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Watch out, false friends are about!

There are a lot of challenges when it comes to understanding a foreign language, even if you are already an intermediate speaker and can communicate quite well in it. We have previously mentioned idiomatic expressions which can cause confusion or misunderstanding and can be every translator’s or interpreter’s nightmare. Well, it is not the end of the story. There come so called false friends next. It is easy to figure out what false friends could mean in real life but when it comes to a linguistic realm it obviously has something to do with understanding the original meaning which is not so straightforward anymore.

What are false friends in English? Or falsi amici in Italian? Or fałszywi przyjaciele in Polish? The expression refers to the group of words in a particular language that spell or sound similar to a target language words, but their meaning is completely different or sometimes even opposite. This can make us commit a language blunder or lead to a confusion or ridiculous misunderstanding so it is best to assimilate the basic list of the most common false friends in the language we work with. A lot of languages have false friends, it’s not just English. Spanish, French, Italian or Polish are also good examples.

I am staying in Italy at the moment. As a digital nomad I change places frequently and I am always super fascinated with the linguistic subtleties behind the language of the country I am currently in. My Italian is very rusty. I used to study it in a language school for a couple of years a long time ago but I haven’t been practicing much, to be honest, even though I have visited Italy multiple times. The main problem about my language practice when I’m in Italy is that I either stay with English speaking people or my Italian hosts prefer to practice their English with me so I can hardly polish my Italiano. I understand more than I speak but there are words that still cause a lot of confusion and make my interaction with the Italians difficult. I remember my first challenge with Italian false friends when I started learning it in a language school back in Poland. We talked about daily routines, timetables and food. Then came the question about meals. My teacher got really puzzled when I said I usually had curry or vegetable casserole for breakfast. Well, we can obviously have different eating habits and stick to various dietary routines but this wasn’t the case. The Italian word colazione sounds very similar to Polish kolacja, which-in fact- means supper, an evening meal:) No wonder, not knowing any Italian at that point, I understood the question very directly and gave a very direct answer to it. From now on I remember that when it comes to a morning and evening meal it is always the opposite:) I acquired the same technique to remember the meaning of two adjectives referring to temperature: caldo and freddo. My first association with caldo was English cold as they sound similar so I instantly jumped to a conclusion. Apparently, it turned out to be quite the opposite! At least, now I remember that caldo means warm and freddo means cold:) The list of other Italian-Polish false friends examples is endless. Just to give you an idea how confusing understanding Italian can be at times, here are more Italian – Polish false friends:

Italian – Polish

Bagno – bagno ( bathroom vs. swamp)

Buona – błona ( good vs. membrane)

Camera – kamera (room vs. camera)

Cena – cena ( supper vs. price)

Colazione –kolacja ( breakfast vs. supper)

Criminalista –kryminalista ( crime detective vs. criminal)

Cura – kura ( care vs. hen)

Curva – kurwa ( curve vs. prostitute)

Divano – dywan ( couch vs. rug )

Firma – firma ( signature vs. firm)

Leva – lewa ( lever vs. left as opposite to right)

Mai – maj (never vs. May)

Mordere – mordować (bite vs. murder)

Noce – noce ( nut vs nights)

Panna – panna ( cream vs. maiden)

Tappeto – tapeta ( carpet vs. wallpaper )

Coperta – koperta ( blanket vs. envelope )

Banco – bank ( bench vs. bank)

Another time that brings false friends as a memory is when I was working in Austria for the winter season as I wanted to combine my international work experience with skiing, which I love. The role of a chalet host allowed me to do both.The first confusion came when I tried to explain to my Polish friends and relatives what my ski resort job was. It’s not surprising the first association of the word chalet for a Pole who does not speak English brings to their mind a public toilet 😉 Was I a lavatory attendant while working in the Austrian Alps? Well, NO! 🙂 Why would they think I was? It is due to a false friends connotation with a Polish word szalet which sounds like the (French) English chalet and means: public lavatory. However, in English chalet is a holiday cottage, holiday home, summer house, holiday house or an Alpine-style house. So, yes I was looking after a beautiful, luxurious mountain holiday house with a million-dollar view to the Alps whereas toilets were involved only sporadically;)

Here are more examples of English- Polish false friends, causing (or not) some confusion.

English – Polish (English translation)

Actual – aktualny (current)

Affair – afera (scandal)

Antics – antyki (antiques)

Chef- szef (boss)

Closet – klozet (wc)

Divan- dywan (carpet, rug)

Dress – dres (tracksuit)

Eventually – ewentualnie (possibly)

Lecture – lektura (novel)

Lunatic – lunatyk (sleepwalker)

Obscure – obskurny (shabby, filthy)

Ordinary – ordynarny (vulgar, rough)

Pasta – pasta (paste)

Sympathy – sympatia (friendliness)

Transparent – transparent (banner)

Pension -pensja (salary)

Receipt – recepta (prescription)

I​​f you have any similar experiences to share, please leave a comment below. We are always happy to read more. 

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