17 August 2009


No, I don’t mean the kind of false friends that you had in the third grade who were your BFFs for about a day and a half. I mean words that you see in another language and you think you know what they mean (like preservative) and then you find out that you don’t, because somewhere between French 2 and the supermarket they changed their meaning.

English is an interesting language. We borrow words from other languages, and forget to give them back. Normally, we keep the same meaning, or almost. This can be a big help in learning a language--words like gouvernement, and sauté, communication and pardonnez-moi are relatively easy for the French student to learn.

Sometimes, though, just to be sneaky, we steal a word and change the meaning. A little. Or a LOT. For example, take the word 'deception'. In French, deception means disappointment. Wait! That’s not what it means in English! Right. We changed it. Linguists call these words 'false friends', because we think they’ll help us and they end up causing problems. Sort of like that BFF in third grade.

Some false friends cause relatively little trouble. They can even be funny. For example, in French, crier means 'to shout'. So if you say that you cry when you see a sad movie, you’re not likely to be invited to the cinema.

Then there’s 'eventually'. In English, it means 'in the end', 'finally'. In French, eventuellement means 'perhaps', 'maybe'. This one can cause incredible problems in negotiations. I don’t even use it when talking with French speakers, because I don’t know if the person I’m speaking to uses it in the French sense or the English sense. I just avoid this one. It’s a bomb waiting to go off.

In French, an issue can be an 'exit from a building' or it can be an 'outcome', a solution. In English, an 'issue' can mean a problem. (Yeah, as in “Houston, we have an issue”.)

Most false friends are readily recognizable from the context. If a grandmother tells you that she wiped her adored grandson’s face with his doodoo, you KNOW it means something else*. But some false friends don’t give you a red flag. Sensible is one of these. In French, it means means sensitive. A mini-bomb, in some situations.

I think my all time favorite false friend is a word that in French means to stamp a letter. It’s a sort of official, bureaucratic word, like ‘franking’ in English (which also means to stamp a letter, even though it’s not the word we use most). The French word that means ‘franking’ is.... are you ready? ....are you sure? Obliterer. Yep, you read that right--'obliterate'. You have to wonder about the path that this word had to follow to get from stamping a letter to total destruction. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Needless to say, my business students need to learn these false friends. I can imagine, for example, a meeting following a day of fairly unsuccessful negotiations. A hapless Belgian tries to make a friendly overture. In his best English:

"Please be sure that we are prepared to be sensible about your deception yesterday. We are sure that eventually we’ll find an issue, so we plan to obliterate the contract."

People often ask me what it takes to live in another country and to speak another language. I think that the most important thing is the willingness to make mistakes and to laugh at yourself. I tell my students that if they're not making mistakes, they're not learning. Me, I learn a LOT.

*In Belgian French, a child's doodoo is his 'blankey'. You don't want to know how I discovered that.


eatlivetravelwrite said...

Hi Kate, I just found your blog through Food with Style (I was the one who took the blender photo!). I am a big Francophile myself, having lived in France and Belgium (Brussels) for years (I am Australian) and now I find myself in Toronto, Canada, teaching French to 8-12 year old boys!!! We visit France most years and I miss it terribly... I will follow your blog with interest! Check mine out!

Seahorse of the night. said...

Quite a discovery! Thanks!


The Gypsy Chef said...

I loved this post. I am sharing it with my Belgium french teacher, Benoit.
Can't wait to see you!