False friends in languages: Do not trust these words!

False friends in languages: Do not trust these words!

by Lingoda Team

Updated May 10, 2022

Within the study of language, ‘false friends’ are words in two languages that 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 a similar word in their native language, resulting in incorrect knowledge or usage.

False friends in languages have developed 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.

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English – German False Friends

 English Word German Translation False Friend Real Meaning
 Ambulance Krankenwagen Ambulanz Emergency room / A&E  department
 Brand Marke Brand Fire
 College Hochschule Kollege Colleague
 Direction Richtung Direktion Management / Administration
 Gift / Present Geschenk Gift Poison
 Gymnasium Fitnessstudio /  Turnhalle Gymnasium Grammar school / High school
 Hut Hütte Hut Hat
 Lemon Zitrone Limone Lime
 Massive Riesig / Gewaltig Massiv Solid
 Objective Ziel Objektiv Lens
 Pickle Essiggurke Pickel Spot / Zit
 Rat Ratte  Rat Advice / Council
 Sensible Vernünftig Sensibel Sensitive
 Stadium Stadion Stadium Stage
 Where Wo Wer Who

Want to learn more? Here’s an article where we discuss more about false friends in German and English!

English – French False Friends

 English Word French Translation False Friend Real Meaning
 Actually Réellement Actuellement Current
 Car Voiture Car Because (formal)
 Chair Chaise Chair Flesh
 Excited Enthusiaste Excité Aroused
 Grape Grain de raisin Grappe Bunch
 Journey Voyage Journée Day
 Library Bibliothèque Librairie Book shop
 Location Emplacement Location Rental
 Money Argent Money Loose change
 Pain Douleur Pain Bread
 Preservative Conservateur Préservatif Condom
 Sale Vente Sale Dirty
 Sensible Raisonnable Sensible Sensitive
 Slip Glisser Slip Underpants / Men’s briefs
 Travel Voyager Travail Job / Work

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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
 Envy Envidiar Enviar Send
 Introduce Presentar Introducir Insert
 Large Grande Largo Long
 Lecture Conferencia Lectura Reading
 Nude Desnudo Nudo Knot
 Parent Padre Pariente Relative
 Preoccupied Distraído Preocupado Concerned / Worried
 Record Grabar Recordar Recall / Remember
 Success Ã‰xito Suceso Event / Incident
 Ultimately Al final Ãšltimamente Recently
 Vase Florero Vaso Glass (drinking)

Identify false friends in different languages

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 the potential to make some very embarrassing mistakes. It is, therefore, essential to take care when learning your vocabulary.

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