For English speakers who are trying to learn another language, cognates (words with the same origin) can be a big help! They look and sound similar, and often have very close meanings, so it’s easy to “fill in the blanks” with a guess when you don’t know a foreign word and are trying to express yourself.
Even if you’ve never studied Spanish, you will surely catch words like adulto, imposible, restaurante, and atención. Since they’re so recognizable, they can make reading comprehension much easier and can go a long way in making spoken communication more effective.
False Cognates: Not Always Your Friends
There’s a catch, though! Spanish learners will quickly find out that some cognates actually don’t mean the same things at all. This can make for some comical conversations, and can even get you in trouble if you’re not careful!
In Spanish, these words are referred to as “amigos falsos” – false friends. They may look and sound like familiar English words but have very different meanings. In fact, some have positive connotations in one language, but rather negative ones in the other.
Words to Watch Out For
Here are some false cognates with high potential for causing mix-ups in English/Spanish translation!
An English speaker who’s describing someone as sensible (wise/rational) might just change the pronunciation and say sensible (sen-CEE-blay). But in Spanish, this doesn’t mean wise; it actually means sensitive. To correctly translate sensible to Spanish, you’d use sensato instead. To complicate things further, sensitivo is a Spanish word, too! This means perceptive or tuned in to emotions.
You might call something bizarro thinking it means bizarre, but it actually means generous, brave, or splendid. To say bizarre, you’d use extraño instead.
Here’s a pair of words that might leave your head spinning! Atender sounds like it means to attend but it actually means to assist. And, believe it or not, asistir doesn’t mean to assist…it means to attend!
Delito might sound delightful. However, in Spanish, it’s not so charming! It means a crime!
If you ask someone how to find the éxito, don’t be surprised if they start giving you life advice, instead of directions to the door! Éxito in Spanish means success. What you’re really asking for is the Spanish word, salida. Once again, things get even trickier because there’s also a Spanish word that sounds like success (suceso). This means an event or something that happens.
Describing embarrassment is an especially delicate one! You might guess at the word and say you are embarazada. In Spanish, this means pregnant, which could certainly cause an embarrassing moment! The way to say you’re embarrassed in Spanish is avergonzado.
- Sopa is soup, not soap! (that’s jabón)
- Papa is a potato, not a dad (that guy needs an accent – papá)
- Sano is healthy, not sane (that’s cuerdo)
Here’s one that will really have you shaking your head. Pay close attention if you’re a big spender: Un billón is the Spanish way to say a TRILLION (not a billion). To describe a billion, you’d use mil millones (which literally is a thousand millions).
There are more than 100 of these false cognates, and you can avoid missteps if you keep them in mind. The translation website SpanDict! has a good summary here.
Don’t Get Frustrated!
False cognates exist in all languages. They will certainly keep you on your toes, but the good news is that there’s more to communication than simply the spoken words. Body language, eye contact, and lively gestures will go a long way in helping you get your message across. The ability (and even just the willingness) to communicate in a foreign language is a beautiful thing!
Even if you’re a complete novice as a Spanish speaker, wherever you travel in the Spanish-speaking world, you’ll meet people who are eager to converse with you. They’ll appreciate your efforts and will gladly help you communicate. Embrace the humor when you inevitably mix up words and don’t let these language traps scare you away from trying to communicate!