Can You Repeat That? When False Friends Go to the Extreme

When I arrived in Spain over two years ago, I packed with me in my suitcase a phrase book; such was my level of the language before arriving. Before leaving, friends and family questioned why I was opting for Spain and not a country of either my mother tongue or the French language I had learnt for almost a decade prior. ‘Why not Spain?’ I answered to them all. ‘Why not leave this rut and challenge myself?

In the two years that followed, I used that phrase book, I read, I listened, I spoke, and attended classes to get to grips with the grammar. Confidence grew, fluency continued to improve and between it all, I began to notice small similarities between some Spanish and English vocabulary. These words had similarities in spelling, but had almost the opposite in meaning. I was then introduced the fascinating world of ‘False friends.’

A more memorable false friend for me would probably be embarazada. If you haven’t studied the language, you might have already guessed what you think it means. One day I found out that this doesn’t mean ‘embarrassed.’ No, no. This in fact means ‘pregnant.’ This gave both my director and secretary (both female) one hell of a laugh one afternoon.

False friends are common place in the English classroom in Spain, and make up a grouping words and phrases known as ‘Spanglish’. Teaching here, I’ve grown accustomed to students using them in both speaking and writing, and I’ve even found myself using them. Last year, I used the word ‘maticulate’ from its Spanish verb (matricular) when talking to colleagues about students who had or hadn’t REGISTERED for the following year.

Spanglish can be frustrating. Too often I find myself correcting my students, particularly in their writing. Too often I tell them to take a note of it and try not to repeat it in the future. Too often I take out a set of writings down the line to find the same mistakes again. But, they can sometimes provide some much needed comic relief.

One of my classes in my first year in Montequinto (a suburb to the south of Seville) was notorious for Spanglish. Though enthusiastic, many students in class spoke as if they would in Spanish, and would translate literally when speaking. I wonder now as I type this if they have since improved.

This was a class of pre-teens, so you can imagine a lot of competitiveness, eagerness to do something and, of course, not think before they do something. Sophie and Maria often worked together well, and always enjoyed it when my random seating system had placed them together. One day in November, something had happened prior to class for all of that to change.

Gone was the camaraderie. Gone was the willingness to work together. Reading their body language, it was obvious neither wanted to be there. I had already addressed them for not doing what I had asked them, and threatened to move them unless they worked harder. It was when my back was turned (when else?) when I heard a noise, which suggested someone had been kicked.

I turned and looked at Sophie, who suddenly sat up straight as if I had seen what she did. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked the two of them. The rest of class stopped what they doing, making sure I had an audience.

‘She kick me, she kick me!’ moaned Maria. I looked at Sophie, expecting some sort of a denial.

‘But she molests me! She always molests me!’ cried Sophie.

I froze momentarily. Molest? What on earth could she mean? Bear in mind my level of Spanish at that time was quite low compared to now. Sophie was trying to tell me her once friend had been disturbing her. Sophie decided to literally translate the Spanish verb molestar, which means to disturb/annoy. She assumed said verb meant the same in English, just as information is to información.

13 months later, my students are still molesting each other.



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