Language learning

Cognates and false friends

You often hear people say ‘the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn another’. It’s a pretty universally accepted fact that your third language will be easier than your second, and your fourth will be easier than your third. There are a number of reasons for this – you’re already used to different grammar patterns, you know how to go about learning languages, you’re probably pretty motivated. But one reasons languages can get easier is the abundance of cognates that exist between different languages.

Cognate: having the same linguistic derivation as another; from the same original word or root

Cognates are the main reason why Spaniards and Italians can often understand each other quite well, despite not speaking each others languages. It’s often easy for Spanish people to read Italian and get an understanding of the text simply through shared roots of words. I’m not sure where I read it (can’t find the link to show you) but I remember reading that Italian and Spanish share over 80% lexical similarities. That is a huge amount.

While cognates can be enormously helpful while learning a language, you have to be careful. Not all words are as they seem –

False friends: A word or expression that has a similar form to one in a person’s native language, but a different meaning

So false friends are words that look like cognates, but aren’t. They look similar but can have wildly varying meanings. This is where things can get interesting. The classic Spanish/English that trips up many a Spanish learner is embarazada. You look at that and you think ‘oh, easy, that’s similar to ’embarrassed’ isn’t it?’. Well, it’s not. It means ‘pregnant’. An awkward mistake to make in certain circumstances.

A source of great entertainment can be finding slightly rude or inappropriate words from your native language that mean something different in another language. There are several of these in Swedish – for example fart means speed, bra means good, and slut means end. Or there’s the case of molestar in Spanish – it looks bad to English speakers, but it just means ‘to bother’. So me molesta isn’t as awful as it sounds!

The annoying thing about it is there’s no way to know which are cognates and which aren’t without a) coming across the word in many different situations and realising your first thought was wrong or b) looking up the definition. Which isn’t really a bad thing, especially a). You’re always going to make mistakes in the beginning and you’ll probably spend a good deal of time making natives laugh as you butcher their language – so why not have some fun with it. Just make sure to learn any seemingly innocent words that aren’t – you don’t want to offend your favourite shopkeeper!

Have you come across any amusing false friends in your studies? I love to hear them.


5 thoughts on “Cognates and false friends

  1. I think my favorite false cognate is the word понос (ponos). In Serbian, it means ‘pride’ (I saw a poster for Republika Srpska earlier this year that said 20 година поноса, which means ’20 years of pride’). However, in Russian this word means ‘diarrhea.’ As you can imagine, the Serbian phrase I read originally had an entirely different meaning to me before I looked up понос in the dictionary…

    (Oh, and if you’re wondering, the word is pronounced differently in Russian vs. Serbian. In Russian, the second syllable is stressed; in Serbian, the first is stressed.)

  2. Pingback: The trouble with translating literally |

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