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Friend or Foe? False Friends and the Language Learner
by Diane Nicholls

Next in the series of articles on Language Interference

Homonyms abroad

Similarity breeds confusion. This was demonstrated in the last issue in relation to homonyms within languages. We saw the creative and destructive potential of similar-sounding and/or similar-looking words within individual languages. It is when similarities in orthography or pronunciation crop up between two or more languages that we enter the perilous territory of False Friends.


What are False Friends?

Pairs or groups of words occurring in two or more languages which look and/or sound very similar to each other but differ to varying degrees in meaning are commonly referred to as False Friends or Faux Amis.

For language learners, the existence of lexical similarity between their mother tongue and the language being learnt can be both a help and a hindrance to learning. Grasping whether superficial similarities (in writing and/or pronunciation) are faithfully reflected at the deeper level of meaning is a vital key to vocabulary learning and use. But there are many potential pitfalls along the way. It is when the learner sees or hears a word in the language being learnt, recognises a similarity with a word in their mother tongue, and jumps, understandably eagerly, to the conclusion that they have the same meaning or meanings that False Friend errors are made. Errors attributable to the pernicious influence of False Friends represent one of the clearest examples of a learner's mother tongue interfering with their learning of a foreign language - they are an example of language interference par excellence.


Varieties of False Friends

False Friends come in two different guises:

1 'Utterly False' Friends

These are word pairs that look like they ought to have the same meaning, but are in fact entirely unrelated; any similarity is purely coincidental. Some examples are:

English pain and French pain (meaning bread)
English kind and German Kind (meaning child)
English brave and German brav (meaning well-behaved)

The good news with this type of False Friend is that context is often a lifesaver. Whilst English pain is an abstract concept, French pain is a concrete object, and this considerably lowers the likelihood of the two words appearing in the same context and causing confusion; you won't find pain on an English shopping list.

Similarly, as with the second example above, part-of-speech differences also narrow the scope for confusion. Whilst English kind is an adjective, German Kind is a noun and mercifully has the obligatory capital letter for nouns in German as a further indicator of difference. Neither of these features are likely to help with the third example, however, since both words (brave and brav) are adjectives describing personal qualities of people or animals and therefore also highly likely to appear in the same context (the English word does have a broader scope since one can also make a brave decision, for example, but never a well-behaved one).


2 'Unreliable' Friends

Two or more languages may contain words which are similar not by coincidence, but because they are, in fact, related in terms of their linguistic origin. The words in this category are commonly referred to as Cognates. The more closely related two languages are (German and English, for example), the greater the prevalence of these cross-linguistic Cognates. Some examples of cognate false friends are:

English alter and French altérer (meaning to change for the worse)
English library and French librairie (meaning bookshop)
English sea and German See (meaning lake)
English biscuit and Russian biskvit (meaning sponge cake)

The shared origins of these word pairs are more or less apparent and it is fairly easy to imagine how their divergence in meaning occurred over the centuries.

In many ways, these Unreliable Friends are trickier customers by far because context is unlikely to provide as many clues as it does with many Utterly False Friends. To complicate things further, there is also a type of these cognate False Friends which does still retain some meaning-overlap in the two languages considered. For example, English arrive and French arriver usually mean exactly the same thing, but the French verb has an additional meaning not shared with its English counterpart. 'John arrived at the station' translates quite simply as 'John est arrivé à la gare' . Fine. But 'John est arrivé à venir' translates as 'John managed to come'. With these unreliable friends, you can trust some of them some of the time. But how do we know which ones to trust and when?

Other Unreliable Friends should be treated with suspicion because of the existence of broader or more narrow meanings between the mother tongue and the language being learnt. Languages are constantly evolving, and, naturally, where words might once have been shared (along with their meanings) between languages that were very closely related, individual languages will come under different influences and evolve independently and in different ways.

And as languages evolve unilaterally a variety of meaning changes take place and words slowly drift apart. Words expand to include additional meanings not present in the other language. The French word terrible bears all the meanings of its English cognate (borrowed from Old French in the 14th century) but includes an additional commonly-used informal meaning of marvellous, tremendous or amazing. Bear this in mind if a French speaker ever says you have a terrible record collection!

Sometimes cognates may share the same basic meaning but have a more specific meaning in one language than the other. The Spanish word critiquizar looks like it might mean the same as English criticise, but actually means to be over-critical or indulge in petty nitpicking (the correct Spanish equivalent of criticise is criticar). Conversely, the senses of the French verb demander only overlap with those of the English cognate demand in contexts such as 'this work demands a lot of concentration'. In all other contexts it has the less emphatic or urgent senses of ask for, request, or call for. If a French person demands a favour of you it is still a polite request.


Loan Words

Another subtype of the Unreliable Friend is the Loan Word. These are words which have relatively recently been imported into a language from another language either to fill a lexical gap or at the whim of fashion. And it's usually a matter of give and take. The English gave the French le weekend (though some of them wish they could give it back) and they gave the English chic (which they perhaps thought we were badly in need of). Some loan words are imported with their original meanings intact (perestroika and chaise-longue, for example), but sometimes the meaning changes along the way, either on entry into the language or with the passing of time. These incomplete loans can also prove to be False Friends. For example, le foot in French (from English) is football. An off day in Japanese (from English) is a day off. And English imported biscuit from French but didn't get the borrowing exactly right. In French biscuit is sponge cake, whilst what we call biscuit they call more precisely biscuit sec. From the examples of Unreliable Friends given above it seems that Russian made the same borrowing but got the meaning right, thus creating a false friend between English and French and English and Russian but a direct translation equivalence between Russian and French.

I will discuss loan words more thoroughly in a future issue, but for an interesting illustration of loan words in English and where they have come from see The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language, David Crystal (CUP 1995), pp. 126-7.


The Joy of Similarity

In spite of all the potential pitfalls outlined above, similarities in the lexicon can, in fact, be a great help to the language learner.

It has long been the practice of language teachers, textbooks for language learners and, in particular, teach-yourself language books of the 'learn-it-quick' variety, to start out with a very heartening introduction to the lexical similarities between the learner's mother tongue and the language being learnt. Learners are introduced to the fact that they already know a surprisingly large number of words in the language being learnt either because they have been imported into their own mother tongue, as with kitsch and angst which have come from German into English, or because the words occur in both languages, as with the nouns wind, arm and photo in both German and English.

The next step is to point out that there are easy shortcuts to learning vocabulary which involve making automatic transformations to the morphology of the words in the foreign language to make them more easily recognisable in the mother tongue. So, the Spanish learner of English, for example, is told to read the English adjective suffixes -ed/-ated, -ive, -ous, -ic, -ary etc. as -ado/a, -oso, -ico and -ario, respectively. And similar easy transformations apply for the other parts of speech. For anybody about to dive into a new language this is an encouraging springboard. Pointing out similarities of this kind is certainly both valid and constructive, but should always be accompanied by a warning. These 'short cuts' can lead to some very disappointing (or even embarrassing) dead ends.

Having grasped very quickly that -ado/a is an equivalent adjectival ending to English -ed/-ated, the temptation to assume that adjective pairs in the two languages mean the same thing is enormous, and dangerous. Constipado means suffering from a cold and embarazada means pregnant. It is easy to imagine the confusion these false friends could cause the unguarded learner!


Why are False Friends important?

A keen awareness of all of the varieties of false friends listed above is vital not just for language learners but for anybody who teaches languages or is involved in producing teaching materials or reference books for learners. Lexicographers, and particularly those compiling bilingual dictionaries and dictionaries for learners of foreign languages, should ask themselves how many common false friends they have included in their defining vocabulary, for example, and whether those words get sufficiently clear coverage at their individual definitions within the dictionary itself.

But it is not just people involved with languages professionally who need to be aware of the influence of false friends. Anybody who comes into contact with people who speak languages other than their mother tongue, at whatever level of proficiency, will encounter false friends in action, doing what they do best - confusing and obscuring what people are trying to communicate.

We could try to avoid using potentially confusing words, but really it is sufficient and far more constructive to simply be aware of them and make certain when we use them that they have been correctly understood. And as with the example of terrible mentioned above, when a learner of our own language says something that surprises us, we should think 'false friend?' before we react.


What is to be done?

The bad news is that there are thousands of false friends lurking out there waiting to trip us up. But the good news is that they can all be learnt.

Over the coming months I will be digging deeper into the different varieties of false friends discussed in this issue and offering some suggestions for increasing our awareness and understanding of these cross-linguistic homonyms.


Further reading

For an online bibliography of books and academic articles on False Friends, see:

For a first attempt to include lists of false friends in a dictionary for learners of English, see: The Cambridge International Dictionary of English, Ed. Procter (CUP, 1995).

A Dictionary of False Friends, Robert J. Hill (Macmillan Press 1982) covers examples of false friends between English and 15 foreign languages.

Recommended examples of books covering false friends between English and one other language are:
Faux Amis & Key Words, Philip Thody & Howard Evans (Athlone Press, 1985)
False Friends, Stolpersteine des deutsch-englischen Wortschatzes, Hartmut Breitkreuz (Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991)


Next in the series

In the next issue I will discuss the false friends which occur between the varieties of English and the problems they pose for both native speakers and learners.