Within the study of language, ‘false friends’ are words in two languages which look similar, or sound similar when spoken out loud, but which have significantly different definitions from one another. They can be especially problematic for students learning a new language, because these people are likely to infer the meaning of the word based on the similar word in their native language, resulting in incorrect knowledge or usage.
False friends have developed in many languages over the years, for various reasons. For example, in some cases, the two false friends have similar origins, perhaps having both been borrowed from a third language, but their meanings have deviated over time. In other cases, however, the words could have completely different origins, but because pronunciations and spellings shift gradually, they have both ended up looking or sounding similar.
To help students understand false friends properly, we have compiled a table of some examples that appear between English and German, English and French, and English and Spanish. In each case, you will find the English word, its real translation, the false friend word, and the real meaning of that false friend.
English – German False Friends
|English Word||German Translation||False Friend||Real Meaning|
|Ambulance||Krankenwagen||Ambulanz||Emergency room / A&E department|
|Direction||Richtung||Direktion||Management / Administration|
|Gift / Present||Geschenk||Gift||Poison|
|Gymnasium||Fitnessstudio / Turnhalle||Gymnasium||Grammar school / High school|
|Massive||Riesig / Gewaltig||Massiv||Solid|
|Pickle||Essiggurke||Pickel||Spot / Zit|
|Rat||Ratte||Rat||Advice / Council|
English – French False Friends
|English Word||French Translation||False Friend||Real Meaning|
|Grape||Grain de raisin||Grappe||Bunch|
|Slip||Glisser||Slip||Underpants / Men’s briefs|
|Travel||Voyager||Travail||Job / Work|
English – Spanish False Friends
|English Word||Spanish Translation||False Friend||Real Meaning|
|Actual||Real / Efectivo||Actual||Present-day / Current|
|Bizarre||Extraño||Bizarro||Brave / Gallant|
|Compromise||Componenda||Compromiso||Commitment / Obligation|
|Disgrace||Vergüenza||Desgracia||Mistake / Mishap|
|Preoccupied||Distraído||Preocupado||Concerned / Worried|
|Record||Grabar||Recordar||Recall / Remember|
|Success||Éxito||Suceso||Event / Incident|
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As you can tell from looking at the tables above, it is very easy to make mistakes with false friends, especially when the definitions are vaguely similar. Yet, as you will also notice, there is potential to make some very embarrassing mistakes. It is, therefore, essential to take care when learning your vocabulary.
Do not be fooled by false friends. Trust in Lingoda to teach you vocabulary the right way. With us, you will learn from qualified, native speakers. Best of all, our courses are completely flexible, allowing you to study at a pace that suits you, from the comfort of your own home, or even while on your travels.