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Of false friends and deceptive cognates

It’s a hot day. You are in a cafe in Tel Aviv and order a glass of cold orange juice. What is so funny about it?— you wonder, as the waitress tries to contain her laughter. Then you realize that you have again confused the Hebrew words kos (כוֹס) and kus (כוּס). Usually not represented in print, the minute spelling difference of one dot makes all the difference between the words for a glass and… vagina.

When learning a foreign language, the most common mistakes come from the ever-so-tricky false cognates. Cognates are words that have a similar etymological origin and, therefore, both sound alike and have similar meanings. Yet, false cognates—commonly called “false friends”—are trickier, because they are words that sound (and might be spelled) very similarly, but have completely different meanings.

German false cognates - gift & poison
Gift means poison in German

These false cognates can originate some very strange situations, and cause some trouble to even the most advanced language students. A common example is the verb bekommen in German, which means to get. When speaking English, some Germans might translate bekommen as the false cognate to become. So, when they want to order a salad at the restaurant, those who know little English might let the phrase “I become a salad” slip out.

Portuguese speakers—even those with very advanced English—have trouble with “push” and pull, and often do the exact opposite when faced with doors with these words. This is because, in Portuguese, puxe (which is pronounced almost exactly the same as push) actually means pull. You can imagine what a confusion that creates. Another funny example from Portuguese is the word constipação which means to have a cold and not to be constipated as a native English speaker might think.

Shared origins—shared problems

Incidents with false cognates tend to be more frequent with languages with similar etymological origin, since they have so many true cognates. This is the case of Portuguese and Spanish. For instance, pegar in Portuguese means to get—so, it would be considered normal to ask the nanny to ir pegar o bebê (to go get the baby). In Spanish, however, pegar (written and spoken in virtually identical way) means to hit or physically abuse. Imagine the horror a hispanophone maid getting this a request from a parent!

French faux amis - preservatives
In French sans préservatives means without condoms. Image by 130 cartons à London

Worse of all are words with similar meanings, but with positive or negative feelings attached to it. For instance, both in Romanian and in Polish the word trup means body, but while in the first language it refers to the body of a living being, in the second it is used as “corpse.” The same goes for the English ordinary and the Spanish ordinário—both mean common, but the Spanish word means a bad kind of common, and could be much better translated as vulgar.

The added difficulty here is that when you encounter a word like this in a foreign language text you won’t even be tempted to look it up. It will make perfect sense in the context, if mistakes like this accumulate you can end up completely misunderstanding the text and getting minus points on the reading comprehension task!

Feeling embarrassed

Things get even stranger when you have three languages—and, therefore, three false cognates—involved. I used to know a musician who lived some time in the Amazon Forest, teaching violin to children on the frontier between Brazil and Colombia. He was from Washington D.C., United States, and therefore was fluent in English—however, he spoke very little Portuguese, and barely any Spanish.

Spanish false cognates - embaraçado
Embarazada means pregnant in Spanish

One day, he was late for his classes because he failed to wake up on time, and wanted to tell his students he was embarrassed. Arriving first at a class full of Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, he stated that he was embaraçado for being late. In Portuguese, although the word can also mean embarrassed, it is hardly ever used with that meaning—it most commonly means tangled. So the students understood he meant he had got “tangled up” with other appointments, and took this as a good enough excuse.

The next class was with Spanish-speaking Colombians, and he decided to once more say he was embaraçado for being late, as it had worked well before. Yet, in Spanish, embarazado has a completely different meaning: it means pregnant. After some minutes of silence, the students broke out in wild laughter—and it took him some weeks, and a lot of embarrassment, to understand what had happened.

Different tastes, or different languages?

Cognates are especially funny and prevalent when it comes to food & drink, resulting not just from diverging vocabulary, but sometimes also differing tastes, and misunderstandings at the time when a particular food first reached the foreign country.

In Czech, for example, ‘ovoce’ (o-vo-tse) denotes fruit, whereas in Russia, ‘овощи’ (o-vo-schi) will get you vegetables.

Similarly, in Czech, ‘čerstvý chléb’ (che-r-stvy khleb) is ‘fresh bread’, whereas in Russian, черствый хлеб (also che-r-stvy khleb) means ‘dry/stale bread’.

Moving further West, in Spain, ‘tuna’ would get you a ‘prickly pear’ (the delicious fruit of a nopal cactus), not a can of saltwater fish. Though I’m sure you’d enjoy both equally well!

Things get especially interesting when food travels across borders, and we end up with a game of Chinese whispers. For example, persimmon is called ‘хурма’ (khoorma) in the Russian language, a word (خرما, khoorma) which denotes figs in original Farsi (persimmons are called خرمالو, khoorma-lyu, lit. ‘fig plum’).

Turkey was first discovered in Madagascar, and later Latin America, but the bird is called ‘turkey’ in English and индейка (in-dey-ka, lit. Indian) in Russian—both cognates of the countries through which they first imported it.

Using cognates to your advantage

You can overcome the challenge of false cognates by exercising simple humility. Do not presume that because your language is closely related to another one, you will be able to speak and understand it with no study. As the examples above illustrate, it will still require a lot of focus from you to get things right!

It is also important to realize that learning a closely related language requires directing our attention to different aspects of the language, perhaps even a different method that we’d use normally. While building sentences and speaking with a correct accent can come to us naturally and we won’t be spending much time trying to structure an utterance, the difficulties will be elsewhere. Apart from a lot of new vocabulary the devil will lie in the details—different conjugations and case endings, slang, prepositions and of course false friends.

Using false cognates has a widespread bad reputation as being one of the staple linguistic faux pas. This sentiment is not to the detriment of language learners though. We could even be thankful for it as it means that all textbooks and teachers will double their efforts to make sure you notice false friends when you come across them. Very often the meaning of false cognates will easily stand out to you, precisely because it’s so different from what you might expect. Being unique or funny makes the words easier to remember—think of the story of a teacher above, it’s enough to imagine an embarrassed pregnant teacher to know the words embaraçado and embarazado have completely different meanings.

Seek out false friends and memorize the differences between them by imagining funny stories.

Embarrassment is a strong emotion and associating it with words that we have a trouble learning will definitely help us remember them. Once you have misused the words like the poor chap above, you will definitely remember for ever the differences between embaraçado and embarazado. Making mistakes and, with that, a fool of yourself, is an essential part of learning a language. We shouldn’t be angry with ourselves when they happen but use them wisely—as a memorization tool.

A weasel’s last fart

How strange would you feel if someone dropped that into a conversation (I mean the phrase of course, not and actual fart…)? It’s a Japanese phrase to describe a desperate action in a hard situation— we often resort to those speaking foreign languages! Hopefully in a less fragrant manner than the weasel.

Apart from the vocabulary what we often take for granted is a shared cultural understanding between languages. We tend to forgetting that even very close languages will likely not share idioms or sayings. Sometimes translating a phrase will work and give you a false sense of security, like for example the Spanish mas vale tarde que nunca which is an exact equivalent of the English better late than never. On other occasions you may sound like a very imaginative person, using a comparison that is a common phrase in your language, but doesn’t function another. For example the Dutch roken als een ketter means to smoke like a heretic, which is easy to guess means to smoke too much, i.e. like a chimney, in English.

On most occasions trying to translate an idiomatic phrases will not make sense and, sometimes even worse, it can prove pretty disastrous. Literally translating a phrase let it loose into Spanish will mean suffer from diarrhea — not something you want to wish to someone, especially not to your customers—a mistake one beer company has made when introducing their product to the Spanish market.

If you want to make an impression of a more eloquent person, better check in advance with a native speaker whether a phrase you intend to directly translate would make any sense for the native speakers. Better still, just learn a few language specific idioms to color your language appropriately.

Cognates as a bridge to the second language

Languages with shared features should, in principle, be easier to master. With the right guidance we can use the common linguistic features to our advantage, speeding up the acquisition process. Researchers studying second language acquisition conclude that cognate awareness is something that we have to first develop in our first language before we start using it as a tool to understanding foreign languages.

This is also an idea behind an English teaching program in the UK, where the teachers draw from the background English shares with Latin and Greek.

By studying roots, prefixes and suffixes, children can develop a skill to discover a meaning in complicated words they see for the first time.

Teachers say that recognizing the mechanics of the language helps children understand the its purpose and perceive how language holds meaning. In addition, learning cognates can help you memorize additional bits of information, for instance, when you learn that kilo stands for a thousand it’s also easier to remember how many meters is a kilometer!

The proponents of this idea, authors of the 2008 book Greek and Latin Roots, Timothy Rasinski, Nancy Padak, Rick M. Newton, and Evangeline Newton strive to rip the benefits of teaching Latin without the pressure of forcing young students to learn a new language. Learning a complex language like Latin can be overwhelming for children and is also not the best investment of time considering Latin’s doubtful value as a communication tool. The authors of the book decided to extract the most useful elements of the language and implement them as tools of teaching English.

The key here is to notice the balanced approach to Latin, not relying on its relationship to English, but treating it as a source of clues to understand vocabulary.

When in doubt—doubt yourself

Contrary to the popular internet motivational advice, I’d say: Doubt yourself.

Question your understanding. If you see a word that looks familiar and in your mind you’re tempted to say “oh it probably means X”… it should raise a red flag. I get it, it will be tedious to look up words that seem obvious and of course many times your first instinct will be correct. But, once in 30 you’ll find a word that could cause you a lot of embarrassment if you used it in a wrong context.

Another good idea is to investigate the linguistic similarities between the languages we’re planning to learn—just to know what we should expect. For instance, if 40% of English words have a related word in Spanish, this connection can be a perfect bridge for learners. The stories in this post however should remind us that we must always remain cautious and aware of the limits of the comparisons we can draw.

Do you have any stories about how you made a mistake with the cognates? Share with us on Twitter!

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