Month: February 2018

3 Common False Friends

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Learning a language can be a bumpy ride. You’re cruising along, doing pretty well and feeling rather proud of yourself when yet again, something comes along to trip you up. One of these fun things is something called a false friend. Now, I don’t mean someone who goes shopping with you and tells you that you look great in that bright pink dress and you should definitely buy it, when in fact you look hideous and are at risk of frightening little children on the street. But it’s not that different. In language terms, a false friend is a word that you think is your friend (because it seems easy to remember as it looks/sounds almost the same as the word in your native language) but in fact has a completely different meaning. In other words, it’s going to trip you up and watch you fall on your language-learning ass. Let me give you some examples:

question what do you mean

1. irritiert (German) versus irritated (English)
If you are irritated in English, it means you are annoyed. Someone on the underground is talking on their phone at the top of their voice. Worse, someone is sitting opposite you, chomping loudly on a strange German sandwich creation of raw pork mince and raw onions (welcome to the wonderful world of Mettwurst) and failing to close their mouth while they do so. Your blood pressure is slightly up. As a friend of mine always says, you’re feeling a bit “Grrrrrrrr”. That’s the English version of irritated. However, when I first came to Frankfurt, a German friend of mine often said “Ich bin irritiert”. I often wondered what her problem was. Why is she so irritated all the time? She’s smiling and doesn’t seem annoyed; what’s that all about? Only later did I discover that “Ich bin irritiert” translates into English as “I’m confused/I don’t understand”. Aha! That explains a lot. Vice versa, a client of mine once showed me some emails he had been writing in English to a guy in the London office. On more than one occasion he had written: “I’m irritated by your presentation”, meaning of course he was confused/there was something he didn‘t understand. London was not impressed.

2. Rezept (German) versus Recipe (English)
This one comes up a lot. Especially when you live in a country where people are obsessed with their health, have an Apotheke (pharmacy) on every corner, enjoy describing their illnesses to you in excruciating detail and apparently make more visits (up to 14 a year!) to their doctor than any other country in Europe. In German, Rezept has a couple of meanings. It is not only used as recipe for cooking, baking etc. but also as the word for prescription, as in the holy piece of paper you get from your doctor to go to the nearest Apotheke (never more than about 100 metres away) and get your medication.

pills painkillers

For me, this came up again a few months ago. Although I remember doing lots of painful role-play conversations while struggling my way through my Deutsch Heute textbook at school, I don’t remember any of the roleplays evere covering “Mother falls on tram and breaks her wrist”. Long story short, mother fell over, broke her wrist, tram transport in Frankfurt came to a halt, ambulance came, so did the police (who tried to fine me 500 euro for not having my passport with me!) went to the ER, she had an operation and my husband had an extra unexpected week of his in-laws. Sorry Deutsch Heute but “I’d like a Bratwurst please” just doesn’t cut it in those situations. Anyway, when she was finally being discharged from the hospital, the surgeon (who actually spoke excellent English) still fell for the false friend and told her he would give her a “recipe for the painkillers”. Mother was confused (irritiert) and probably also a bit irritated (genervt) and replied, “What? I have to make them myself??!” Brilliant.

3. sensible (German and English) versus sensitive (English)
This one not only comes up in German, but also in Spanish and French. All these languages use the word sensible as we in English would use the word sensitive/delicate:

“Sie ist sehr sensible.”“She’s very sensitive.”
(likely to start crying)
“Es ist ein sensibles Thema.”“It’s a sensitive issue.”
(A delicate issue that needs to be handled with care.)
Sensible in English on the other hand means reasonable/practical.
“She’s a sensible child.”
(you can trust her to make the right/reasonable decisions)
“Sie ist ein vernünftiges Kind.”
high heels

My parents have spent their life telling me to wear “sensible shoes”. If you’re not sure what that means, forget crazy Jimmy Choo (instruments of torture) high heels and picture some comfortable Birkenstocks or some hiking boots. Sensible shoes. My dad even took this advice to such an extreme that on the morning of my wedding, he arrived at my room to pick me up with a Tesco shopping bag in hand, insisting I needed to wear “sensible shoes” (i.e. my sweaty running shoes rather than my pretty strappy high-heeled sandals) with my wedding dress to avoid tripping on the cobbled streets on my way to the castle. “Sensible shoes Rebecca!“ Sweet of him to worry about me but was never going to happen!

Unfortunately, the list of false friends goes on and on. For more help with German/English false friends, I find this list pretty helpful. What about false friends in other languages? Are there any you always mix up? Feel free to share your stories below and remember you can subscribe to my blog by adding your email address to the box on the right.

5 Reasons Why Learning a Language is Like Going to the Gym

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sneakers gym

I hate to admit it, but like lots of other hopeful people, I went back to the gym in January. A free month-pass to a fancy, luxurious gym helped me along my way. But while I was there today, burning some butt on the cross trainer and admiring the beautiful people (who can actually afford to be members) in their lovely lululemon yoga outfits, sipping their green smoothies, it struck me again how similar fitness and language learning are (green smoothies and yoga posing aside):

1. You can’t outsource it
Let’s start with the bad news. Nobody can do it for you. Unlike green smoothies and nice outfits, you can’t buy fitness. Even if you pay for a trainer, you still have to do the work. In the same way, you can’t buy yourself a language. No matter what some smart marketing people like to tell you; “Get fit in 10 days!” “Speak fluent Japanese in 30 days!”. And even if that were possible, what happens after? Can I train really hard for 10 days and then be fit for the rest of my life? One month of intensive Japanese and I’m fluent forever? Of course not. Like fitness levels, language ability declines as soon as you stop using it. It’s best to accept from the start that it really is a never-ending project.

2. There will be ups and downs
You know those weeks. The weeks where you had the best intentions but it just didn’t work out. You feel ill so you can’t go for a run. You are too tired to learn any vocabulary. No time for the gym. No time for your language class. The key thing here is to accept you had a bad week, don’t weigh yourself down with guilt and get back on track. Going back to the gym when you’ve been a way for a while can be pretty brutal. The same as turning up for a class and knowing you’ve missed a couple of weeks of new grammar and vocabulary. It’s downright uncomfortable. But all is not lost. Try to focus on the small wins as you get back into it, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the big ultimate goal. In the end, starting again rather than just giving up altogether is the key to long-term success.

3. It’s good for your health
So here comes the good news. The benefits of physical exercise are well-known but did you know that learning a language is also good for your health? More and more studies are proving that learning a foreign language improves your memory, increases your multi-tasking abilities and can even delay the onset of dementia. Recent studies have shown that bilingual people who develop dementia do so up to 5 years later than monolingual people.

4. You never completely forget
So even if you’ve had a long break from the gym or a language, there’s an amazing thing called muscle memory which means you never really start from zero. It’s a complex topic but scientific evidence suggests that your body and brain still retain parts of what you trained in the past. How many times have I met clients who tell me they remember “nothing at all” of the English they learnt years ago. In my experience, never true. There’s always something still there to build on.

5. It gives you a high
Aaaaaaah, the feel-good factor. The thing we are all praying for when we are struggling away on the treadmill and feeling crappy. It does exist, I promise. You just have to wait a bit longer for it to show up than you might like. According to studies, people experience this “kick” after exercising for a certain length of time (it can differ from person to person) and pushing themselves. In the same way, it might take a while to experience the “feel-good factor” from your language learning. However, when you start to improve and finally get rewarded, levels of dopamine (another feel-good chemical) in the brain increase. The reward could be, for example, getting something right in class, finally figuring out how the hell to form the past perfect continuous tense, or best of all, having your first proper impromptu conversation with a native speaker and that person complimenting your skills.  Sounds nerdy I know, but the feel- good factor really does kick in and it’s hugely motivating.

So, try to keep these things in mind on your language learning journey. I’m off to drink a green smoothie, buy myself a fancy gym outfit (if I can’t afford the gym I can at least have the accessories!) and get my Japanese grammar book out.  Feel free to leave a comment below with your thoughts on this or subscribe to my blog. Just add your email address to the box on the right.