Cognates are words that sound similar and can mean the same thing across different languages. However, in French, there are some tricky cognates that don’t mean what you might think they mean. French tutor Carol Beth L. shares five common French false cognates…
Due to their similar roots, French and English share some vocabulary and grammar. La table is table, la geographie is geography, and un film is a film – otherwise known as a movie. Similar word pairs between two languages are known as cognates.
Not all such similar words mean the same thing, however, so watch out, or some pairs may trick you! These false cognates – also known as “false friends” – sound alike but don’t actually mean the same thing. Here are a few notable examples.
1) Une librarie
Would you normally expect to pay to use the books in une librarie? In France, yes. Une librarie is a bookstore, while a library is une bibliothèque.
Football sounds a lot like the American sport “football.” Like football, football is also in fact quite popular in France. But when the French play football, there are no yardage lines on the field, and the field goals have nets and no poles – because in fact the French word football actually refers to “soccer.” Our version of football is called le football américain, or American football.
Attendre sounds like the English verb “to attend.” Logically, “j’attends le concert” would mean “I’m attending the concert,” right? Well, not quite. Attendre actually means to wait, so, “j’attends le concert” actually means “I’m waiting for the concert.”
So if attendre doesn’t mean to attend, how do you say to attend in French? The French verb is assister. If you want to say you are attending the concert, say “j’assiste au concert.”
“But wait,” you say. “That sounds like the English verb ‘to assist’ meaning ‘to help.’” Not quite.
So then what about to assist or to help? This one actually makes some sense. The French verb is aider, and you can actually see the word “aid” (also meaning to help) in its root. “Je t’aide dans ton jeu de football,” translates to “I’ll help you in your soccer game.”
“Actuellement, je fais mes devoirs.” Of course you’ve probably guessed by now that this sentence doesn’t mean you’re actually doing your homework – except it kind of actually does, indirectly.
This sentence quite simply says that you’re doing your homework right now, because actuellement means currently or right now. After all, if you’re doing them now, you are actually doing them, right? At any rate, both meanings make sense in many situations, so someone who doesn’t realize the distinction might not catch on to their mistake in conversation. If you really want to say actually and truly that you’re doing something, try using en faite (actually) or véritablement (really / truly).
In French, blesser means to wound or hurt someone, not to bless them. So be careful; if you want to look out for their physical and spiritual well-being, it might be wiser to ask a priest, rabbi, monk, or other spiritual leader for a bénédiction (a blessing). Or you can use the verb bénir (to bless) to express what you’d like him to do.
These are only a few examples, but nonetheless take heed! French can be easier than some languages because it has some similarities with English, but it can also be tricky. When in doubt, look it up, and don’t let any of its false friends trick you!
Think you know your French false cognates after this lesson? Take the quiz to find out!
For more insider tips and tricks to learning French, try working with a French tutor. French tutors are available to work with you online via Skype or in-person, depending on your location. Find your French tutor today!
Carol Beth L. teaches French lessons in San Francisco, CA. She has her Masters in French language education from the Sorbonne University in Paris and has been teaching since 2009. Learn more about Carol Beth here!
Photo by Adams K.