French Friday: Ah, Those False Friends…

The more I speak French with my daughter the more I’m reminded that my native language and American English share a fair amount of false friends. Faux amis in French designate words that look exactly the same in both languages but have very different meanings.

I made my first acquaintance with false friends over my very first trip to New York City in the mid 1980s. The American couple who hosted me described one of their friends as being special. Although the French adjective spécial (e) also means unique, it is not the first choice to describe someone who has a very special place in your life since spécial is also used to describe someone or something that exists away from the accepted norms. It took me a while to understand that my friends were speaking highly of their special friend and didn’t find her peculiar.

More than a decade later I made closer encounters with more false friends.

When one of my daughters invited a kindergarten classmate for a play date, I met a precocious six-year-old boy who spoke eloquently and was a huge fan of the adverb actually. Which I instinctively translated in actuellement. But, actually means in fact and not currently which is the translation of the French actuellement.

Years went by, yet I could still occasionally think in French. Once, because of an injury I needed physical therapy. Frustrated with the slow progress, I expressed my concerns. My PT kept telling me that I would eventually recover full usage of my left knee. Although his warm smile was encouraging I had a hard time believing him. In fact, I freaked out, unable to accept that he meant that in the end I would be able to use my knee as I used to. In my mind, he meant possibly, which is éventuellement in French. Ultimately, my PT was right: I finally fully recovered.

When my daughter talks with me, texts me, or e-mails me, she makes the effort to do so in French, and I do too, although it would sometimes be much simpler in English. If only to avoid those false friends…

Of course, my daughter has always been able to avoid the classic ones, such as pain, which means bread in French and not hurt, or coin, which designates a corner in French and not some currency, or still store, which is a blind in French. She knows that when real estate agents claim that location is key to a property they are not talking about a rental but about localisation.

But when she read passer un examen, she naturally assumed that the candidate had been successful after taking the exam. In fact, passer un examen means to take an exam. To pass an exam is être reçu à un examen.

False friends are confusing to nonnative speakers. But they can be fun, too.

When recently my daughter told me in French that she didn’t like people who lectured her, using the English noun lecture, I had to smile. A lecture in French is a reading. People who give you moral lessons don’t lecture you. They give you a lesson or a sermon. They sermonne you. By the way she wasn’t talking about me 🙂

I’m not immune to my own mistakes if I don’t pay attention. When I bump into adjectives such as comprehensive, for example, I must remember that it doesn’t mean understanding as it does in French, but detailed, complete, which are my French détaillé(e) and complet (ète).

Or when I instinctively use design instead of designate, thinking of désigner, which means to designate.

Below is a very short list of words that have the potential to create mistakes, more or less funny. I picked a few nouns, adjectives, and verbs from American English and not British, which has its own set of false friends. If you took French in high school or college, you may have met some of these false friends too.

A cave: une grotte and not a cellar

Confidence: confiance and not a secret

Grand: grandiose and not tall

Sensible: raisonnable and not sensitive

Rude: impoli and not rough

Confection: friandises and not ready-made-clothes

Notice: avis, préavis and not instructions

To demand: exiger and not to ask


Witnessing my daughter’s immense progress and occasional setbacks reminded me that she and her siblings didn’t have it easy, contrary to what many English native speakers have so often told me. You don’t automatically become fluent in your parents’ native language only because they are your parents. You have an edge, but only work will make you bilingual. Which explains why my daughter is so, so close to be.

But I knew all along that she would.





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