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MFL - To err is divine

Language mistakes can be funny - and a useful teaching tool

Language mistakes can be funny - and a useful teaching tool

"Could I have a large slice of cat, please?"

Mistakes are comedy gold. Most children make corrections in a rush. Take time over them, though, and you can have a laugh while learning a lot about languages. Start a lesson by writing mistakes on the board and waiting for the class to notice. It's a fun way to recap the last lesson.

Tell pupils about the howlers you made when you were learning a language. In the above example, I did not know the Italian for "cake". So I just said the French word gateau with an Italian accent. But Gatto means "cat". The waiter kept a straight face until I asked if the "chocolate cat had nuts in it". This taught me not to be lazy but to look things up.

Let pupils keep a page in their books where they note down their favourite mistakes: the funny ones that taught them the most. Learning from mistakes requires more than just copying out corrections. You need to know why you made them in the first place. So pupils could also write down what led them to make that particular mistake.

One common source of errors is "language interference": the assumption that the new language works like your own. Native German speakers often verbs at the end of sentences put. Correct just one example and the mistake will keep occurring; correct the error at its source and it disappears.

Perhaps you misheard a word and did not check its spelling. One teacher told his class about a big hose used to extinguish large borrega fires instead of bodega. The children wondered why he had to extinguish sheep.

Choose verbs with care. One pupil habitually confused apanarse with empanarse and kept reassuring everyone, "It's OK, I'll steam myself." Beware of nouns that are related to each other: caballero and caballo are similar, so be sure which one means "gentleman". Don't do what one pupil did and say, "You're a real horse!"

Tell pupils about faux amis, or "false friends": words in different languages that look or sound similar but have very different meanings. Romance languages, those derived from Latin, have many of these. "Preservative" in English comes from the Latin praeservativus, which developed rather a different meaning in 18 other languages. In French, German and Spanish, you might well ask, "Does this jam contain condoms?"

Unconscious translation is the root of many howlers. Connect new words as directly as you can with reality. Avoid hopping like a frog across the lily pads of your own language first. Otherwise, you will forever be translating in a hurry. You will keep thanking Italians for a terrible party and telling Spaniards you're pregnant; you'll be forever putting out sheep.

Catherine Paver has taught French in England and English in Italy and South Africa. Read more of her articles at


Jen Turner's French reading and listening vocabulary list helps pupils to tackle "false friends". bit.lyFrenchFalseFriends

Try Leepy's Spanish tongue-twisters and show pupils it's OK to make mistakes. bit.lySpanishTongueTwisters

Stop meaning from being lost in translation with anyholland's list of French-English faux amis. bit.lyFauxAmis

Combat common Spanish mistakes in seasidelou's lesson on making adjectives agree with genders. bit.lyAdjectivesAgree.

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