Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

False Friends: Diverting Traffic in the Language Classroom

Fitch O'Connell is a longtime teacher of English as a foreign language, working for the British Council in Portugual and other European countries. Here Fitch examines some of the most treacherous pitfalls of the language classroom: "false friends," or words that appear to share a common meaning across languages but are actually different.

It had been a pleasant enough class.  The students, trainee teachers of English, had stayed awake, goals had been achieved, and no one — including me — had been reduced to tears.   I was the only non-Portuguese in the room.  I hadn't been in the country very long and was still learning the ropes, and my attempts at the Portuguese language were still in their infancy. 

After the class, two of the students came up to me as I was packing my bag and said that they had enjoyed the class and asked about my classes with children.

"We would like to assist you for one of these classes," they said.

I was a little taken aback at the proposal.  It was unexpected, and I struggled to find ways to tell them that as much as I enjoyed the challenge of team teaching, I would need to think about how this might work with two trainee teachers whom I barely knew.  They looked genuinely puzzled.  That is, they both took on the look of rabbits startled in a headlight.

I soon came to discover that the Portuguese verb assistir means "watch or observe (an event)" and that students would frequently "assist" at plays and concerts, a thought that might have terrified the visiting actors and bands had they known these intentions beforehand.

When learning a language, one is always on the lookout for words that appear familiar.  If you are learning a language from the same generic background (the main shared source for Portuguese and English is Latin), then quite a few words crop up that appear to be similar.  Some, indeed, do perform more or less the same function in both languages, but many more do not.  Of course, the mistakes that are inevitably made when two similar-sounding words with different meanings are confused can also be a useful tool for learning more of your own language.  Being educated in a British school, I was conversant with the names and dates of the various kings and queens as well as the many pretenders to the throne, though the word pretender always puzzled me.  It's a good thing the trainees mentioned earlier hadn't said,  "We pretend to assist you for one of these classes." They could have done so easily, since the Portuguese verb pretender can mean "intend."  I might never have deciphered that one at the time.

Of course, we've been fielding false friends for a long time.  Scholars of Anglo-Saxon will recognise that a wīf is a woman, married or not,  and fæst is firm or fixed and not rapid, but this is somewhat specialized — it is unlikely that you'll find yourself teaching a class of Anglo-Saxon first language speakers (but you never can tell).  However, if your students hail from countries where other European languages are spoken, then the problems will multiply.  The Portuguese examples above are shared with other Romance languages like Spanish and Italian, which have the same false friends.  German speakers can run into problems with words like ambulance. A German ambulanz would fail to arrive quickly to an emergency, as it has no wheels: ambulanz is an ER facility at a hospital. Similarly, direction could be mistaken for Direktion, or "management," and a similar false friend appears in Romance languages. The word billion in German is a false friend in American English (where a billion is the number 1 followed by nine zeros), but it shares the traditional British meaning of the word (1 followed by twelve zeros).

The further we move away from European languages, the less problem we have.  If nothing else, a shift away from the Latin alphabet makes possible mistakes harder to spot.  However, Russian, another European language of course, doesn't manage to hide too well behind the Cyrillic script, and quite a few false friends occur (the word that sounds more or less like audience, for example, is actually an "auditorium").  There are numerous false and real friends between Hindi and English, no doubt displaying our shared Indo-European roots, but as we go further east into Asia we find fewer and fewer friends, false or otherwise (linguistically, at least).

Thus, if we teach a class of students who share a common first language (L1), it is important to learn at least the danger areas in that language, to be one step ahead. It is more problematic if the class is of mixed-L1 backgrounds, but a digest of the main false friends from the major European languages can readily be acquired. Easier traps to fall into, though, are false friends generated between different Englishes, some of which could cause embarrassment as well as confusion if got wrong. The potential pitfalls between British and American English are well-documented.

I  was once driving a minibus full of students from a Romance-language country around the leafy lanes of England, and we came across a sign that said "Traffic Diversion."  This caused much mirth amongst my passengers, as a diversion to them meant "amusement"; this was compounded later as we turned off the road to follow further signs that said "diverted traffic." We never did find out where the un-amused traffic went. Made us laugh, though.


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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.

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Comments from our users:

Monday October 4th 2010, 3:40 AM
Comment by: Rob C. (Breda Netherlands)
One of my favorites in this area is 'parking ramp'. Dutch has a word that is spelled identically and pronounced similarly to English ramp, but it means 'disaster'. Brit road signs cheerfully announcing 'ramp ahead' also look a bit strange to Dutch eyes...
Monday October 4th 2010, 8:41 AM
Comment by: langgang (Houston, TX)
We have similar situations in the states. If someone from Texas says they don't care to do something it means they don't want to do it, but if someone from Kentucky says they don't care to do something it means they would be glad to do it.

As a temporarily transplanted Texan it took me some time to realize this and made for interesting experiences.
Monday October 4th 2010, 9:13 AM
Comment by: Michael M.
I remember a friend from Boston telling the story of his ESL students from Vietnam, now in Texas, asking him what "fixin'" meant. He gave them the standard meaning: to repair something that's broken.

But of course he soon learned that in Texas one can fix anything, as in, "I'm fixin' to go to the movies. Do you want to come?"
Tuesday October 5th 2010, 6:12 AM
Comment by: Chocoholic (New Delhi India)
This holds true even for the French word "formidable". In French, it means "great"!
Wednesday October 6th 2010, 7:27 AM
Comment by: Patricia KS (Sackville Canada)
I encountered a false friend when learning Persian, that other Aryan language, a few years back. Transliterated, the word for snow is "barf".
Thursday October 7th 2010, 4:52 AM
Comment by: Suroor A.
In French, the word expérimenté means experienced, as having lots of experience. Took me a while to figure that out!

I'd be interested to know what false friends there are between Hindi and English. As an Indian, I can't think of any off the top of my head.
Monday October 18th 2010, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
@Suroor - been off collecting friends, false and otherwise, in the Middle East - so missed your post. Aren't 'Jay', 'Kneel' and 'juggernaut' all Hindi/English false friends, while words like 'cut', 'over' and 'loot' are true friends? (transcription makes it more obscure, I suppose).

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