No matter your mother tongue, as a foreign language learner you will sometimes encounter “false friends” -- expressions or words which look or sound similar in different languages, but differ significantly in meaning. If you let your false friends confuse you, you might end up saying something you would definitely NOT want to say… Forget mistaking “actually” with “currently”. Learn how not to tell someone their fast food meal is full of condoms!!
If you speak German, Polish, Czech, or Slovakian, you are aware that the word debil in these languages means someone is an idiot. However, if you happen to be signing up to a Spanish website, you might be kindly informed that your chosen password is a bit too débil. Don’t get angry, though -- this Spanish word just means weak, and you’ll need to tack on some more letters and numbers to make your password harder to guess.
What to say: Tu contraseña es débil (Spanish) – Your password is weak
What NOT to say: Jesteś debilem (Polish) – You are an idiot
When you go to Europe, you have to be super careful when you want to talk about any food that contains preservatives. While in English a preservative is a substance used to defend food from going off, in most other European languages the word means... condoms.
What to say: Vous pouvez acheter un préservatif dans une pharmacie (French) – You can buy a condom in a drugstore
What NOT to say: Le hamburger est plein de préservatifs (French) – Your hamburger is full of condoms
Be careful with this word in Sweden! If you say you want a kiss, it means you need to… pee. Saying it in a romantic setting might spoil the mood a bit.
What to say: Jag måste kissa (Swedish) – I need to pee
What NOT to say: Ge mig en kissa (Swedish) – Give me a pee
If you speak Polish, you probably know a bit of an archaic word klozet. It means toilet, and is pronounced the same way as the English word closet, which means wardrobe. You certainly don’t want to use an English closet for a Swidish kiss!
What to say: Idę do klozetu (Polish) – I am going to the toilet
What NOT to say: I want to use the closet (English) – I want to use the wardrobe
This is a tricky one! You are likely to know what fart means in English… ? Meanwhile, in Scandinavian languages fart means speed, and in Polish and Slovakian it means luck. So don’t be too surprised when you get a fart ticket in Norway, or someone wishes you a good fart in Poland!
What to say: Jeg fikk en billett for fart (Norwegian) – I got a ticket for speeding
What NOT to say: You’re so lucky, you just had a fart! (English)
Ah, we love false friends! And there’s a cute one between Spanish and English. Embarrassed in English means to be ashamed. And embarazada in Spanish means to be pregnant! They sound pretty similar to each other and are easy to confuse if you’re an intermediate learner of Spanish or English. So if you want to inform any Spanish person about your pregnancy, try not to get too embarrassed...
What to say: Estoy avergonzado (Spanish) - I am embarrassed
What NOT to say (if you are embarrassed): Estoy embarazada (Spanish) - I’m pregnant
If there’s a fire emergency in Spain, you call for bomberos. You might cause a bit of trouble, however, is you ask or call for bomberos in England. Bombers in English are terrorists.
What to say: Llamar a los bomberos! (Spanish) - Call the firefighters!
What NOT to say: Quick, call the bombers! (English)
Never, and I mean never, ask for a cookie in Hungary. In Hungarian, koki, pronounced the same as English cookie, means… ‘small penis’. So don’t ask for one in the bakery on your trip to Budapest!
What to say: Szeretnék egy torta (Hungarian) - I would like a cookie
What NOT to say: Szeretnék egy koki (Hungarian) - I would like a small penis
There are words that have similar or even identical spellings, but quite opposite meanings - and the contrast can be quite funny. If you’re Polish and you want to buy bread in Czechia, do not worry if they say it’s čerstwy. Čerstwy in Czech means it’s fresh! Unlike in Polish, where it means the bread is stale. The examples below show that Czech people are in a riskier situation!
What to say in Czechia: Čerstvý chléb, prosím (Czech) - I would like a fresh loaf of bread
What NOT to say in Poland: Poproszę czerstwy chleb (Polish) - I would like a stale loaf of bread
Then again, don’t worry so much about these faux pas. Mixing up a few words can be the most entertaining part of learning a new language and might actually help you make new friends in a new place. And it won’t make you a debil!