Wednesday, June 4, 2008

False Friends

What is a false friend? In common usage, its meaning is explicit. It is someone who holds themselves up to be a friend, while in reality engaging in behaviour that makes them anything but. Someone who wants something from another but offers nothing in exchange.

There are a litany of misdeeds that cause us all to reclassify people who we initially thought were mates into less complimentary terms. This is often due to hypersensitivity, our own narrow perceptions and just as often, an accurate and justified turning away from someone who is not worth the heartache.

Dishonesty in all its forms; lies, betrayals of trust and that odd tendency of many humans to be absent and lacking in support for those they claim to be close to when times are toughest, are all reasons for a reconsideration of friendship.

It’s that last one that seems to occur most frequently. A “fair-weather friend” is a variation of the false friend, someone who is only around when things are good. When you’re down you certainly find out who you can rely on.

Of course, we are all quick to recognize such failings in others while likely never holding ourselves up to the same standards. In others, it is a true indication of character while if we engage in such behaviour, it’s only a circumstantial one-off.

In language teaching, a “false friend” is also something that at first glance appears to be beneficial but can lead to confusion and frustration. A recognized word that is already familiar to our brains but which represents an entirely new meaning in the foreign language we are learning. A familiar sound that makes uttering the word easy but also opens up a mental can of worms that can temporarily throw us off the path towards acquiring the new language.

Years ago while living in Israel, I experienced my own personal false friend in terms of language learning. The first few days after arrival I spent wandering around the city of Tel Aviv in a daze with the usual mix of confusion and excitement that comes with being in a new place. I kept hearing my name being shouted out, “Ken, Ken.”

Clerks at the shops I walked into even seemed to know my name. Of course, I quickly realized that the Hebrew word for yes is “ken.”

It later dawned on me that Israel is a nation full of beautiful women who scream my name out every night. A comforting idea.

False language friends abound in Hebrew; “me” in Hebrew means “who” in English, as “who” means “he” and “he” means “she.” Confused? Imagine how difficult it can be for someone learning the language.

There are also examples of false friends in the language sphere for Thais learning English and farangs trying to learn Thai.

While buying pumpkin in the local market, an English-speaking foreigner in Thailand may become somewhat flustered. A Thai in farang-land may feel slightly unpleasant when fumbling in her purse late at night as she tries to find the precision-cut instrument that will allow her to open the door.

There are two main types of false friends. First, words that were adopted from a different language to describe something similar but over time morphed into a different meaning. For a Spanish student, there are numerous occurrences which could cause confusion when trying to learn English.

In Spanish, "una decepciĆ³n" is "a disappointment," which is a different meaning than for the similar sounding English word “deception.” Carpeta is most commonly used for describing a type of file folder and is very close in sound to the English "carpet." To add to the confusion, carpeta is occasionally used to describe a kind of table cloth but never for a floor covering.

Much more prevalent is the second type. These are the false language friends that were arrived at out of apparent coincidence.

It’s interesting to ponder the various symbolic utterances we call language. Why did one group of individuals decide on a combination of grunts and vocal chord manipulations to represent one thing while another group arrived at the same bleating sound in order to designate something else?

So there are two basic types of linguistic false friends: ones arrived at by sheer (apparent) coincidence and others that are derivative of a word from one of the languages but whose meaning has changed significantly in the adopting language. Both present some problems for the learner.

Truthfully, the phenomenon of false friends in language learning does not appear to be a serious problem and is usually an occasion for mirth more than anything else. What can a language teacher do to help students regarding false friends? The simplest way is to alert students to the existence of such words and over time compile a list that can be displayed in the classroom. Again, it often provides the opportunity to introduce a humorous element into teaching.

For example, rak is the Thai word for love, while five variant meanings for rack in English are, to quote the entries from

1. A state of intense anguish.
2. A cause of intense anguish.
3. An instrument of torture on which the victim's body was stretched.

This is anecdotal evidence that, in fact, similar phonetic sounds which people have arrived at to describe different things in their respective languages may have some connection after all.