The False Friendship of Kindergarten

English is full of borrowed words, whether cognates or words taken directly from Latin, French, Arabic, Greek, and of course German (among many others). English and German share a myriad of cognates, the innocent variety of which are usually covered on the first day of German class. That way everyone can start off the learning process confidently believing German to be an easy lanugauge to learn especially if House is Haus, begin-beginnen, brown-braun, shoe-Schuhe, summer-sommer, kindergarten-Kindergarten. Stop right there! – kindergarten?

Most people know that kindergarten is a German word that has been adopted into the English language. Most people mistakenly believe it to have the same exact meaning in English as in German. But the word kindergarten is actually what I would call a little known false friend.

Only later do learners of German encounter the famous false friends. These are words that appear to be cognates or borrowed words but actually have very different meanings in each language; included on the list are brave and brav, billion-billion, actually-aktuell, etc. False friends can be dangerous and lead to embarrassing situations since people often assume the words share the same meaning. Amateur or lazy translators will often find themselves falling into the trap of false friends.

Literally translated ‘kindergarten’ becomes ‘children’s garden’ in English. More importantly, in Germany Kindergarten is for very young children ages 3-5. It is separate from the school system, which is regulated by the State. It is a place for young children to learn and play and develop social skills. It is what Americans call ‘preschool.’ In the US, kindergarten is the year directly before starting first grade. It is an optional year spent within the school system. Children must be at least 5 years old to attend kindergarten. They learn and play and develop social skills, and from there they start their long school careers. It is what Germans call ‘Vorschule,’ which, just to add to the confusion, literally translates into English as ‘preschool.’

While both German and American (I specify American because I am not familiar with the school system in the UK) kindergartens are like ‘children’s gardens’ for learning and playing and developing, the German word Kindergarten would have to be translated into AE as preschool; the English word kindergarten would then translate as Vorschule in German.


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