Language learners’ false friends

July 27, 2018

False friends (German: Falsche Freunde) refer to words or phrases in two languages which are similar but which mean different things. These resemblances can be external, meaning that the words look the same, but the words can also have a similar pronunciation.

False friends can be perplexing for both language learners and language professionals. Below are some words we have gathered that may give you a headache!

gift das Gift
English: gift = German: das Geschenk
German: das Gift = English: poison

chef der Chef
English: chef = German: der Koch / die Köchin
German: der Chef = English: boss, manager

fabric die Fabrik
English: fabric = German: der Stoff
German: die Fabrik = English: factory

schmuck der Schmuck
English: schmuck = German: Depp, Schwachkopf
German: der Schmuck = English: jewellery

to become bekommen
English: to become = German: werden
German: bekommen = English: to receive

Many words are transferred from one language to another in the form of loanwords. Sometimes these loanwords’ definitions evolve to mean something completely different from the original. These words can also be called false friends. Here are some examples of such stumbling blocks:

body bag das Bodybag
English: body bag = German: der Leichensack
German: das Bodybag = English: messenger bag

bureau das Büro
English: bureau = German: der Schreibtisch, die Kommode
German: das Büro = English: office

novel die Novelle
English: novel = German: der Roman
German: die Novelle = English: short story

old-timer der Oldtimer
English: old-timer = German: der Veteran, der Senior
German: der Oldtimer = English: vintage car

Remember to also keep in mind that some expressions may have more than one equivalent with different meanings in the foreign language. It’s important to know which one to use depending on the situation, or you may be misunderstood.

to realize = erkennen / begreifen
erkennen = to recognize
begreifen = to understand

tongue = die Sprache / die Zunge
die Sprache = language
die Zunge = muscular organ in the mouth

sick = übel / krass (slang)
übel = to feel sick
krass = cool

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  • Reply Harona Mbah August 20, 2018 at 10:15

    I’m learning Swedish and not German! Would be a better idea to customize your messages.

    • Reply Senja Ukkonen August 20, 2018 at 15:27

      Hi Harona,

      thank you four your comment.

      We are trying to write our blog posts for all of our users. We offer 10 different languages and many of our users study more than one language. Our blog posts can’t have example sentences from all of these languages, otherwise they would be way too long. That’s why we mostly concentrate on only one specific language. Also, we can not define our users according to the language they are studying – we also don’t want to collect that kind of data.

      We can try to use more Swedish in our blog posts! You can also try to read our Swedish blog posts, if you want to. Just go to the address

      Best regards

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