Friends and Neighbours

Growing up bilingual, I was aware from a young age of “false friends.” Not the kind who borrow money and never pay you back, but words that look or sound like each other across languages but mean very different things. I’ve always had to keep an eye open for them and have had to constantly remind myself to distrust apparent similarities. One memorable example would be the word gift, which occurs in English and German. In English, it’s a present, something nice to be given to a friend. In German, well, it’s not something you’d want to give to a friend. The spelling and sound are the same, but in German Gift means what we would call “poison” in English. So, it’s a good idea to distrust apparent similarities.

milkStudying Latin American Spanish and Filipino (Tagalog) has shown me that my “false friends” rule is not always quite so simple. I’m still very much in the beginning stages of my journeys with these two languages, but what I’ve found thus far are not so much false friends as real friends and neighbours. As neighbours, Spanish has falda for “skirt;” Tagalog has palda. Spanish has vestido for “dress;” Tagalog has bestida. As friends, they have taza and tasa for “cup,” bicicleta and bisikleta for “bicycle,” and azul and asul for “blue.” (There are also Tasse in German and tasse in French, which goes to show that a good cup of coffee goes a long way.) Three hundred years of colonial history will do that to a language, I suppose, which makes getting the spelling correct particularly important to me. It may sound the same, but if I write it in the wrong language, that just won’t do.

I was discussing this with my Filipina girlfriend, Chris, and she brought up some interesting false friends. Gato, of course, is Spanish for “cat,” but the very similar sounding gatas in Tagalog translates as “milk.” I can just imagine mixing up the two when asking for a drink! Similarly, seguro means “certain” in Spanish, but only “possibly” in Tagalog. “Certainly” in Tagalog would be sigurado, I’m told.

Weather permitting, I’ll be meeting Chris and her family in the United States in January next year, and I’ll need to study as much Tagalog as I can before then. In the meantime, I’ll go back to my studies, certainly with a nice tall glass of cat.

Learn more about Mike Hayes’s adventures in language learning.

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Mike Hayes

Raised in London, England—a city of many languages—Mike Hayes grew up in a bilingual household, learning English from his father and German from his mother. He studied French and German in high school and has since forgotten much of what he learned, but he retains a love of languages and an aptitude for learning them. Since meeting his girlfriend, Mike has been determined to become fluent in Filipino (Tagalog), her native language, so he can better understand her friends and family. In addition to studying Filipino with Rosetta Stone, Mike also supports the charity Pusong Pinoy (Heart of a Filipino, The grassroots organization’s posts on Facebook and on its own website often allow him more exposure to Filipino language and culture, and he looks forward to the day when he can understand all the Tagalog text posted on these sites and elsewhere. Mike is also learning Latin American Spanish to expand his horizons and, hopefully, his career opportunities. What started simply as a means to an end has quickly become an active interest. Mike has wondered more than once where the time went after sitting down to Version 3 Rosetta Stone, with which he’s learning both Filipino and Spanish. He‘s sure, though, that since the time was spent learning languages, it hasn’t gone to waste. As learners studying Latin with Rosetta Stone already know, it’s how you lose the time that matters: sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile tempus.
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