Top Ten False Friends To Look Out For When Learning Spanish


When learning a new language, it’s tempting to take a few shortcuts on the long, hard road to fluency. The favorite vocabulary words of the beginning language learner, those that are more or less the same in both languages, are known as cognates. Spanish and English, due to the wide overlap of the two languages, have plenty of these. However, be careful not to become overly dependent on them, or you’re liable to be betrayed by those words known as “false friends.” Some of them are understandable once you get to the root of the etymology, but some will never make sense, no matter what you do. Here are ten to look out for.

  1. Embarazada. Possibly one of the false cognates with the most dire consequences for getting wrong: Estoy embarazada does not mean, “I am embarrassed,” as one might think, but rather, “I am pregnant.” To express embarrassment, use the word avergonzada.
  2. Éxito. If you’re looking for the exit of a building, this word will not help you find your way out. Éxito means “success”, and is also a Colombian supermarket chain. Instead, look for a door marked Salida.
  3. Bizarro. This seems like a fairly straightforward one, but bizarro refers to someone who’s dashing and brave. The Spanish word extraño covers the words strange, bizarre, and all their synonyms.
  4. Tuna. If you’re shopping in a Spanish supermarket and ask someone for tuna, you won’t receive the food you’re expecting; tuna actually means “prickly pear,” which probably wouldn’t be in a supermarket anyway. Atún is the word for the canned fish.
  5. Realizar. A common false cognate for a commonly used English word, realizar translates more actually to the more obscure for the word “realize,” which is to actualize or achieve something. To describe something being made clear to you, you would use the phrase darse cuenta de.
  6. Recordar. You would think it means to record something, as in a song or a TV show, but it actually translates to “remember.” Grabar is the word you’re looking for.
  7. Librería. This one is close, but just slightly different. Librería means not “library,” but “bookshop.”
  8. Bombero. If you hear someone expressing admiration for a bombero, do not be shocked at their callousness. Bombero is Spanish for “firefighter,” while bombardero is the word for someone who plants bombs in places.
  9. Efectivo. It may sound like the English word “effective,” but it actually means “cash.”
  10. Constipado. If you are having a meal with someone who is going on about how they’re constipado, they are not actually talking about their bowel problems. Rather, they are making acceptable dinner table conversation by telling you about their stuffy nose. Estreñido is the Spanish word for constipated.

While these ten are the ones you’re most likely to run into in day-to-day situations, Spanish is filled with tricky words to be careful when using. It’s important to keep an eye out and, if you’re not sure about a word, see how it’s used in context to keep from stumbling into embarrassing trans-cultural faux pas.

Anna Snyder writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language training service providing Skype class to individuals and corporations. For more information on their Spanish packages, send them a quick inquiry here. Check out their free online resources, including an online Spanish level test with instant results, on their website.

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