Spanish burro means donkey. Harmless but hilarious to mix up.
Library [English] – Librairie [French]
These meanings are so similar that mistakes here are easily made. A library in English is a public book rental store. Meanwhile, in French, bibliothèque is the word for a library, while librairie is the word for a bookshop. You leave both with books, but one of them expects you to bring them back…
Gift [English – German]
This one you don’t want to get wrong. The word gift in English means a present — a nice thing to give somebody. However, the German translation of gift is poison — not so nice.
Baskets [English – French]
In English, baskets are boxes or bags that are often woven from natural materials, but in French, the word emerged from basketball, and baskets are sneakers. So, if your French friend tells you they’re going for a run in mes baskets, don’t look confused.
Braaf [Dutch] – Brave [English]
Think you’ve been told that you’re courageous and heroic whilst in the Netherlands? You might be mistaken; the Dutch word braaf is pronounced just like the English word brave, but just means being well-behaved.
Jubilation [English] – Jubilación [Spanish]
Jubilation is an English word that means great feelings of happiness — if you won the lottery, you’d be jubilant. In Spain, however, the very similar-looking jubilación means retirement. Well, most people are probably pretty jubilant to reach their jubilación.
Journey [English] – Journée [French]
Here’s yet another Anglo-French false friend that you are likely to encounter. In French, journée means day (hence the friendly greeting bonjour, meaning good morning), but in English, taking a journey means to travel from one place to another.
Enkel [German]– Ankle [English]
This is an unusual sound-alike pairing; German word enkel, means grandchild, and is pronounced in the same way that English will say the word ankle.
Embarazada [Spanish] – Embarrassed [English]
Feeling embarrassed? You will if you mess up with this false friend — in Spain, if you say that you’re embarazada, you’ll actually be announcing that you’re pregnant, not embarrassed. Yikes.
How to avoid mistaking false friends to side-step confusion
Practice makes perfect. The more books you read, podcasts you listen to, and TV shows you watch in the language that you’re learning, the better you’ll get at spotting false friends and carefully navigating them. Immersing yourself fully in the language while studying abroad can be very helpful for this too, as you’ll have more regular conversations in that language and encounter many diverse situations in which you might meet false friends.
If you do get caught out…
Laugh it off! When you’re learning a language, you’re going to make mistakes. And if you do get some false friends mixed up, you’re more likely to remember them in the future if you acknowledge them. You could also make a list on your phone, that you can review and remind yourself of as you keep learning.