False Friends in Language Learning

False friends are the worst whether it comes to everyday life or language learning. Sneaking into our lives under the guise of something else, they often all show their real face when the damage is already done. In both cases, much embarrassment and unpleasantness can follow when coming across one under the wrong circumstances.

What false friends in language learning are and how to avoid them is the topic of today’s blog post.

False Friends in Languages

In linguistics and translation, the term “false friends” refer to words (or letters of two distinct alphabets) that appear similar at first glance but have different meanings. The origin of this term dates back to 1928 and to two French linguists who published the book “Les Faux Amis ou les trahisons du vocabulaire anglais” – False Friends, or the Pitfalls of the English Vocabulary. In the book, they use the term false friends of the translator which has now be shortened to simply “false friends” in English.

While the authors of the mentioned book had in mind the false friends that can occur between two separate languages, there are actually four distinct types of these mischievous words:

Four Types of False Friends

The fancy linguistic titles for the four types of false friends are synchronic interlingual, diachronic intralingual, diachronic interlingual, and synchronic intralingual false friends. While this sounds complicated, the terms actually reflect the different origins of false friends in language learning.

So, synchronic interlingual false friends actually means that the words that are easily confused appear in two separate contemporary languages. This is probably the most widely recognised use for the term false friends in general. Mainly because it is the most common source of distress for language learners. For example, if an English speaker were to look at the Italian words attuale and eventuale, it might be natural to assume their meanings are similar to the English actual and eventual but, in reality, the terms should be translated into present and possible. You can see how this can frustrate a beginner language learner.

Synchronic intralingual false friends, in return, refer to words that have confusing meaning in one and the same language. These can often occur when different dialects of one language are spoken, or simply two different versions – such as American and British English. It is not without reason that George Bernard Shaw’s statement “England and America are two countries separated by a common language” rings so true. The list of differences that words can have in the versions of English spoken on the two continents is rather impressive. For a possible source of embarrassment, look no further than the diverging meaning of the word “pants”.

While the two previous examples dealt with contemporary differences in languages, much miscomprehension can also rise from translations across time. Diachronic interlingual false friends can develop naturally over time between different languages that used to make use of a similar word in the same context (these are called true friends). For example the Italian word artista and the German Artist. German borrowed the word from another Romance language – the French artiste and originally took it over in the broader sense of someone performing an art. Over time, however, the meaning of the word narrowed down to mean solely someone performing in the circus (an acrobat) and it adopted the word Künstler to fill in the role that artista still serves in Italian – leading to contemporary false friends.

The last category, diachronic intralingual false friends, then means that words can, over the course of time, take on different meanings within one language. A drastic example is the English word nice which originates from Old French (which, in turn, borrowed it from Latin) where it meant “simple” or “silly”. In the fourteenth century, when the word was introduced to English, it was used in the context of “stupid” and then evolved into “immodest” or “promiscuous”. By now, however, the meaning has changed quite significantly.

No matter the origin of false friends, it is still unpleasant to come across them when learning a language. Unfortunately, they are also rather difficult to avoid, unless you want to carry around a dictionary and verify every single word you utter. Still, there are a few precautions you can take to try to avoid them in critical situations.

Avoiding False Friends When Learning a Language

While it is impossible to completely eliminate the chance of making a language faux pas due to the sneaky character of false friends, you can always be extra careful with words whose meaning you’re not completely certain of. Take special care in professional situations and double check the meanings of words with native speakers of the local dialect. For many languages, there are also lists available for the most common false friends which you can take a look at. But, in general, making mistakes is a very natural part of the language learning process, so don’t worry too much about it.

Even if you come across on of the more embarrassing false friends, it’s certain that if you make the mistake once, it will burn into your mind forever, making you unlikely to repeat it. In this sense, false friends can actually be a useful learning tool, albeit one we do not suggest using too much.