“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new” – Albert Einstein
The Origin of Errors in a Foreign Language
When we speak a foreign language, we inevitably refer to our native languages in some shape or form. This happens most often at the beginning, when we still know very little of the language we wish to learn; we might confuse a word in our new language to a similar-but-unrelated word in our own, or even resort to mentally translating sentences from our own language word-for-word.
More often than not, these attempts to plaster one language on top of another rarely work, and even when they do, we often unwittingly reveal that no, we are not from around here, thank you very much.
Well, then, why do we do this?
As brand-new learners of a given language, we have few points of reference with which to orient ourselves. If the language you are learning is your first foreign language, you can only hope vainly that this new language is something like the one you speak in your day to day life.
We cling to this hope as a sort of defense mechanism; without it, we’d drown in the alienness of the foreign language, and simply not know how to move forward.
When we apply aspects of our native languages on our new ones (intentionally or not), we tend to do this on several levels:
- Grammar (verbs, sentence structure)
Although transferring the structures of our native languages to our foreign languages can often be problematic, the fact that all language learners do this means that the astute learner can use these errors to his or her own benefit.
Learning from Others’ Mistakes
Everyone always talks about “learning from your own mistakes”. Though that is certainly a useful bit of advice, learning from your own mistakes requires that you actually make mistakes, and lots of them, which can be a risky and potentially exhausting process.
What if, however, you could get all the benefit of learning from your mistakes without actually making any?
It’s certainly possible. Not too long ago, I read a scientific study involving the neuroscience of monkeys, which shed some light on the mechanics of learning.
The study revealed that monkeys—like other animals, including humans—are capable of learning not only from their own errors, but also from watching others commit errors themselves. This means that we humans do not just learn in order to live and survive, but we also live in order to learn, as we’ve developed a unique capacity to truly think and reflect on all mistakes, whether we commit them or others around us do.
This study reminded me of something else I had read recently, a quote from the book Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull:
“Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.”
Being a language learner and language coach myself, I want to apply this valuable lesson to language learning, for the benefit of others.
For this reason, I would like to show English speakers what kind of errors Italians (like me) make or have made when they begin learning English.
It is my hope that English speakers who are learning Italian may use this knowledge, in order to “reverse-engineer” what is going on in a native Italian’s head when they make English mistakes. Once you grasp why Italians make the mistakes they do, you’ll be better-equipped to “think like an Italian” when speaking Italian.
So, without further ado, here are the 5 most common errors that Italian speakers commit when speaking English.
1. The 3rd Person Singular of the Present Tense (Verbs)
You might have trouble remembering verb endings for six different subjects (io, tu, lui/lei, noi, voi, and loro), but Italians are tricked into a false sense of security by having to learn the English present tense conjugations, which are are identical, except for one, tiny, irritating exception:
The third person singular “s”.
Although, for example, I learn, you learn, and even they learn, he…learns.
Unless of course, everybody learns. Then we learn, and they learn too.
This error is incredibly common among Italians who speak English. You’ll often hear phrases like:
- “He run in the park”,
- “Everybody do this”
- “She work hard”
And while this mistake is a little harder to make useful for English speakers who are learning Italian, it is important to keep in mind that just because regular verbs in the English present tense stay the same in five out of the six subjects, it does not work that way in Italian.
|I learn||io imparo|
|You learn||tu impari|
|He/she learns||lui/lei impara|
|We learn||noi impariamo|
|You (all) learn||voi imparate|
|They learn||loro imparano|
Just remember: When speaking in the present tense, conjugate your verbs!
2. Definite and Indefinite Articles
Another extremely common error that Italians make in English involves articles.
Italians who learn English definitely have it easier than English speakers do in this regard, as Italian has eight definite articles and four indefinite articles, while English just has “the”, “a”, and “an”.
However, this simplicity yet again comes at a price, as Italians have to unlearn the ingrained habit to nearly always include articles before nouns.
The presence or absence of an article in English can change the meaning of a sentence greatly. Consider these examples:
- Men can be cruel
- The men can be cruel.
English speakers innately understand that the first sentence refers to “all men” as a general concept, while the second refers to a specific subset of men.
In Italian, however, both sentences would be translated the same way, as:
“Gli uomini possono essere crudeli”
So, keep in mind that when you speak Italian, nouns must (in a large majority of cases) be preceded by their articles, either indefinite or definite.
When in doubt, think of the famous Roberto Benigni film; although in English, life is beautiful, in Italian, la vita è bella.
3) Errors with Uncountable Nouns
If your Italian friend needs your help, you might hear her say:
“Can you give me an advice?”
“Could you give me two informations?”
For an native English speaker or an advanced learner, such sentences just sound “off.” We never think of advice or information as something you can have several of.
But in Italian, it’s 100% possible.
Where you’re used to saying “Can you give me advice?”, full stop, Italians can say:
“Mi puoi dare un consiglio”
Where in English there is just “information”, in Italian, you could ask:
“Mi potresti dare due informazioni?”
If we needed to say the above sentences in English, we either just say the noun (“information” or “advice”) or we ask for “pieces” or “bits” of advice or information, respectively.
So, as an Italian learner, stay aware of the fact that whenever you would divide a general concept into “pieces” in English, you can just count them using numbers (uno, due, tre, etc.) or indefinite articles (un, una, un’)
4) False Cognates
Another extremely common type of mistake are the use of “false cognates” or “false friends”. Where a cognate is a word that has a related form and meaning between two languages, a so-called “false” cognate is a word in one language that appears to be related to a word in another language, but is actually completely unrelated.
English and Italian, as Indo-European languages that both originate from Western Europe, share plenty of true cognates, and plenty of false ones.
This poses problems for both, Italians who learn English and English speakers who learn Italian, but if you have a keen ear and take note of which words Italians seem to be using improperly when speaking English, you can figure out the meanings of several Italian words, and not slip up when you use them yourself.
Say, for example, you are talking to your friend Lucia, who says:
“Hey, you know, today I went to the canteen because I was looking for some old confetti that my uncle had given me. I really felt like eating those and I wanted to control if they were still there and I was deluded because I didn’t find them.”
Now, you might be a perfectly good speaker of English, but if you heard someone talk of “canteens” and being “deluded” because they couldn’t “control” or eat “confetti”, you might think they were crazy.
However, since they’re most likely not crazy, you can take advantage of this apparent “misuse” of words to infer a few things about Italian, including:
- There is a word resembling “canteen” that refers to a place where someone would store something from a family member.
- There is a word resembling “confetti” that refers to something edible.
- There is a verb resembling “control” that is an action you can do to “confetti”.
- There is an adjective resembling “deluded”, which you can be If you can’t find something you’re looking for.
In an English-speaking context, the above inferences hardly make any sense. But as we’ve learned, things that make sense in one language may not make sense in another. That being said, inferences like these will (with a little digging) lead you to the following words:
- Cantina – Basement
- Confetti – Sugared Almonds
- Controllare – to check
- Deludere – to disappoint
Plugging these words back into Lucia’s original statement, we now see what she really meant to say:
“Hey, you know today I went to the basement because I was looking for a some sugared almonds that my uncle had given me. I really felt like eating those and I wanted to check if they were still there and I was disappointed because I didn’t find them.”
So remember: Words are unreliable. When you hear an Italian native speaker repeatedly using an English word in a strange or incorrect way, it’s likely because of a false cognate. Use this knowledge to bridge understanding and further enrich your own vocabulary.
Prepositions are a tough nut to crack in any language. English has quite a lot of them, and often two prepositions share similar roles. Italian prepositions are no exception here either, and whether you’re learning English or Italian for the first time, ironing out the idiosyncrasies can often lead to mistakes.
For example, Italian learners of English have lots of difficulty with the preposition “by”, which is often used in passive constructions, and generally corresponds to “da” in Italian.
This pie was made by me.
Questa torta è stata fatta da me
That is, of course, until it doesn’t:
It depends by the situation
It depends on the situation
Prepositions are fickle in this way, as they attempt to relate two words together in ways that are sometimes completely arbitrary (across languages), particularly when we’re not talking about the spatial relationships between objects.
Take, for example, the sentence:
She spends a lot of money on shoes.
If you’re a native English speaker, you probably didn’t waste your time thinking that money was literally on top of the shoes, right?
Mentally, you just know that:
a. She spends a lot of money
b. This money is used to purchase shoes.
So really, “on” in a physical sense has nothing to do with it. If you ask an Italian who is learning English to translate the same sentence as above, you’ll likely get this:
Spende un sacco di soldi in scarpe
It’s nearly a word-for-word translation, but instead of “on”, we now have “in”.
And technically, the preposition still has no physical meaning in the sentence, as no money is going into the shoes, either.
So, in short, when listening to Italian speakers speak English, take mental note of when they consistently use the “wrong prepositions.” More often than not, they’re directly translating the preposition that would be used in the Italian version of whatever they’re saying, but not accounting for the fact that prepositions are nearly always unreliable in translation.
Using this knowledge, you should be able to figure out which Italian prepositions you need to use when saying those equivalent phrases in Italian.
So when you hear an Italian saying:
I have been learning English since two months
instead of the proper:
I have been learning English for two months
You’ll be able to infer that, all things being equal, the Italian version of the same sentence would likely be:
Imparo l’inglese da due mesi
and not the Italian equivalent of “for,” namely “per”
By observing Italian speakers’ errors in English prepositions, and re-translating them back into an Italian context, you can reveal important details about the languages that will help you better use prepositions when you speak Italian.
Now you’ve seen a brief roundup of several common errors and misunderstandings that Italian native speakers often make when speaking English.
Since you’re aware at this point that many of the most common errors in foreign language use come from the attempt to transfer words, sentences, and sentence structures from our native language to the new one, you can now use the above mistakes to “reverse-engineer” the internal mechanics of native Italian’s thought processes, in order to think more like Italians, when actually speaking Italian.
So, despite the inevitable nature of errors, and the fact that we’re all bound to commit them, you now have a way to learn not only from your own errors in speaking Italian, but in the errors of Italians when speaking English.
We’ve turned what is generally perceived as a negative part of the learning process into something that can be of benefit to everyone.
Now, of course, you might be asking me:
“Okay, Luca, I now know what I have to do to learn from the mistakes of others, but how do I make fewer Italian errors myself?”
“Where can I find explanations of key differences between Italian and English, so I don’t try to unwittingly impose English words and structures onto Italian?”
Well, you’re in luck. Below, I’ve included a list of the common errors and “false friends” between Italian and English.
One last thing.
If you’re a native speaker of English who speaks Italian, are you aware of any other common errors made by Italian learners of English? What mistakes have you made?
If you have any interesting or funny stories about a time when you said something in Italian that meant not at all what you thought it meant, I’d love to hear it!
Just leave a comment below and share your tale of linguistic adventure!
Written by Luca Lampariello and Kevin Morehouse
List of “False Friends”
|English word||Italian “false friend”||Actual meaning of Italian word, translated to English|
|Concussion||Concussione||Abuse of political office|
How to Translate False Cognates:
- Eventually: not “eventualmente” but “alla fine”
- Incident: not “incidente”, but “evento”
- Library: not “libreria” but “biblioteca”
- Sympathy: not “simpatia”, but “compassione”
- Parents: not “parenti”, but “genitori”
- Stamp: not “stampa”, but “francobollo”
- To abuse: not “abusare”, but “approfittare”
- Chest: not “cesto”, but “petto”
- Cold: not “caldo”, but “freddo”
- Comics: not “comici”, but “fumetti”
- Dependant: not “dipendente di lavoro”, but “familiare a carico”
- Lame: not “lame”, but “zoppo”