Learning a language is no small thing. Doing it well amounts to no less than partitioning your hard disk (coconut?) and installing a new operating system there.
This is less apparent to the beginning learner, but becomes more evident over time in what is a never-ending, never completely achieved process. I’m speaking from experience here, as someone who, after decades, has acquired a serviceable and fast Spanish (I guess this shouldn’t be countable, in English. I’ll try to get something up on countable/uncountable, maybe under concept division), if not a rich and beautiful one. I think that for people learning their first foreign language and moving into it from the frame of a firmly embedded mother tongue there is a tendency to assume the new language is essentially the same as the old one, simply with different graphic and phonetic signs following a slightly different syntax. The feeling is that all thoughts and ideas are perfectly translatable. At this stage one may well conceive of communication as the transmission of universally human propositions like this steak is too well done (though not demasiado bien hecho —we Spanish learners [I’ll try to make a note somewhere including yourself in utterances like Los profesores tenemos] have plenty of false friend problems too!), the table is downstairs or I like octopus. Indeed, this viewpoint has its psychological value, keeping the task manageable and easing the transition.
Exceptions to this framework are perceived initially as curious anomalies, bits of exotica. Like the Uno de enero song, ¡San Fermín!, or raining cats and dogs (section on proverbs and idioms coming soon), or for a German learner saying the equivalent of please when one means thanks.
This illusion breaks down as one internalizes the language more and more. An apter metaphor would be that of a dancer, say Flamenco or square, going to Africa to learn some tribal dance. Really feeling the desire to express please, I have to assume, when one feels thankful, is quite another matter.
By talking about false friends I intend to take what was already a metaphor and extend it further, so that its purview becomes anything –not only single words but grammar, culture or whatever else –that presents particular difficulties in moving from one language system to the other.