Foreign Language Mistakes: These Words Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean

Learning a new language inevitably involves a bit of public humiliation. You’re bound to make mistakes, and some of them will make you blush. That said, some foreign language mistakes are both more common and more cringeworthy than others. With that in mind, here is a collection of foreign words that probably don’t mean what you think they mean:

False Cognates

“Cognates” are words that sound the same or similar in both languages. For example,  action in English is acción in Spanish. “False cognates” are words that sound alike in both languages but have totally different meanings. This makes them especially prone to misuse by speakers who are trying to learn a new language. For example:

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Spanish:

  • Embarazada: Spanish is full of false cognates, like embarazada, which sounds like “embarrassed” but means “pregnant.”
  • Constipado: This doesn’t mean you’re in dire need of adding more fibre to your diet. Rather, it means you have a cold.
  • Preservativo sounds like “preserves” or “preservatives” but it actually means “condom.” Breakfast of champions, eh?
  • Delito may sound delightful, but it actually means “crime” in Spanish, not “delight.”
  • Americano means “from North or South America.” In fact, it’s considered rude to use it to mean “from the United States.”
  • Grosería’ means “grossness,” not “grocery store.”

Swedish

Kissa: Feeling affectionate in Sweden? Be careful! In Swedish, the word Kissa has nothing to do with kissing. It means “to urinate.”

German

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  • Gift: Beware of people bearing “gifts” in German; gift means poison, not present.
  • Bekommen sounds like “become,” but it actually means “received.”
  • Mist may be an innocuous word in English, but in German it means “manure.”

Portuguese

  • Esquisito sounds like exquisite, but it means “strange,” so don’t expect it to make you popular with the ladies.
  • Constipação:  Like its Spanish sibling, “constipação” generally means you have a head cold, though “constipação intestinal” can be used if the other end is stuffed up.

French

  • Préservatif: This is another false cognate for “preserves,” and it means the same thing as its Spanish cousin. So, don’t ask for strawberry “preservatif” on your toast in France!
  • Coin means “corner” in French. It has nothing to do with coins, unless of course you’re begging for them there.
  • Librarie is “bookstore” in French, so don’t expect to be able to borrow books there like you would at a library. For that, you need une bibliothèque.

Japanese

  • Feminisuto:  In Japan, a feminisuto is a man who likes to the treat the ladies. He may or may not care about equality.
  • Abauto sounds like “about,” but it actually means lazy.

Also, as the Lonely Planet points out , the Italian “Cin Cin!” is not an acceptable toast in Japan, where it refers to the genitals.

Confusing Soundalikes

It only takes one sound, one vowel or one consonant, to completely change the meaning of a word. Each language has its own particular set of sounds, and it can be difficult for foreigners to keep them all straight at first.

Greek:

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Calamari, which means “squid,” has an unfortunate resemblance to Kalimera, Greek for “Good Morning!”  This has led to numerous Brits calling locals “squid” while in Greece on holiday.

Portuguese

Coco means coconut, but be careful how you pronounce it. If you place the stress on the second syllable, as you would in English, you’re asking for something much less appetizing: poop.

Italian

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British Designer Tom Gifford, whose wife is Italian, has an awesome collection of illustrations depicting embarrassing soundalikes in Italian. Go check it out! Here are some Italian word pairs with a high potential for humiliation:

  • As shown above, sesso means “sex” while “sasso” means stone.
  • Ano means “anus,” while anno means “year.”
  • Tetto means “roof, while tetta means “tit.”

What to Do When You Make a Mistake

What do you do when you realize you’ve inserted some random awkwardness or unintentional potty humor into what was supposed to be a simple conversation? Apologize, laugh and shake it off, according to Benny Lewis of  Fluent in 3 Months:

The way I see it, the more mistakes you make the more you are speaking and this is a good thing. You will be interacting with people and getting closer to speaking better as you are made aware of these mistakes. If your goal is to speak perfectly with 0 mistakes you will be very disappointed. This will never happen. Even natives make mistakes. Just accept it as a natural part of the path to speaking any language well.

The best attitude to take is to just accept that it’s going to happen and go with the flow. Embrace the mistakes!

That’s great advice when it comes to learning a new language as an individual.  When it comes to your business, of course, the best course of action is to avoid mistakes when possible. Invest in translation services from knowledgeable translators to avoid errors (like ours for example) that might offend customers and alienate stakeholders.

Photo credits: © Nospmisk | Dreamstime.comPregnant Woman Holding Belly Photo, “Trent Reznor Lollapalooza 1991” by Rik Goldman. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsAttribution Some rights reserved by Stewart

3 replies
  1. Reed Heacock
    Reed Heacock says:

    By focusing on words that are specific to you, it allows you to quickly build a list of vocabulary that you can use in conversations right away. Not only that, but since the words you’ve learned are relevant to you, you will find them much easier to remember.

    Reply

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