Tag Archives: false friends

Watch out for false friends when learning foreign languages!

Everybody knows them and everybody has been tricked by them when speaking a foreign language: false friends. These sneaky little expressions come in disguise, appearing to be an obvious translation from our mother tongue when really their meaning is completely different.

So, get your imagination going and try to work out which false friend caused confusion in this situation:

 False Friends

Our guess is that the customer is a German lady in an English restaurant who didn’t get her order right. Even though English and German have a lot in common, often the similarity of words can be misleading. For example the German word “bekommen” resembles strongly the English word “become” but actually means something slightly different…

So let’s assume this German lady said: “I would like to become a steak, please” – would you not look as bewildered as the waiter? This is a classic example of a German false friend in English.

But what exactly are false friends and why do they occur?

False friends, or faux amis in French, are words that sound similar but have different meanings. Sticking to our example, you will have guessed already that the German word “bekommen” doesn’t actually translate as “to become” but as “to get”. Since German and English are both Germanic languages, both verbs derive from the Proto-Germanic word “bikweman” which means “to get something”. In Old English it changed its meaning, while in German it stayed the same. So even though these two words have the same linguistic historical origin, “become” and “bekommen” are no longer interchangeable.

Let’s have a look at another example: Imagine an English woman is going out with a Spanish man. One day the English woman spills her coffee all over her Spanish boyfriend. When she tells her boyfriend “Estoy embarazada”, she might think she is telling him that she is embarrassed, but on seeing the look of shock on his face she realises she has said something completely different! No, she has not told him that she feels ashamed of what she has done, she has actually told him that she is pregnant!

To help you avoid this kind of problem we have selected a few typical false friends that could cause you trouble:

English –> German

English word German Translation False friend False friend translation
concurrence
ankle
café
happen
Einverständnis
Fußknöchel
small restaurant
geschehen
Konkurrenz
Enkel
Kaffee
Happen
competition
grandchild
coffee
snack

 

Spanish –> English

Spanish word English Translation False friend False friend translation
asilo
raro/rara
boda
home for senior citizens
strange
wedding
asylum
rare
body
manicomio
especial
cuerpo

 

Portuguese –> English

Portuguese word English Translation False friend False friend translation
palazzo
compromisso
costume
building
commitment
habit
palace
compromise
costume
reggia
chegar a um termo comum
traje típico

In the end, being tricked by a false friend might turn into a funny anecdote you end up laughing about. Tell us your own anecdote about “making false friends” and help us extend our list!