8 false friends from my French students that we can learn from

False friends in French can cause lots of confusion for language learners

False friends can trip language learners up, particularly during spoken conversations
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False friends can be common when learning languages with a shared history or from similar language families, and with English and French it is no different. 

A false friend is when two words look the same (or almost the same) but mean different things. 

Language learners may see a word in their target language and assume it means the same as in their native tongue, without truly knowing what it means.

Alternatively, they may try to use a word from their main language they think has the same meaning without really knowing.

This can sometimes lead to mistakes, some of which can be humorous in hindsight – many English speakers in France will have an anecdote about the time they used je suis excité in the wrong context.

As an English teacher, I constantly hear mistranslations which actually help me improve my own French. 

Mistakes are one of the best ways to learn, as it provides context for you to remember the correct conjugation or word meaning in a future situation. 

When learning a language, it is important to understand early on that you are never going to understand every word. Instead, you can listen to sentences as a whole and derive from the context the meaning of individual words. 

This is often a good approach to breaking down false friends - use the context surrounding them to understand what they actually express. 

Read more: The science behind why it is never too late to learn French

Below are eight common false friends you will likely come across.

Injurier - to insult 

Injurier quelqu’un actually means to insult someone rather than to hurt them. 

To injure someone in French is blesser quelqu’un

Il a injurié tous mes amis quand il était bourré à la soirée hier! (He insulted all my friends when he was drunk at the party yesterday!)

Actuellement - currently 

It is only natural to assume that actuellement translates as 'actually' in English, however it actually means currently. 

‘Actually’ translates as en fait or en réalité

Actuellement has the same meaning as en ce moment; it signifies the idea of now or at the moment. 

Actuellement ils sont en vacances alors ils ne vont pas répondre aux emails. (They are on holiday at the moment so they won’t respond to emails.)

Read also: Seven beginner mistakes to avoid in French

Apprendre quelque chose à quelqu'un - to teach someone something

While apprendre quelque chose means to learn something, apprendre quelque chose à quelqu’un means to teach someone something. 

This can often cause confusion for students learning English, who translate it as “to learn something to someone”. 

J’apprends l’anglais aux étudiants français. (I teach English to French students.)

Eventuellement - possibly/potentially

If you hear someone using eventuellement, it expresses the potential of something rather than a sense of finality as you may expect. 

‘Eventually’ in French is translated as finalement, while eventuellement means possibly or potentially. 

Les étudiants iront éventuellement en Angleterre cette année mais il reste à voir (The students might go to England this year but we will see.) 

Grand (when talking about height) - tall 

When talking about height, grand translates as tall rather than big or large. In English, describing someone as big is more likely to refer to weight or size. 

Grand is a word that depends on context, but when talking about the general size of someone, it is likely to mean that they are tall. 

J’ai chaud - I am hot 

Chaud is a word that can cause language learners into some difficulty. While j’ai chaud translates word-for-word as ‘I have hot’, contextually it signifies feeling physically warm. 

It is not to be confused with je suis chaud, which means ‘I’m turned on’ in certain contexts and is not related to how you feel about the weather. 

However, you can also use je suis chaud to express that you are up for doing something, and the younger generation are fond of this expression.

Passer - to spend (time)

Passer is one of these French words that can be employed in many different contexts to mean many different things in English. 

While it can mean to pass, it is usually used to mean ‘to spend time’. 

For example, when talking about their weekends, my students often say to me in English that they “passed the weekend at home” rather than they “spent the weekend at home.”

J’avais de la chance de passer une semaine là-bas l'année dernière, c’était génial! (I was lucky enough to spend a week there last year, it was great!)

La déception - disappointment 

The French word déception has nothing to do with being misled like in English, but is associated with the idea of being disappointed or feeling disillusioned.

The English form of déception would be translated as la tromperie or la duperie in French. 

La déception amoureuse fait toujours mal. (Romantic disappointment always hurts.)