16 Mistakes You Won’t Make Again

Leonilda Renaldo

During job interviews   |   False friends in French

Have you ever noticed that some words in French are exactly the same or at least very similar to English words? For example: To learn a new language, you need a lot of patience. In French, that same sentence can be translated into Pour apprendre une nouvelle langue, il faut beaucoup de patience. “Patience” is exactly the same word in both English and French. Another example of almost identical vocabulary is this: Her speech was very professional. In French, that would be: Son discours était très professionel. And yes, there are quite a few other words following this pattern. It seems too surreal to be a coincidence, especially considering that these words are not pronounced the same way at all. So I wondered: How could English and French have such obvious similarities?

The answer is that French heavily influenced the English language from the 11th century until the 15th century. Following the Norman Conquest, French became a main language of England because it was the language of the king and his court. Frequent marriages with French princesses also reinforced the importance of the French language in England. Progressively, however, such marriages became less common. Together with the Hundred Years’ War, the status of French was gradually reduced to a second language used only among the upper classes by the end of the 15thcentury.

With this in mind, it makes sense that some French words have been carried over into the English language over time, hence the similarities in vocabulary. In fact, both languages share up to approximately 30% of their words or lexical similarity. That’s great news for French speakers who want to learn English!

However, there is a catch. Words can be spelled similarly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they mean the same thing. These kinds of traps are called false friends, and they are responsible for quite a few mistakes. Obviously, it’s not a big deal of you accidentally use a false friend during a conversation with friends, as they will probably catch on quickly to minor mishaps like that.

But imagine you’re in the middle of a job interview in English, and unknowingly make use of a false friend. The interviewer doesn’t know you well, might not have caught on to the similar word in French, thus gets the wrong impression, and you don’t get the job. For example, let’s say you wanted to express this: J’ai beaucoup d’expérience quant aux affaires. It would make sense for a French speaker to translate it like this: I have a lot of experience as far as affairs are concerned. But it doesn’t mean the same thing at all! In the first sentence, you’re expressing that you’re an experienced businessperson, whereas in the second, you’re saying that you have often slept with married people! That’s quite a costly mistake to make during a job interview!

To help you avoid any mistakes even slightly comparable to this example, I’ve drawn up a list of common false friends along with their meanings:

  • an advertisement (la publicité) ≠ un avertissement (a warning)
  • an affair (une liaison) ≠ les affaires (business)
  • an agenda (l’ordre du jour) ≠ un agenda (a diary)
  • a college (une université) ≠ un collège (a middle school)
  • a journey (un voyage) ≠ une journée (a day)
  • a preservative (un conservateur de nourriture) ≠ un préservatif (a condom)
  • a resume (un CV) ≠ un résumé (a summary)
  • to apply (se postuler) ≠ appliquer (to implement)
  • to assist (aider) ≠ assister à (to witness)
  • to attend (assister, participer) ≠ attendre (to wait)
  • to demand (exiger) ≠ demander (to ask)
  • to interrogate (interroger au sens strict) ≠ demander (to ask)
  • actual (réel) ≠ actuellement (currently)
  • agreeable (favorable) ≠ agréable (enjoyable)
  • consistent (constant, cohérent) ≠ consistant (substantial)
  • sensible (raisonnable, sensé) ≠ sensible (sensitive)

It’s always good to know the theory, but how about applying it to real life? Why not try out Babbel? My clients are still raving about it as the preferred e-learning platform to practice outside of the coaching sessions. Have a look at this very funny video that highlights key false friends in the workplace. I’m here to help, and I want you to succeed in your professional conversations and presentations. Watch it and share your comments during your free consultation session


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