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False friends in languages

When learning a new language, you might encounter false friends. What are they and how could they confuse you? 

What are false friends?

False Friends are words that look or sound similar in two different languages but have different meanings. They can be confusing for language learners and can lead to misunderstandings. 

This phenomenon is known as faux amis in French.

False friends can be found in many language pairs, including: English and Spanish, French and English, Italian and Spanish, and many others. They can cause difficulty, especially those who are just starting to learn a new language.

What are some examples of false friends?

Here are some examples of false friends in different languages:

  • The English word ‘sensible’ means ‘reasonable’ or ‘practical’, but the Spanish word ‘sensible’ means ‘sensitive’. 

One is more pragmatic and the other more emotional. You can see how this could get confusing in conversation!

  • The Spanish word ’embarazada’ means ‘pregnant’, but it is often confused with the English word ’embarrassed’.

We’ll let you imagine the funny situations that could arise from this confusion.

  • The French word ‘librairie’ means ‘bookstore’ in English, but it can be confused with the English word ‘library’, which means ‘bibliothèque’ in French.

So, if you’re a French speaker new to English, make sure you return your book to the library to avoid a nasty surprise in the form of a fine! It was too good to be true that the book was free…

  • The Italian word ‘camera’ means ‘room’ in English, but it can be confused with the English word ‘camera’, which means ‘macchina fotografica’ in Italian.

And you wondered why your Italian friend looked confused when you were pressing your DSLR into their hands. They were asking for the room!

How do I avoid false friends?

To avoid confusion, language learners should be aware of false friends. Take the time to learn the correct meanings of words. Sometimes there is not a consistent rule and they have to be learned the hard way with lists. Set yourself a certain number of words to learn a week and test yourself on last week’s list, too. 

It is important to not assume that a word in another language has the same meaning as a similar word in your own language. Because of a wonderful thing called etymology, words can come from the same root family, but that doesn’t mean they’re even similar in meaning in modern language. 

There are also regional differences in languages. For example, one part of Italy may be unrecognisable to another. Always be aware of context. 

False friends can be tricky. But, with awareness and practice, they can be overcome. By taking the time to learn the correct meanings of words and paying attention to context and usage, you can communicate more effectively.