My favorite false-friend – Language Fail

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Photo credit: Christy Maskeroni

A story of a false-friend that led an Italian guy to think he was going to be linked to an American gal forever.

False-friend, now you might be thinking this is quite similar to a frenemy, someone you treat with the utmost passive aggressive behavior, because with them you hold true to the expression keep your friends close and your enemies closer. However, with language learning false friends means something different, yet oddly similar to a frenemy.

When learning Spanish, English speakers are introduced to the concept of false-friends. The best way to describe false-friend is simple, it’s when you see or hear a Spanish word and assume it’s translation to English because its sounds or spelled similarly. This also works the other way around for Spanish speakers learning English. For example, limón if you automatically thought lemon you are correct! However, if you saw the word ropa and thought rope unfortunately that’s not correct. Ropa translated is clothing. Ropa’s false-friend is rope. Conversely, the first time I heard someone in Spanish say constipado, I thought ‘Wow bro TMI!’. Later, I learned it simply meant ‘to have a cold’. You know exactly which false-friend I understood, and I remember even suggesting ensalada (salad) HA!

That’s the beautiful thing about learning a language, it’s like Tetris. A fun (or stressful) puzzle you are able to navigate with no concrete solution. It’s an organic evolution of learning and problem solving.

One of the most common questions I get asked is: “When did you learn Spanish?” My response is very simple. “When is the day you learned to read? Is there an actual day that you woke up opened a book and said ‘YES! I went from Chika Chika Boom Boom to the Grapes of Wrath!’ No. You could maybe pinpoint the day or timeframe you lost your first tooth or had your first kiss. But learning a language is much like learning to read, it just slowly starts to happen. Little by little words become familiar, you start using, reading and understanding them, and it all slowly starts to make sense.”

With that said, some of my favorite memories living abroad for five years happened during my first few months of the country. While learning Spanish those false-friends reared their ugly head on several occasions. At the time, I was mortified but now I wouldn’t change anything for the stories. I want to share my favorite false-friend story that happened within the first couple of months of living in Madrid.

When I first landed in Madrid I did what any 24-year-old would do; go out with friends to meet and flirt with the locals and other expats. I met a young man from Italy (shocking) and I was completely fond of him. We saw each other a couple of times and each time really reminded me of a European film.  The cute language barrier, endless sweet compliments, bushing my hair off my face, public displays of affection (gag!), you get the idea. One night we made plans and he proceeded to stand me up. Yes! I stayed home waiting for him to pick me up until I ultimately fell asleep fully clothed. STOOD UP! The next day, I got the obligatory text ‘I’m so sorry! I was out and my phone died, I hope you can forgive me. I’ll text you soon beautiful.’  Hint! Hint! I was going to get ghosted. 

Fast forward a couple of weeks later, I was out one night with a friend and I accidentally bumped into him and his friends. I decided I was going to give him a piece of my mind and with a bit of liquid courage I marched over to him and his friends. He looked as me with this condescending concern, where he looked at me with ‘aww, are you ok?’ eyes. In his sweet voice and smile, he started “Qué pasa? Lo siento por el otro día.” (What’s wrong? Sorry about the other day.) My ears were hot with frustrated angry. I composed myself and in my New York confidence responded “Qué pasa? En serio? Estoy embarazada y enfadada.” I remember his eyes widen and I quickly thought ‘hmm that’s a weird response’. I was under the impression I said to him “What’s wrong? Really? I’m embarrassed and mad”. FLASE FRIEND ALERT!I thought, ‘Did I actually know how to say ’embarrassed’ in Spanish? Embarazada is definitely a Spanish word. Yea, I’m confident I nailed that sentence.’ He and his friends were silent and still wore shocked faces.

At this point, my friend gently grabs my elbow and softly whispered in my ear “Lisette, embarazada means pregnant. You’re saying you’re pregnant and mad.” My thoughts were very clear OMG. OMG. OMG Lisette. Crazy alert! Step back slowly and walk away. Fade into the crowed and change your number. Without me saying anything, he started to realize I was having a language fail moment. Then slowly the face of shock returned back to the “aww, are you ok?”condescending concern look again. To which I grabbed my friend and simply said “Adios!”. My friend and I were maybe 10 steps away when we broke out into uncontrollable laughter. The kind of laugh that brought us to tears and had us losing our breath. Damn you false-friend, damn you.

That’s the beautiful part of learning a language you’re supposed to make mistakes, you learn from making mistakes and you collect stories along the way. Honestly, my false-friend stories are my frenemies. I keep my friendly translated words close and my enemy words closer.

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