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When learning a new language, how can one avoid malapropism due to another language one knows better?

For example when I started leaning English I was/am fluent in German and had difficulties not to confuse the English "where" with the German "wer" (means who) and the English "who" with the German "wo" (means where in English).

Note that both words in my examples above have more or less the same pronunciation and spelling.

  • But the actual pronunciation of the word pairs is quite different, right? – user3169 May 23 '16 at 19:50
  • @user3169 one could say similar but of course its different, but not that much for a beginner I might assume, as this also depends on other "factors" like the teachers accent etc. Of course the difference between wo and who is much bigger in that point. – Medi1Saif May 23 '16 at 20:28
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In a more common sense, you are talking about False Friends, pairs of words in different languages that sound similar, but really have different meanings.

In my opinion, these words make a big trouble for language learners specifically because they appear in our mind intuitively and before the proper word comes to our mind. This becomes especially evident when we have limited time for thinking (e.g., verbal communication), unlike when we have enough of time (e.g., writing a homework).

What to do?

  1. Understand the problem. Read the core reasons why such words arise and how they can impact our learning process. In fact, the Wikipedia article is a good start.
  2. Since False Friends arise in our mind intuitively (in other words, besides our mind), the normal vocabulary learning techniques do not work in this case. I saw teachers who collect humorous stories about someone who mistakenly used the wrong word and got into an embarrassing or awkward situation because of that. When the students learned the stories, they automatically arise in our mind during the conversations in the future.

I started studying English a zillion years ago, but I still remember many of these stories from my school times, like this:

In my language (Ukrainian), the word /magazin/ means "shop", usually a food store. So the story is about someone who comes to England and wants to find a food store, but forgot the proper word, asked for /magazin/, so everyone offered them magazines instead.

This will also help struggling with (semi-) homonyms in the foreign language.

Consider a story about someone who bought a ticket to a "sheep" instead of a "ship".

There are plenty of such stories available in the Internet, for every language. Google for them by using a proper term from above.

  • I really realized having a problem, when I've got a "bad mark" in my English class because I always used the "false friend". – Medi1Saif May 24 '16 at 5:15
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Wikipedia says:

The philosopher Donald Davidson has noted that malapropisms show the complex process through which the brain translates thoughts into language

So, one of the possible solutions is to reduce the number of translations. It could be better to think in another language. The brain would be ready for words from the second language and would not be confused with words from the first language

  • That's hard for a beginner. Than maybe a good further question could be "when one starts to think in a new language?" or "What is necessary to start thinking in a new language?" – Medi1Saif May 23 '16 at 13:35

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