Beware of False Friends

I had a guy who came to my first (ever) English corner in China who was obsessed with little idioms and sayings. I called him “Jingle” because everything he said sounded like it had come out of a TV commercial.

Me: So now let’s hear from one of the students on that same question: What’s your idea of a good friend?

Jingle: A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Me: Umm…ok, thanks for that. Would you care to explain or give an example of what you mean?

Jingle: I just mean that two heads are better than one.

Me: Well…umm…that’s not exactly…

Someone else: (interrupting) Have you seen Titanic?

Jingle: Professionals built the Titanic, but amateurs built the ark.

Me: Ok…well…sadly, we’re out of time now.

Jingle: Time flies like an arrow.

Me: I don’t know what that means.

I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not. That’s how it happened. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a “conversation.”

And I’ve met other Jingles from time to time in my years in China. What’s happened is: they’ve gotten a book of English proverbs and idioms and just slurped them up without any real understanding of the nuances of their meanings or situations in which they’d be appropriate to use.

Well, we’ve got to be careful of the same sort of thing. There are times when we think we know what an idiom means, but the connotations in Chinese are totally different (or different enough) to cause some real problems. Even if the words translate the same, we may be dealing with a “false friend.”

Exhibit A: “Actions Speak Louder than Words”

My second (ever) week in China, I was invited to a fancy dinner with the other two foreign teachers and the bigwigs of the college. It was a small gathering of about a dozen, and needless to say, my Chinese was pretty basic at that point. A few days earlier, I had just learned:

shuō bùrú zuò 说不如作

The literal Chinese translation is “Speaking is not better than doing.” From the context I had learned it in, I was sure it meant “Actions speak louder than words.”

To cut a long (and painful) story short, the president of the college asked me something at one point during the dinner and one of the English department leaders translated it into English for me. I replied with “shuō bùrú zuò” to mean that I would prove my loyalty to the school not by what I said but by my actions. If it had actually meant “Actions speak louder than words,” I would have been fine.

In fact, a much better translation of that phrase would be “Talk is cheap.” Because of the context, the president could have taken that as my insulting him. He could have thought I was saying “All this talk at a fancy dinner is worthless” (a lot of talking, an toasting, goes on at those events).

At the time I said it, I got the feeling something was wrong but it was only later that I learned what a blunder that had been. It made me want to steer clear of all idioms (overreacting, I know). Even though I knew what all the words meant, I didn’t have a good grasp of the connotations. It turned out to be a false friend.

Exhibit B: “We’re in the Same Boat”

When the Sìchuān dà dìzhèn 四川大地震 stuck, my classes of English majors wanted to talk about it. People were talking about the tragedy and all the hardships the people of Sichuan were enduring. After the earthquake, because of landslides blocking rivers, the threat of flooding was reaching critical. At one point, when asked for her opinion, a girl simply said, “I think we’re all in the same boat, don’t you think so?”

I said, “We’ll, I don’t think we’re exactly in the same boat but we’re trying to understand them.”

Well, let me tell you, that became a HUGE issue. I was lucky I found out about it the next week. The students were furious (and had been talking about it) and said I was “discriminating” against Chinese people (whatever that meant!) and couldn’t believe I’d said that. I was shocked that my little comment about figurative boats had caused such an uproar, so I asked a thousand questions and finally figured out the problem.

If you’ll look at the first two entries here (a resource not available to me in class), you’ll see that “in the same boat” in Chinese includes feelings of solidarity and helping each other.

I explained to the class that in English, “In the same boat” just means we’ve found ourselves in the same situation. But, since our buildings hadn’t fallen down, our friends and family members hadn’t been killed, and we are not worried about flooding, I said we aren’t in the same boat as the Sichuan people. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about them or want to help them. I myself donated money to the earthquake victims at that little table in front of cafeteria number 1!” I explained.

That cleared it all up for them and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief.

“In the same boat” is a false friend in Chinese because the words are the same, but the meaning isn’t exactly. It’s more about “hùxiāng bāngzhù” 互相帮助 (helping each other) in Chinese, and the English idiom doesn’t necessarily have that meaning.

Oh, and about Traveling…

In class last week, I asked my students why we had to make up our Monday and Tuesday classes on Saturday and Sunday (as we always do for these “week-long” holidays). The answer is: so we can have 7 days off in a row even though there are officially only 3 days of vacation (3 real + 2 made up + 2 next weekend = 7).

I posited that the idea behind 7 days in a row was to allow people to travel farther. But the class shook their heads. I was dead wrong.

I said, “Ok, if it’s not for traveling, what is the reason?”

My student answered, “For example, if a worker has gone out of town to work, and his home is very far away, he can go back home because there are 7 days in a row.”

“That’s what I said! It’s so people can travel farther.”

And then the nickel dropped.

I continued, “Oh! When I said ‘travel’ you were thinking ‘lǚyóu’ 旅游, right?”


“And lǚyóu is always for fun, right?”


“But a worker going home is not lǚyóu-ing, right?”


“Ok, ok, ok. In English ‘travel’ simply means going from one place to another, which is usually for fun, but a business trip is also traveling, so is going home.”


Not exactly a false-friend idiom. More like a divergent concept, but I still had to throw it in.

Anyone else know any false-friend idioms or divergent concepts like these? Do tell.

18 Replies to “Beware of False Friends”

  1. Thanks for the fear, Albert. Another one that probably qualifies is “thick skinned”. The Chinese is definitely not quite the same but I have to admit that to this day I haven’t bothered to dig out the subtleties. Maybe you’ve got the scoop on it?

  2. do you mean “thick/thin skinned” as in “thin face skinned”? I think that has something to do with traditionally “proper” young ladies being easily embarrassed and bashful, but I can’t remember exactly.

  3. Once when teaching a class on colloqial English in Taiwan I gave the students the assignment to make sentences with each expression. One of the expressions was “mama’s boy”, which I described as a male who listens to everything his mother says, doesn’t disobey and never talks back. The next class I got a lot of “I am a mama’s boy” sentences from the males and positive sentences from females. It hadn’t occurred to me in Chinese culture that is the definition of being filial and would not be construed as a bad thing. Trying to explain why Americans considered that behavior as unrespectable was difficult and won me a lot of horrified looks from students wondering how Americans could be so terrible to their parents. When it comes to sayings in another language, it’s good to study them and learn their meaning but to avoid using them until you’ve heard native speakers use them in context several times. Or sometimes, I ask the native speaker can I say this… to describe that?

  4. Maybe you could have included the explanation that the “mama’s boy you speak of is not only obeying his mother, but is controlled by her. In other words, an unhealthy mother son relationship where the son ignores all other people, wife included, to the extent that he behaves as a little boy hiding behind his mother and defending his mother’s actions to the exclusion of all other people.

  5. Hilarious. I love the English club talk. I’m sure I’ve had someone like this in my classes and English corners. Totally inappropriate… you want to encourage but after the third or forth idiom that is totally used incorrectly it becomes too much. Funny post and great way to study Chinese too and the different ideas. One that I always came across was the idea of “to give gifts,” and “send gifts.” I’m sure you touched on this one before though…

  6. I had a student “Robert” who was just like your Jingle…he used to nearly shout these inane proverbs at me and then finish with a staccato “do-you-agree-yes-or-no!!” I was always backing for the exit, trying to figure out what the heck he was expecting me to say in response. It didn’t seem to matter what I said, I got blasted with another.

    As far as divergent concepts go, my favorite conversation starter is to ask my Chinese friends if a chicken is a bird. Try it, it’s fun.

  7. Now Nicki,

    You’re not trying to bait us into stumbling into an awkward chat about “ji1” (chicken) and “ji4” (prostitute), are you? Oh I’ve blindly walked into that one before. The Chinese were shocked to hear that there’s a band called “Super Chicks” because of the bad connotations that has in Chinese. Since the character for “chicken” has the character for bird () in it, I can’t imagine too many Chinese people claiming it’s not a bird. Doesn’t “niao3” (bird) have some bad connotations as well? What are you trying to do to us Nicki? 🙂 But hey, I just got an idea for a new post! (and it’s NOT about profanity)

    And since none of us really knows what’s going on with “thick/thin skin,” I’ll check into that soon.

  8. Ha, no, I had heard the chicken/prostitute thing before, I think, but it was definitely not what I was thinking of! No, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked my Chinese friends: “Is a chicken a bird?” and gotten a few seconds of brow-furrowed silence, then a “No, a chicken is not a bird.” I can’t remember if I talked about it here before or not, but apparently there is a different category for most Chinese people between birds and poultry. Chickens, geese, ducks, etc. are poultry, NOT birds.

    Another one that I think every English teacher in China runs across is that the students will tell you they have multiple brothers/sisters, but they are counting their cousins as well…

  9. I have lost count of the times I have corrected my Chinese friends – cousins are not brothers!

    Some of them say: “My cousin-brother and I…”

  10. As for “thick-skinned”, a Chinese person once told me I had to have “thick cheeks.” It was the same sort of situation in which I would use “thick-skinned,” and when I clarified it, she said that’s what she was trying to say, so maybe it’s not so different…

    • The bilingual dictionary entry for 厚脸皮 probably had both “thick skinned”, “cheek” and “cheeky” so the speaker conflated the terms into “thick cheeks”.

  11. Excellent post, Albert. “False friend idioms” and “divergent concept” words create difficulties when learning any foreign language, but the problems are especially acute for Westerners learning Chinese (as well as for Chinese learning “exotic languages” like English). Even such apparently straight-forward words as æ°´ and æ¡�å­�do not mean quite the same thing as their so-called English equivalents, “water” and “table”. The solution to these problems is one you’ve often noted: Don’t try to learn Chinese exclusively from textbooks and dictionaries; grab every chance to go out and talk to people.

  12. A great post! Cross-cultural misunderstandings I think are sometimes more likely to occur when the two speakers are both highly conversant in the language being spoken, since then you are less likely to focus on the body language and external cues and more likely just to focus on the words.

  13. “Thin skinned,” as in lianpi bao means easily offended. “Thick skinned” or lianpi hou can have a good or bad meaning: the good meaning is that the person is self-assured so not easily offended and not too timid to do things that might embarrass someone (e.g., speak in english with foreigner), the bad meaning is that they’re so self-assured that they don’t listen to people’s opinions even when they should.

  14. Dear reader,

    I was laughing when alot of this started to make sense to me after reading some of the experiences that you have written here above,
    especialy about the one for going on “vacation”;
    I myself, have had no decent “vacation” in China for almost 2 years–much to do with the speed of life here).. In short, I noticed that in linguistic practice there is definately a noticable difference between the language where in one is forced into the thought of constantly comparing things, just as a given due to the structure of the language, ( no wonder why to many new comers, there is always a source of chaos and confusion.) Hence, unless I become this source of logic myself, by staying x amount of time in China, there is really no way to gain a close to fluent understanding.However I have stayed in China and gained a spoken fluency in the language, but there are some things that still baffle me.

    More so, I am writing to know more why, and just asking if ANYONE knows about this phenomenon of Chinese comparison, and the seeming obsession to compare relatively anything ( people, places— even non tangible materials, that are said to be perhaps in the room—- even thoughts being treated as objects like xiang qi lai– ex..) — I “comparing obsession” is unavoidable. IT is event the first and most important lesson from day one in the grammar sentence structure.

    My two year stay in China has made me more and more likely to immediately think through this logic that is meaningless in my country,(I speak fluent Chinese at a level 6 HSK), and I only find that I cant stop automaticaly seperating and comaparing things.

    Previously, I was taught the concept, everything should be equal– I don’t see anything but ladders to endlessly climb with sometimes a logic that makes no sense to the prevelant day.

    Sorry for my long comment, but these experiences above have sincerely made a relevance to what is going on in my mind!

    Thankyou for writing.

    If you have a reply (anyone), I would be eager to hear a response through email in regards to this chinese logic of seperation and comparison.


  15. Thank god i have finished teaching English and teaching altogether.

    So long and thnks for all the fish , dont use that in an english lesson.

  16. Hi Albert,

    Just found out your blog and have been going trough some of the posts. These are very interesting questions you’re raising here. As for this one, and excuse me for being late for the discussion, I’ve had that problem with “travel” over and over. 旅游 does sound like “traveling for fun” and I always refrain to use it in the “going from one place to another” way that we do in western languages.

    Is there another word for travel that just 表示 the going from one place to the other 意思?

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