false friends

False Friends and How to Avoid Them

The Story of  True and False Friends

Many years ago, a good friend, let’s call him Sebastian, was working for a company which sold production machinery in China, the Middle East, and North America. Sebastian sometimes had to go on business trips to North America to install the machines, make sure they were up and running according to the customer’s wishes and to train the employees how to work the machines.

One evening we met up after work and he told me about his latest trip to the US and the people he had worked with.

“Oh, so you’re a Turkey?”

He was excited about the opportunity to travel because it meant meeting new people, going places he had never been before and encountering new challenges. There was one encounter of the special kind he told me about.

He had asked one of the employees he was training, where he was from, as he wasn’t American. The employee knew Sebastian was from Germany and told him to guess, as many people from his country work in Germany too. After a short thought, Sebastian replied: “Oh, so you’re a turkey?”

I asked him what the man from Turkey had replied. It wasn’t until this moment, a week after having said that sentence for the first time, that Sebastian started doubting its correctness. “Well”, he continued, “he only said ‘yes’.” (Which leaves two options: either politeness or not knowing it better)

Looking into Sebastian’s puzzled face, I couldn’t leave him in the dark, despite the idiom “ignorance is bliss”, which by the way doesn’t fit in with my line of work or mindset. My friend laughed about himself when I told him what his mistake was. After that, he never mixed it up again.

False Friends, what are they?

Over the past years, I have encountered very many mistakes Germans make when learning English. Many because the words sound similar and people think they have the same meaning. Or because they have been adapted from English, but are used differently.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, then just consider these examples of false friends:

  • “Handy”, in German it is a synonym for a mobile or cell phone. In English, it means something is helpful or accessible.
  • “Chef”, in German means the head of your department/company or the person you report to. In English, it means a cook.
  • “Stadium”, in German means stage or level. In English, it is a place where sport or music events are held.
  • “lch bin erfreut”, in German means I’m pleased or delighted. Some people mix it up with “I’m afraid”, which means, unfortunately or I’m scared.
  • “unterbrochen”, in German means interrupted. Some people mix it up with “broken”, which means something is not functioning, it’s out of order or in pieces.

By the way, they exist across different languages not only in English and German. They even exist within the same language; check out this and this on Wikipedia for impressive lists of differences words can have in American and British English.

How do you avoid these false friends?

Please keep in mind when learning a language or anything else for that matter, you cannot become an expert overnight, it is a longer process.

Unfortunately, I have to tell you there is no short cut to avoiding false friends. It takes time and practice.

These are the strategies you can do:

  • Get or make a list of false friends for the language you are learning, for English I would suggest: False Friends: A photographic journey through 67 tricky English mistakes, “False Friends in Business English”  or “Fighting False Friends”   (by clicking on either link you will find each book on Amazon and if you make a purchase via these links, I will receive a small commission). Revise these lists.
  • Be especially careful in professional situations and make sure the words you want to use e.g. in a presentation or a speech are correct. Have an expert proof read your script.
  • Don’t forget, you’re human. Making mistakes is a natural part of learning a language. If you have friends who are native speakers, tell them to inform you, when you have made a mistake. Learn from them.
  • Above all, keep a sense of humour, even if your faux pas is embarrassing. You’ll never forget it again. Believe me, I know, ask Sebastian.

One more thing

Let me know about the false friends you’ve encountered. Here are your possibilities to get in touch with me:

  1. Contact me and we’ll find a way to get together online or offline.
  2. Connect with me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Xing.

Take care, have fun and let me know if you need any help.



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