False friends

When you were studying a foreign language at school, did you ever come across a word that look very similar to one in your native language? Did you then find out that the meaning was actually quite different? These are called false friends. False friends are words in two languages that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning. They are called false friends because they appear to be easy to gasp, learn and understand at first sight. However, for non-native speakers, the words’ formal appearance is not really indicative of their true meaning.

Difficulties of false friends

False friends can cause difficulties to interpret a text for language learners. Due to linguistic interference, students tend to identify words wrongly. This phenomenon is generally understood as an interlingual development affecting different languages but intralingual false friends do exist as well. Thus, this is not only an issue for foreign language students. It can also pose a problem for speakers of the same language pertaining to different dialects. For example, he Spanish word limón refers to a lemon in some parts of the Spanish-speaking world but a lime in others.

Words like biscuit or suspenders are used both in British and American English but their meanings differ quite a lot. When used in Britain, a biscuit is a sweet and dry flat cake, suspenders are used by women to hold their stockings up. However, when in America, biscuit is a small airy roll, not necessarily sweet, suspenders are straps traditionally used by men to hold their pants (trousers) up.

As seen in these examples, it would be convenient to become aware of the existence of these words and try to interpret and use them correctly according to the context and the person we are talking to. Some of these confusions may cause funny situations. Others could be more serious and a real problem to communication between to speakers of different dialects. Some terms may be offensive to your interlocutor.

See below an illustration of false friends between English and Spanish. These might make you think twice about using certain words: