Today while browsing pinterest, I found a blog post about false cognates. A cognate is a word that looks/sounds similar in two languages. For example, bank and banco, or (even better) hospital and hospital! My students love these, for obvious reasons. A false cognate (or false friend (faux amis)), is a word that looks like something in the target language, but means something totally different. A common mistake in my class is "embarazada" when they want to say embarrased, when it actually means pregnant.
A Story of False Cognates
My junior year of college, I took a third year conversation class in Spanish. I was feeling pretty excellent about my future in language, until the rest of the class entered the room. I was the ONLY non-native speaker. Apparently, most Spanish majors are Spanish speakers. I still don't understand that. Why not try something new?
Anyway, Day 1, we are supposed to share a story about our summer. While the other students are spilling out stories, letting the lengua run off of their lenguas like water, I am taking frenzied notes about key words and ideas I want to say. Vocabulary is where I struggle. It's hard to keep thousands of foreign words in your head that you don't use daily. I had to show these people I belong here, though. I had the perfect story. When it came my turn, I began: (The English translation)
This summer, my friends and I (2 boys and 2 girls) went rock climbing in Arizona. We were staying in Sedona and climbing out at Bell Rock. We had been told there were several bolted routes on the far side of the rock, but we couldn't find any at all. After spending half of the day hiking with a full rope in tow (they're pretty heavy), we gave up and decided to go climbing without rope. We left the rope at the bottom of the mountain and "free climbed" about 100 feet to the top.
At this point, I had a rapt audience. Some mouths were open. Eyes were wide. I had stumbled through a few phrases, but the content was enough to make up for it for now. "heh heh, they're so impressed... I should add the part about Matt almost dropping to his death before I caught him and dragged him back up to safety." Before I could get this heroic feat into my story, a hand shot up.
"Sí. Sin. Ropa."
Yeah, they're definitely impressed. I didn't realize I was that daring, I didn't think it was that hard...
A tap on my arm. The girl sitting next to me whispers in my ear, "Ropa means clothes. Lazo means rope. They think you went climbing... 'desnuda'."
Díos mio. They think I'm a nudist rock climber. Red in the face, as only a person as pale as I am can be, I quickly explain I meant lazo, not ropa, and that I like to climb with all of my clothes on.
I now use this story as a two part lesson for my students. 1) that it's okay to make mistakes, we all make mistakes. Try anyway. and 2) that mistakes help you learn. Since that day, I have never once forgotten that the word "ropa" means clothes, and "lazo" means rope.