Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On “False Friends”: Embracing Cross-Language Connections

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville


There he was, sprinting toward our classroom, eager to see his new group of EFL-teachers-to-be, fixed on sharing his latest lesson materials.  My college professor, a jovial and energetic Brit, captured our hearts for many reasons, not the least of which was his active interest in languages other than English, especially our L1.

His signature opening phrase, “Jaka data, prosze?” (“What’s the date, please?”), literally and roughly translated from his English into our Polish, and pronounced in a typically “Britishly” aspirated way, would begin class every day.  A two-minute presentation on a new vocabulary item of Spanish or French, assisted by his fluffy parrot mascot doll, would usually end each session.  While we appreciated the subject matter of the course (teaching methodology), we cherished the atmosphere he created- one which celebrated language.

Now on the other side of the desk, I am still convinced that showing interest in learners’ mother tongue, and making room in lessons for its recognition, has a real impact on their proactivity in the classroom and their larger attitude toward the adopted language.

I hold this opinion despite my appreciation of the “English-alone-in-the-classroom rule.”  That rule, when adhered to absolutely, can leave students with a vague but unpleasant notion about the place of their mother tongue beside English, at least in the educational context.  That rule, when bent, can allow for more neighborly associations between the mother tongues and English as well as among the peoples of the classroom.

The reality, of course, is that the L1 and the L2 make contact and interact in the minds of learners, sometimes admittedly for the worse (pedagogically), but sometimes also for the better.  If the basic word order of a learner’s first language is identical to that of English (subject-verb-object), good can come of it.  If some words of English sound and look (in spelling) like words of the learner’s first language but they mean very different things, bad can come of it: “false friends” (being most often false cognates).  A quick, well-known pair of such friends is English library “library” and French librairie “bookstore.”

So what kinds of activities can be used to create a language celebration atmosphere and also help students with false friends?

One simple, and perhaps fairly obvious, type is word-meaning matching exercises which focus on false friends of English which pair with words of our learners’ first languages.  Similarly designed fill-in-the-blanks exercises can also be used.  Error-recognition activities may be added to these, and add a touch of humor as well.  Where a class includes learners of various L1 backgrounds, pairs of those learners can even create their own mini-exercises which bring out false friends of each of their L1s.

Of course opposite types of exercises, those which focus on “true friends,” can also be designed and used.  This, in fact, can offset any impression that those false friends may be depressingly numerous.  A quick example of a pair of true friends is Polish lektura and Spanish lectura, both of which mean “(assigned) reading matter.”

Such exercises can also take in a mixture of false friends and true friends.

So where can we find some of those troublesome false friends?

One great and handy source is The Cambridge International Dictionary of English (1995).  It includes lists of false friends for about twenty languages, including Spanish, French, Polish, Czech, Dutch, Greek, Japanese, Thai, Korean, and others.  At a glance you can find some pretty startling, even entertaining, mismatches.  Today I came across the pair English gift “gift” and Swedish gift “poison.”  I also learned that the German word fatal doesn’t mean “fatal,” but rather “embarrassing.”  The book is definitely worth a look for any language enthusiast.

There are also quite a few websites that list false friends for various languages.  Here’s one for Italian false friends: http://ilac.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2011/05/15/lost-in-translation-and-false-friends-in-italianenglish/

Of course our own students can also be a great source of such words . . . By involving students in such cross-language explorations, especially in multilingual classrooms, we can cultivate an environment of enhanced respect and support, and we can, at the same time, accelerate learners’ progress.  We can celebrate language while learning it.

I’d like to end this blog by sharing a couple of quotations that comment on our topic here, and by encouraging you to read an article about a scientific study aimed at demonstrating something of “the power of mother tongue.”

To attempt acquisition of another language without reference to that former, fortified structure is to encourage fear, fragmentation and failure.

(McCann, K. 2005. “Not lost in translation.” IATEFL Voices, 186, 8.)

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

(Nelson Mandela. http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/movingwords/.)

Have you had any fruitful teaching experiences with false friends?


Comment from Richard Firsten
June 17, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Great piece, Ela! I found this subject so compelling and relevant to many of my Spanish-speaking students that I wrote a workbook for Spanish speakers learning English dealing with over 200 of the most troublesome false cognates between Spanish and English. Some are funny, but others are downright serious.

For example, I had taken a friend to the emergency room of a hospital in Miami, FL one day. While waiting there, a mother burst into the place holding her toddler, who seemed limp and listless. She was screaming out, “Mi hija esta intoxicada! Ayudenla, por favor!” It so happened that none of the staff present at that moment spoke Spanish, but when they kept hearing “intoxicada,” they thought she was saying that her daughter had injested a large amount of alcohol — a logical conclusion, right? I ran over and told them it meant “poisoned,” not “intoxicated.” I found out for them that the woman was afraid her daughter had ingested her nail polish remover. The staff took appropriate action and the little girl was fine. But that shows you why the subject of your piece is such an important one.

I titled the book “Men Can Get Embarrassed, Too.” It’s got a picture on the cover of an obviously pregnant man being wheeled into the delivery room of a hospital. He’s got a very embarrassed look on his face. The picture shows the confusion between the English “embarrassed” and the Spanish “embarazada,” which means
“pregnant”! Spanish speakers have told me they find the book very helpful.

Your article if great at making teachers aware of the problems that false cognates can create. My rule of thumb for everybody: If a word in a language you’re learning looks like a word in your language, don’t assume it has the same meaning. Check it out first!

Comment from Ela Newman
June 19, 2011 at 10:35 am

Thanks, Richard, for your comments and for sharing the ER story! The idea of writing on false friends came to my mind after I’d received a few emails from my students (most of whom are Spanish speakers) in which they were informing me that they could not “assist” my class on a particular day. After reading several of those, I started to wonder if, by any chance, we were not dealing with false friends. Sure enough, “asistir,” as my dictionary states, means “to attend” in English. This word probably made the list of the 200 false cognates that you included in your workbook. I’ll definitely look for the book!

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