You are so false!
We all dread them! False friends! Can there be anything as vile and dangerous as a false friend? In fact, the whole concept of a two-faced ‘friend’ is quite abhorrent.
When learning Spanish, the term ‘false friends’ refers to words or expressions in Spanish that seem similar to your native language, or seem logical with the limited language skills you have acquired, yet mean something completely different. False friends! Unfortunately, these treacherous false friends often lead to embarrassing Spanish mistakes, especially for beginners.
But it’s okay to make mistakes when you’re learning…because even if those mistakes can be a bit embarrassing, what is the worst that can happen? Perhaps a little loss of dignity at the most. All language learners have to come to grips with the fact they will have to shed a lot of pride and a little dignity on their language learning journey. all you have to lose is a little dignity, and toughen up for the next time it will happen.
Unfortunately, I have made a few embarrassing mistakes in Spanish since I came to Spain 30 years ago but I survived them all and can look back in laughter now. However, I have to admit this one was the worst.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am casting no aspersions on the Spanish people, one of the most sincere and hospitable peoples on the planet and among whom I count most of my true friends…but linguistically, well, that’s a different matter.
Don’t be fooled.
Good friends…but don’t be fooled! |Photo Credit
I’ll never forget the night I met my very first ‘false friend’ and made one of my biggest mistakes in Spanish. I was an undergraduate student of Spanish on my ‘year abroad’ with three other students of Spanish on the same course as myself. We were in Bilbao enjoying some of the student night-life in the evenings. I was elated at being able to actually use some of the Spanish I had been learning from textbooks for so long.
My friend Christine and I were in one of the local student bars in our local neighbourhood and were being chatted up by two Spanish men. I was desperately trying to find a way to get us out of this uncomfortable situation. These two Spaniards just wouldn’t take the hint (or refused to accept that) they were being rejected by two attractive (yes, it was a long time ago!) foreigners.
That’s when I made the dreaded mistake, which was intended to be an excuse to get away and leave them to enjoy these gentlemen to enjoy the evening in their own company.
I thought I was in complete control of this situation and whispered to my friend that I was going to say that I was hot and needed to get outside for a bit. Then we would make our escape. No problemo! (Or rather, in correct Spanish: ¡No hay problema!)
So confident was I of my great excuse, I confidently found the verb TO BE in my mind…SER or ESTAR was of course always the question, but as I knew that ESTAR is ‘TO BE’ when referring to temporary states, I felt completely confident I was on a winner.
See here for more on SER and ESTAR
So with all the panache I could muster I resounded “¡Estoy caliente!”
The irony was that I DID feel very hot and needed to get outside… The bar was full of people dancing and chatting and the music was deafening. The reaction of these two men to what I intended to be our escape plan soon made me realize I had made a big mistake.
The effect of my comment was completely the opposite of what I had intended. And so enter my first false friend, disarmingly treacherous at such a key moment of our escape.
The logic I used which led me straight into the lion’s den:
If in Spanish ‘Yo estoy’ is ‘I am’ and ‘caliente’ is ‘hot’, then would it not be completely rational to conclude that I had tried to infer that the temperature in the bar was too high for my personal preference and that my friend and I were about to leave the premises, but that it had been very pleasant chatting and we hoped they would continue to have a stimulating evening without us; Thank you and Good Night. But oh dear!
There was nothing so far from the truth!
I had met my first linguistic ‘false friend’ because I had effectively told these Spanish men in a quite vulgar way, that I was ‘hot’ for them, as we made for the door, they had correctly assumed (at least linguistically) that we were inviting them to come away with us outside as we wanted to get to know them better in a more appropriate venue.
When I had said the unfortunate phrase, first, they looked at me in great surprise (it had only taken a few minutes chat in broken English and Spanish) then they hastily followed us outside almost disbelieving their apparent success in their chat-up lines.
It was my own fault; I have no one else to blame.
What I could have remembered was that there are several collocations using TENER (To Have) with a noun where in English we would use ‘To Be’ with an adjective.
This happens when ‘To Be’ has more of a sense of TO FEEL something; like feeling hot, feeling cold, feeling hungry feeling thirsty, and in a few other cases.
What I should have said instead of
ESTOY CALIENTEwas “TENGO CALOR”.
If I had been better prepared, I could have even produced a beautiful Spanish ABANICO from my BOLSO and given a bit of a flirtatious flourish of my fan and a flutter of my PESTAÑAS but then, thinking about it, that might have just led to more confusion.
ABANICO = Fan
BOLSO = Handbag
PESTAÑAS = Eyelashes
ESTOY TENGO CALOR = I’m hot ESTOY TENGO FRÍO = I’m cold ESTOY TENGO HUNGRY = I’m hungry ESTOY TENGO SED = I’m thirsty
Can you see the pattern?
I’m not fond of writing lists without giving real examples of the language in action, but this following list is by way of describing the pattern that may explain a little about the grammar behind my unfortunate ‘faux pas’ or rather my METADURA DE PATA (a sticking-in of my foot!)
- TO BE HOT = TENER CALOR (To have heat)
- TO BE COLD = TENER FRÍO (To have coldness)
- TO BE HUNGRY = TENER HAMBRE (To have hunger)
- TO BE THIRSTY = TENER SED (To have thirst)
- TO BE FRIGHTENED = TENER MIEDO (To have fear)
- TO BE JEALOUS = TENER CELOS (To have jealousies)
See here a previous article about noticing Patterns while language learning
Phew…No damage done!
Fortunately, we were lucky and no damage was done, once the miffed men had clarified the meaning of what I had said. In the end, they weren’t that bad after all and although it was quite embarrassing, we were able to laugh about the linguistic error, even with them.
Needless to say that I have never forgotten that lesson about the times the Spanish use TENER instead of SER or ESTAR and have never spoken to that ‘false friend’, that mischievous mate, that cheeky chum again.
See here for some funny examples of other False Friends. If you can get your head around them, you’ll save yourself a lot of embarrassing mistakes in Spanish.
If you have learned some Spanish, please share with us a bit of your loss of dignity and embarrassment when you have made a mistake in Spanish (if you have ever made any!) At least we can all have a laugh at it after the event!
Still have doubts about SER and when to use it?
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