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.