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False Friends in the Dutch and Spanish Classroom

False Friends in the Dutch and Spanish Classroom

This piece is all about false friends: what they are and how they can be used in lessons and beyond. It will feature real examples from two different sets of European language learners.

Faux Pas?

When a word is used, which is similar to one in the mother tongue of the learner, but it’s meaning is different, then it is referred to as a false friend. For example, sensible in French means sensitive in English and not sensible. Learners are used to expressing themselves in their mother tongues, and, consequently, when learning a target language, these linguistic abnormalities appear from time to time.

It is worth pointing out that there are other examples of language interference, i.e. incorrect word order (i.e. subject-verb-object or adverb placement), and confusing expressions, (i.e. those that can’t be literally translated, or fixed expressions that do not exist in other languages). Also, with regards to pronunciation, the emphasis that is put on similar words can differ in the mother tongue from where the stress is put in English.

Friend or Foe?

If a teacher has been teaching sets of learners from the same country for a while, or has knowledge of the native language of the learners, then he/ she will have far greater insight into the errors that typically occur when students learn English. With the former, common mistakes will become more and more obvious, and will get easier and easier to spot. With the latter, the process of learning will, at least to some extent, be seen through different lenses, and it will be easier to empathise and understand why mistakes are being made.

A great tip is to make note of any false friends or other L1 (mother tongue) interference and use these examples to make error correction exercises (see examples in keys further below). When recycling the mistakes, the students will already have learned from them during feedback after they were first made. Therefore, they should be able to reactivate this information in another lesson or even as part of homework.

Paradoxically, what began as a mistake or incorrect piece of language, is in fact a blessing in disguise for the whole class, helping the learners to learn from their own mistakes. Naturally, it is also useful for the teacher as it aids the teaching process.

Dutch Speakers

The Dutch are well-known for their English skills and top a recently released proficiency index:
However, many believe that the Swedes should be in the lead instead. Nevertheless, despite high levels of fluency, the Dutch need lessons just as much as they do elsewhere. Often, firms offer their staff English lessons, so they can do business with international companies.

Dutch False Friends error correction KEY with explanations

1. I’d like to solicit for the job.
Instead of using the word apply, solicit (reminiscent of the Dutch verb soliciteren, which means to apply) can be misconstrued as referring to soliciting as in prostitution, and is bound to raise some eyebrows, especially with more conservative types.

2. He became an inheritance.
This would seem to imply that a remarkable metamorphosis has taken place where somebody changed into his bequeathed fortune, whereas, the word became has been muddled up with the word it should be in the right answer: acquired, which is down to the Dutch verb bekomen meaning get or acquire.

3. They stayed on a camping.
Camping is a verb and an activity in English, whereas it was intended to mean camping site (a noun) when translated from Dutch. In this sentence, the campers apparently stayed on top of a verb.

4. Technique can actually damage the whole learning process.
Technique could be in relation to anything. A few examples include: a serve during a table tennis game, a style of painting, and a dance move. Although anybody’s guess, the intention was in fact to refer to technology, which is what the Dutch word tecniek means in English.

5a. He brought me to school
b. It takes me good luck
The first one sounds a little off, because a child would be taken to school. The answer is: he took me to school. While the second error can be worked out if the expression ‘to bring somebody good luck’ is known. So, in relation to a superstitious belief that an object could bring good luck, the answer must be: it brought me good luck. This is thanks to the Dutch verb brengen meaning take.

6. Her sister’s children are her cousins.
In Dutch a neef is a nephew while it can also mean cousin and a nicht is a niece, which can also be a cousin. If the two kids were boys, then it would read: her sister’s children are her nephews. If they were two girls it would be: her sister’s children are her nieces. Or, if it was one boy and one girl then it would be a different matter. Perhaps it could be rewritten to: her sister’s son is her nephew and her daughter is her niece.

7. I missed my break to meet the deadline.
This would undeniably cause confusion. The miscommunication meant that somebody accidentally missed a break rather than intentionally missing it. Missen in Dutch means to do without, which equates to went without.

8. I patted him/ her on the backside.
On paper, this hilarious humdinger, would in fact be an extremely embarrassing error, and could result in a slap in the face, or even a lawsuit. The word backside actually means back in Dutch, not to worry; there’s no need to watch your behind after all.

*** Here a few examples of other words that have different meanings in Dutch but sound the same: kok (cook) and cock (cockerel or male genitals), want (because) and want (desire) and koek (biscuit or cake) as opposed to cook.

Spanish speakers

Unfortunately, the Spanish are not renowned for their English skills. If you visit Spain, you will notice that only some of those in the tourist industry can speak just enough to get by. Otherwise, the standard is generally low. Still, there are always exceptions to the rule like one of my Spanish students who made me proud by scoring an A on his CAE exam!

Spanish False Friends error correction KEY with explanations

1) I always seem to be stuck in a caravana.
This might seem strange, as the subject seems to be lamenting about spending too much time inside a caravan, but is in fact fed up of being stuck in a traffic jam (the Spanish equivalent).

2) The pair were an exit.
This is impossible to fathom. Here, it turns out that the sentence is referring to success (exito or exit in Spanish). Though, it seems as if it is about two people who are not actually people, but an exit.

3) It’s eventual.
This completely throws the native speaker. It should be: it’s possible (literal translation) as in it’s possible for something to happen rather than something that will happen eventually.

4) We had a good reunion.
At first, this sounds OK as it is. However, once you realise that reunion is meeting in Spanish, then it changed things dramatically. On the other hand, a reunion in English would be to reunite with some old classmates, for example, years later.

5) She was sensible to his needs.
It is obvious that something is not out of place. Sensible, like in French, actually means sensitive. Once again, this false friend is part of an expression, and is easier for a native speaker to comprehend.

6) She was appalled by the lack of sanitation in the suburbs.
At first sight, it would seem like a highly offensive jibe aimed at the middle classes, but in fact the Spanish word suburbia, which means slums, accounts for the misunderstanding.

7) They were constipado, so blew their noses a lot.
The word constipado means ‘to have a cold’ in Spanish, but it should be: had a cold. The mistake creates the false impression that due to being constipated, they had to blow their noses. In addition, the wrong auxiliary verb (were from to be instead of had from to have) had been used.

8) She was embarrassed, so they got married.
On occasion, Spanish speakers confuse their word embarazada meaning pregnant with the English word embarrassed, which actually translates to desconcertado in Spanish. As it stands, it feels as if marriage came about because of some kind of humiliating experience. Whereas, above, it should be: she was pregnant, so they got married.

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