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False Friends

False Friends

When learning a foreign language, we often feel excited when we discover words that have similar form and meaning in both our native and our target language – this saves us some time and effort, as we don’t really have to learn a new word. However, some helpful looking words will trip you up! Don’t be fooled by false friends!


Cognates – the good friends

Words that sound and look similar are called cognates: two words in two different languages which have a common etymological origin, and often (although not always) – similar meaning and form. 

English and Spanish, for instance, share a lot of cognates. They include words borrowed from Spanish into English and vice versa, words borrowed into both languages from some other source, as well as some words that English and Spanish share because they, being Indo-European languages, have common roots. 

Here are some examples:

Air — aire
Blouse — blusa
Center — centro
Fruit — fruta
Hour — hora
Memory — memoria
Photo — foto
Ranch — rancho
Traffic — tráfico

Cognates are awesome and they really make our life easier when we are learning a foreign language, speaking it, reading in it, translating into or from it. But there is also a danger connected with cognates.


What are false friends

False friends are words in different languages that look or sound similar but differ significantly in meaning. Basically, these are words that masquerade as cognates. 

When we see words like this, it is always tempting to accept them as they are. “English and Spanish share a lot of similar words, this must be one of them”. This is how false friends get you. In some cases, this can lead to just a funny mistake, but there is also a danger of a serious miscommunication. 

One of the most typical examples of such a false friend is the Spanish word ‘embarazada’. Looks just like the English ‘embarrassed’, doesn’t it? However, it has a very different meaning – ‘pregnant’.


More examples of Spanish-English false friends

Carpeta — folder
Compromiso — obligation
Contestar — to answer
Enviar — to send
Largo — long
Librería — bookstore
Nudo — knot
Parada — stop
Recordar — to remember, to remind
Soportar — to put up with, to tolerate
Vaso — drinking glass


Dealing with false friends

False friends can be very dangerous, and you especially need to be aware of them if language is your job – if you are a teacher, a translator, or interpreter. Imagine a formal meeting where you suddenly translate ‘nudo’ as ‘nude’ (instead of ‘knot’)! 

Here are a couple of tips on dealing with false friends: 

  • Be aware of their existence. Well, we have covered that with this article. It is important to know that not all words that seem to be cognates are, in fact, cognates.
  • Be extra careful with words whose meaning you’re not completely certain of. Double- and triple-check them, if necessary, especially in formal or business situations. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
  • Practice the language. The more you learn and the more you practice, the better you master the language and the more false friends you come across and memorise. 
  • Don’t worry too much. After all, making some mistakes is natural when speaking any language, even your native one. Most false friends will likely lead to just a small misunderstanding and a laugh – after which you are likely to remember them forever.


Final thoughts

False friends can be annoying as they masquerade as cognates that help us save time and effort when learning or working with a foreign language. They are also interesting and fun to learn. 

Make sure you learn at least the main false friends in your target language. And when in doubt, look up the word in a dictionary just in case.

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