Commonly Mistaken Words In English

Rachael Nemeth
Post 06
Co-founder, CEO
September 22, 2020

Making mistakes when we're learning English at work is common and necessary. The more you make mistakes, the more self-aware you become and the less likely you are to make those mistakes again. The challenge with mistaken words and phrases, is that they can lead to stigmatization in the workplace. Here are 3 ways to support your team that is in your ESL program.

Minimal Pairs

Minimal Pairs can be your best friend or your worst enemy when you're learning a language! They are pairs of words or phrases, spoken or written, that are different in only one way and have distinct meanings. They are hard for language learners to hear and or say as a result. Here’s an example: wine vs win. Or how about why vs wine. Here are 8 more that you might hear your L2s (limited English speakers) say:

  1. /b/ and /v/ = berry very
  2. /b/ and /p/ = buy pie
  3. /n/ and /ŋ/ =  thin thing
  4. /l/ and /r/ = alive arrive
  5. /s/ and /ʃ/ = see she
  6. /f/ and /v/ = fan van
  7. /f/ and /θ/ = free three
  8. /s/ and /θ/ = sink think

False Cognates

Cognates are words that have a common language origin, so they sound the same in multiple languages. Here are some examples of English and Spanish cognates: Accident and Accidente, Banana and Banana, Cable and Cable.

The problem with cognates is that they can fool you. We often hear managers intend (with good intentions!) to speak Spanish but in fact they are using false cognates. This can lead to confusion in the workplace.

Here is an example of a false cognate: “Actually, they sat at table 3.” “Actually” in English means “really” or “in fact”. For a Spanish speaker, “actualmente” means “at the moment” or “nowadays”.

Shortened Words

Oftentimes the shortened form of word, even if it is extremely similar to its bigger brother can be difficult for an English learner to understand. Here are 3 examples:

  • guac, for guacamole
  • spag, for spaghetti
  • mise, for mise en place

English learners don’t always understand what these shortened forms mean. On the contrary, they might only understand the shortened form from hearing it often, but when they encounter the long form in writing or formal speech, it's hard to comprehend.

The next time you're writing a note to your team or planning a short team meeting, keep these concepts in mind. Help your team get over the language gap.

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