“False Friends” and Other Pitfalls: How Language Transfer Affects Our Students’ English

By Cathy Sunshine

One of my students mentioned recently that he’s volunteering for a nonprofit organization and has made a compromise to that organization. Of course, he meant commitment. The reason for the error is no mystery. In Spanish, my student’s first language, a commitment, in the sense of a pledge or promise, is un compromiso. Spanish compromiso and English compromise look almost identical — you’d assume they mean the same thing. But the meanings are actually quite different.

Something like 90 percent of our students at Language ETC speak Spanish as their native language. As teachers, we’re certainly aware of that, but most of us don’t know enough Spanish to understand how our students’ first language can influence their second. Still, once in a while you catch a glimpse. Often those moments involve false cognates, also known as “false friends,” like compromise and compromiso.

I think that becoming aware of language transfer can help both students and teachers. Students know they make mistakes, but they seldom know why they make the mistakes they do. And we teachers don’t know, either. It can all seem so random and arbitrary. But when you show students that a particular error comes from translating Spanish too literally into English, and point out the structural difference between the two languages, they understand in a way they didn’t before. It’s almost as if a light bulb goes on. That insight helps them remember the correction, I think, and hopefully not make the same mistake again.

Of course, we can’t use much Spanish in the classroom, because our method at LETC is all-English and because our students speak various languages. But in classes where almost all the students are Spanish speakers, I think it’s helpful to point things out once in a while. Also, many false cognates in Spanish have parallels in French, because French and Spanish are so close. And students who speak other languages can give another perspective by explaining how their language compares.

Below, based on my limited knowledge of Spanish and a brief tour of the Internet, are some examples of vocabulary and grammar differences between Spanish and English that can affect our students’ English.

False Cognates

There are many pairs of words in English and Spanish that look and sound almost identical and mean the same thing. Cognates, as they’re called, are words like conversation and conversación. But there are also many pairs of words that look and sound almost identical — and don’t have the same meaning at all. This can lead to awkward moments. A classic trap for English speakers is to translate embarrassed as embarazada. When you say Estoy embarazada in Spanish, it doesn’t mean “I’m embarrassed,” but rather, “I’m pregnant.”

Pizarro-Cognates

There are probably hundreds of false cognates in English and Spanish, and also in English and French. (There’s even a dictionary of Spanish false cognates — who knew?) Here are a few of the most commonly confused pairs.

actual (Spanish): Present, current, up-to-date. La situación actual, the current situation.
actual (English): True, real, factual.

asistir (Spanish): To attend. Asistir a un concierto, to attend a concert.
assist (English): To help or provide assistance.

atender (Spanish): To serve, take care of, attend to. El médico que me atendió, the doctor who treated me.
attend (English): To be present (at a meeting, class, etc.).

contestar (Spanish): To answer. Contestar el teléfono, to answer the telephone.
contest (English): To challenge or dispute something.

decepción (Spanish): A disappointment. Una gran decepción, a huge disappointment.
deception (English): A trick or lie; something intended to deceive.

disgusto (Spanish): Displeasure, dissatisfaction, annoyance. Expresar su disgusto, to express one’s dissatisfaction.
disgust (English): A feeling of revulsion or loathing (much more negative than disgusto).

éxito (Spanish): A hit or success. Grandes éxitos, greatest hits.
exit (English): A way out.

Exit-Exito

fábrica (Spanish): A factory. Una fábrica de zapatos, a shoe factory.
fabric (English): Cloth.

firma (Spanish): Signature or signing. La firma de un contrato, the signing of a contract.
firm (English): A business or company.

fútbol (Spanish): Soccer. Un partido de fútbol, a soccer match.
football (US English only): American football.

largo (Spanish): Long. A largo plazo, in the long term.
large (English): Big.

lectura (Spanish): Reading. Lectura y matemáticas, reading and math.
lecture (English): A formal oral presentation to an audience.

librería (Spanish): Bookstore; place to buy books. Librería en línea, online bookstore.
library (English): Place to borrow books.

realizar (Spanish): To make, do, carry out, perform, complete, accomplish. Realizar una tarea, to perform a task.
realize (English): To become aware of something.

recordar (Spanish): To remember or remind. No recuerdo su nombre, I don’t remember his name.
record (English): To store information, music, or images by writing or making an audio or video recording.

sensible (Spanish): Sensitive, capable of feeling. La piel sensible, sensitive skin.
sensible (English): Prudent, reasonable, showing good judgment or common sense.

suceso (Spanish): An event; something that happens. Este terrible suceso, this terrible event.
success (English): Favorable outcome; achievement of something planned or desired.

Grammatical Pitfalls

Besides false cognates, Spanish grammar can influence the way our students speak and write English. A few examples:

  • Double negatives. In Spanish, it’s perfectly correct to say Yo no tengo nada. But if you translate that phrase literally to English, you get I don’t have nothing. Most students quickly learn that double negatives are ungrammatical in English. But it may be helpful to emphasize this, pointing out the different structures of the two languages.

No_tengo_nada

  • Missing subject. If you want to say I’m hungry in Spanish, you can say either Yo tengo hambre or simply Tengo hambre. It’s okay to omit the subject pronoun yo. Not so in English. Am hungry is not a grammatical sentence. Because the subject of a sentence can be optional in Spanish, students sometimes omit the subject in English as well.
  • Adjectives made plural. In Spanish, an adjective agrees in number with the noun it modifies. If the noun is plural, the adjective is plural too: casas grandes. In English, adjectives don’t change. But students sometimes forget and add “s” to adjectives that modify a plural noun.
  • People as singular. I’ve often heard my students say something like People is cold in the winter. In Spanish, the usual word for people, gente, is singular, so students often assume that it’s singular in English. The fact that people is an irregular plural not ending in “s” muddles things further, giving the impression that it should take a singular verb. Is English confusing or what?
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2 Responses to “False Friends” and Other Pitfalls: How Language Transfer Affects Our Students’ English

  1. Ashley Lipps says:

    Maybe I’m outing myself as a fan of reality TV here… but I can’t help but think of an episode of The Bachelorette where the contestant from Brazil told the single mom that becoming a step dad would be a “compromise.” Oops!
    http://www.nj.com/entertainment/tv/index.ssf/2012/05/the_bachelorette_2012_a_child.html

  2. Bob says:

    Great article, Cathy. Useful stuff.

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