Thursday, September 29, 2011

Introduction: False Friends

A sign for a "night club" in Costa Rica. Read this post to see how "night clubs" in Spanish and "nightclubs" in English are different! 
There's a common English phrase that I like: "With friends like these, who needs enemies?"* It means that sometimes the people who we think are our friends, are the people who hurt us most. This can be applied to language learning when talking about cognates, or specifically false cognates

Cognates are words that look identical or very similar in two languages. For example, the Spanish word "actor" is identical to the English word "actor," and their meanings are the same. Only the pronunciation is a little different. So, we could say that "actor" and "actor" are cognates. (Click here for a nice list of many English-Spanish cognates.)

False cognates --also called "false friends"-- are pairs of words that look similar, but in fact have different definitions and meanings. One example that causes problems for a lot of people is the word "once." In Spanish, once means "eleven," but in English, "once" means "one time." Another example is "actual." In Spanish, actual means "current," but in English, it means "authentic" or "real."

I notice my students getting confused by false friends very frequently. As you know, I already have a Common Errors section in this blog, but since false friends are quicker and more specifically related to vocabulary, I decided to start a False Friends page on this blog. I'll post more of these false friends and their explanations occasionally, but if you want to have a quick list now, you can check different extended lists here, here, and here.

So, here's our first False Friend: "night club" in Spanish vs. "nightclub" in English:

False Friend: 
This SPANISH word...
Looks like this ENGLISH word...
...but they are DIFFERENT because...
"night club"
Obviously, "night club" isn't really a native Spanish word, but it's used frequently, at least in Costa Rica. BUT, there's an important difference. If you go to a night club in Costa Rica, you're going to what's called a "strip club" in English, where strippers take off their clothes for money.

In English, a "nightclub" is a place that normally serves food and alcohol in the evenings, and usually provides a place to dance. It's very similar to a "disco" or a "dance club." If you go "nightclubbing," it means you go out  dancing in the evening.**

I'll try to post more False Friends in the future, and you can find them by clicking on the "False Friends" tab at the top of this blog. If you have any questions or suggestions for additional False Friends, I'd love to hear from you.

Thanks very much for reading, and have a great day...or night; and if you're going to a night club, be careful!

*Apparently, this phrase may have originally come from German, since there's also a similar phrase in German: Mit solchen Freunden braucht man keine Feinde mehr.
**"Nightclubbing" is also the name of a song by Iggy Pop.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Free Online German Class

Berlin, Germany... Pretty much exactly like Berlín de San Ramón, right?

The other day I posted quite a few links that my German students can check out (click here for that post). I was also chatting online with Sharon, and she pointed out a great, free online German class. It's got explanations in Spanish, so it could be a great resource for my students here in Costa Rica. It has some videos and some sound, too (you may have to wait a few seconds after clicking, just so you know). In any case, check out the course here. If you have any comments, please feel free to share them. Thanks, and Viel Glück!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Common Names

A few weeks ago I wrote two articles about naming customs in the USA and Costa Rica. I mentioned that I also wanted to talk a little bit about common names in both countries, but since the posts were already so long, I decided to do a shorter post later. This is that post.

Common Last Names in the USA

First of all, let's look at last names, since they're the same for both men and women, obviously. According to this list, which seems to be available in some form on more than one site, the two most popular names are Smith and Johnson. I had actually thought it was the other way around, but they're both very common. The top 5 is rounded off with Williams, Jones, and then Brown, which didn't really surprise me much. In fact, of the top 20 names the only ones that surprised me were Garcia (18) and Martinez (19), mainly just because they were the first Hispanic last names on the list, and I expected Hispanic names to be a bit higher. I'm sure that a lot of last name statistics also depend on geographical regions, though.

I also noticed that "Sitzman" was conspicuously absent from the Top 20... and the Top 100. So I searched for it, and apparently it's number 24,083... that's right, my last name is the 24,083rd most popular last name in the US! Believe it or not, but it's even less common than the last name "Pizza" (ranked 24,007th). But still: Pizza! I'd have a more common last name if my name were "Ryan Pizza." Ouch, that hurts.

Common First Names in the USA

Now, first names were the ones that surprised me a bit more. I discovered that the Social Security Administration (the agency in charge of retirement and pension payments in the US) keeps statistics related to baby names. I spent a while looking at different names, charts, and statistics on their website, and it was pretty interesting.

According to this table, the most common first names in 2010 were Jacob, Ethan, and Michael for boys and Isabella, Sophia, and Emma for girls. Hmm, not too bad, I guess, but then I saw that for boys Jayden is #4 and Aiden is #9. Are those even names? (Disclaimer: I'm a mean, grumpy man.) I suppose that it's cold comfort that it's not as strange as the list of top baby names in Great Britain (seriously, England: "Alfie"? What's going on over there?). 

Still, I guess the names don't seem so strange if you look at this chart, which displays the top 5 names for each year from 1911 to 2010. It also explains why I know a lot of Jennifers, Ashleys, Matthews, and Christophers. 

So how does "Ryan" fit into these numbers? Well, in 2010 it was number 23, just above "Samuel" and "Jackson" (and probably even further ahead of babies named "Samuel L. Jackson"). Sadly, it's still below Mason and Logan. Brian and Bryan don't seem to be on the top 25 list for 2010, but maybe they count them as two different names because of the two spellings?

On the SSA site you can also search for popular names from the year in which you were born, so I did that. I had always imagined that my name was pretty common and boring, since I know a lot of Ryans, Brians, and Bryans. I was right. In 1980, Brian was #12 and Ryan was #15. The #15 name for girls in 1980 was Christina, and that seems about right.

There is one part of the SSA baby names website that is very disturbing, though. It's the "Change in Popularity" section, which lists names that have gained in popularity recently. There are some really ridiculous names on this page, especially for the boys. Seriously, who in their right mind would name a beautiful baby boy Bentley, Knox, Jax, Zayden, or Ryder? 

Anyway, that's my names post. I hope there was something interesting for you. And if any of my friends who read this have children with those "strange" names, then of course I was just kidding! Your baby and his name are both wonderful and special!

Thanks for reading. If you want to join in on the discussion, say hi in the comments section. Take care, and have a great day!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Some Links For German Students

Let me just say this now: EXTRA CREDIT to anyone who comes to class next week
wearing a Dirndl or Lederhosen!

Hi to everyone, but especially to my German students! I enjoyed our class this evening, and I'm excited that we'll be learning more together in the weeks to come. To help you study outside of class, I wanted to pass on a few links for you today:

Basic German

-One good place to go is this site on It really is a free, basic German course, but there are a lot of text ads along the way. There's not many pictures, either. One good thing about the site is that you can listen to any of the highlighted phrases just by clicking on them.

-A second option is actually the BBC's German learning site. It's got quite a lot in English, but it's a good way to move into German bit by bit.

-Finally, Deutsche Welle (which means "German Wave") is a famous international broadcaster based out of Germany. It has some basic German courses you can use online. Here's an "audio trainer" course with the instructions in Spanish (you can also find instructions in English or German).

About German and German-Speaking Countries

-There are many, many internet sites about Germany, the German language, and the German people, but two that seem pretty good are and Young Germany. The first page is from the German embassy in the U.S. so it's in English. If you prefer Spanish you can go to the German Embassy in Costa Rica's page.

-If you want more information about tourism in Germany, check out this site.

-If you want to know more about "Die Schweiz," then try Swiss World or

-If you prefer to learn about "Österreich," head to this page for general information or this page for tourist info.

-If you want to learn about Liechtenstein, that small country we mentioned in class, check here.

A lot of the information on those pages is available in English, German, and sometimes also Spanish.

Dictionaries, Verbs, the Alphabet, and Changing Between Keyboard Languages

-The dictionary I mentioned in class is LEO. They also have apps for smartphones, but it's probably easiest to get them by searching through your phone's store (like the Apple App Store or the Android Market).

-If you want a quick site for verb conjugations, this one is pretty good. It's a little weird about German letters, though. For example, if you want to find "heißen," you need to use the ß... it doesn't seem to recognize "heissen." 

-If you want to add the possibility to easily type German letters on your keyboard, there are directions here. Just so you know, your keyboard will obviously look the same, but if you normally have an American English keyboard layout, the Ä key is the apostrophe (') key, the Ö key is the semi-colon (;) key, the Ü key is the left bracket ([) key, and the ß is the dash (-) key. If you have a Spanish keyboard layout, Ä is the accent key, Ö is the Ñ key, Ü is the weird downward accent key (`), and ß is the apostrophe (') key. 
That sounds pretty confusing, but if you set up Windows to change between languages, it's really fast and easy once you get used to it (just click "Left Alt + Shift" to change languages in almost any program, including Word and web browsers like Firefox or Chrome).

-If you want to practice the alphabet, check out this site for pronunciation and this site for pronunciation plus a few songs. Here are the numbers if you want to practice them.

German Magazines and News

-Two of the most popular news magazines in Germany are Spiegel and Stern. Both are obviously in German, so they may be difficult if you're just beginning, but at least they have nice pictures and you can see how some world news is reported in Germany (it's also a good chance to notice many German-English cognates when reading headlines). 

-Deutsche Welle has a news page in Spanish (and many other languages... just use the drop-down menu at the top right to select the language you want).

-Additionally, Spiegel has a good English site. It's good if you're looking for more English practice!

SO! That's a LOT of links. I'm sure that if you want to practice German, you'll be able to keep busy at least until next week. If any of the links are good, bad, or don't work, please tell me. Also feel free to mention any other links that you may know of, so that I can share them with the rest of the class.

Thanks, and have a great week!

Friday, September 16, 2011

German Class Tonight!

Eating food is OK in my class, but you probably can't smoke...
Unless you look like Herr Lessing or his daughter in the picture.

A few quick notes for students in tonight's German class:

-Class will go from 6-9. We can have a short break, but it will only be a few minutes. If you want to bring some food along, that's OK with me.

-Please bring a notebook and either a USB flash drive or a laptop (I have some extra materials I can give to you).

-Tonight we'll start with basic introductions and vocabulary. We'll also discuss materials (I have a few possible books we can consider, but they all have advantages and disadvantages).

-Consider what language you want the class to be in. I think most of the students will speak English, but it may be hard for you to go between German and explanations in English. And for me, it may be hard for me to go between German and explanations in Spanish. If you want to do the class in German, that's also a possibility, and don't worry, I wouldn't be as strict as I am in English classes. :)

So, see you tonight!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Common Error: Plurals and Apostrophes

"Taxi's" or "Taxis"? Read on to find out! (Photo Credit).

Hello everyone! It's been a while since we looked at a Common Error, but this is one that I've noticed a lot recently. Interestingly, it's a common error that advanced learners and even native English speakers make--the sign in the picture above was in England! The problem happens when you try to incorrectly make a word plural by adding 's (an apostrophe plus 'S').

Common Error: Incorrectly making a word "plural" by adding an "apostrophe + s"
DON’T say this:When I teach young student's, I talk with their mother's and father's.
The sign said it sold "ice cream, hot dog's, and hamburger's."
WHY?-This is an easy error to correct and recognize:

-Generally, to make a regular noun plural, add "-s" or "-es."

-If you add "'s" (apostrophe + s) to the end of a word, it usually makes it possessive, not plural, or in some cases it may be a contraction of the word "is."
INSTEAD, SAY THIS:-When I teach young students, I talk with their mothers and fathers.
-The sign said it sold "ice cream, hot dogs, and hamburgers."
-Mike's a great guy, and he can make delicious hamburgers. (Here, Mike's = "Mike is")
-Let's go to Mike's house. (Here, Let's = "let us," indicating a suggestion, and Mike's = the house belongs to Mike)

So, apostrophes can sometimes be a bit confusing, but remember that they're usually NOT used to make plurals! If you are comfortable reading advanced English, AnnaLisa has written a couple of posts about apostrophe use on her blog "Word-wise." The posts are very complete, so check them out if you can!

If you have any comments or questions, or especially if you have any suggestions for future Common Errors, please leave a message in the Comments section or contact us

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Language in Bilingual Couples and Families

My wife Angela and I. Or should I say, "Mi esposa Ángela y yo"?
Or even, "Meine Frau Angela und ich"?

As you may know, I'm from the USA, so my native language is English. I'm married to a Costa Rican named Angela, and her native language is obviously Spanish. One question that people ask us a lot is "What language do you speak at home?" The answer is that we alternate between the two languages, but sometimes people are surprised at how infrequently we switch languages: once a year.

That's right, every August 25th (the way we chose that date is a more complicated story) we change languages. So about two weeks ago, we ended an English year and started a Spanish year. There are some advantages and some disadvantages to this approach.

I've heard of some couples or families that switch between languages every month, week, or even every day, but I think that would be a bit too confusing. The way we do it, once you start a new language year, it's very unlikely that you'll forget which language you're supposed to speak. As a result, one person can really work on building up his or her fluency. You can also avoid falling into a "Spanglish" trap wherein you speak a mixture of two languages, which can be confusing for you or some onlookers (or in this case "onlisteners," I guess).

There are also some disadvantages. In the case of Angela and I, we usually prefer to not speak our native language. In other words, I prefer our Spanish years, and Angela prefers our English years since we both want to practice a language that's foreign to us. With this approach, one of us has to go for most of a year with little practice in the target language. We do still speak English with my friends and family and Spanish with Angela's. Also, while living in Costa Rica many daily interactions out of home are in Spanish, but we both speak mostly English at work, so at least there's always some practice of both languages.

One big question mark for the future is what we'll do if we have kids. As I noted in my articles about naming customs (USA here and Costa Rica here), we don't even know what last names our kids would have, and we're also unsure how to best raise a bilingual child. I've heard that it's best if each parent always speaks his or her native language with the children so the children don't mix up the two languages. But if we had a kid and it were a Spanish year, for example, it would maybe be weird for me to speak English with the kid and Spanish with Angela, all in the same conversation. I guess we'll cross that bridge if/when we come to it.

What about you? Are you in a bilingual or multilingual family or relationship? Do you know anyone who is? How do you handle it, or how would you handle it if you were? Wow, we have a great opportunity here to practice conditional tenses! 

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!