Words that sound or look similar yet have different meanings are called false friends, or false cognates. They tend to confuse language learners, particularly those who rely on actual cognates, or words that are actually the same in multiple languages. Here are some popular examples:

English → Spanish

In Spanish, the word for ‘long’ is largo, which sounds a lot like ‘large.’ Avoid mixing up these terms: ‘large’ is grande and ‘long’ is largo. Life-long bilinguals might not make this mistake, though it is common enough for many people.

English → Portuguese

‘Push’ and ‘pull’ are challenging to Portuguese speakers. For them, ‘push’ is empurrar while ‘pull’ is puxar. The similarity between ‘push’ and puxar means many Brazilians have a hard time getting in and out of U.S. buildings.

English → French

This example rings true in many languages: bibliothèque means ‘library’ while librairie means ‘book store.’ Why English, why?!

English → German

This one is good! Tasten sounds like ‘taste’ but actually means ‘keys.’ The actual German word for ‘taste’ is geschmack.


In summary, similarities in spelling or pronunciation between different languages can be very tricky to language learners. Keep practicing to make sure you don’t fall pray to these false friends!

Practice

  • Have you ever been confused by false friends between English and your first language? Explain.
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