Once upon a time, I told my Spanish roommates that American food is full of condoms.
Was it totally embarrassing? Yes. Did I learn from it? Oh, you bet I did.
When learning a foreign language, making a fool of yourself from time to time is inevitable.
However, by learning about false cognates you can save yourself from making huge Spanish slip-ups!
I bet if we polled a room full of seasoned Spanish language learners, 9 out of 10 will say they’ve had people laugh at them after messing up with one of the false cognates discussed below. Everyone makes mistakes. It doesn’t matter how much you practice with your language conversation partners or if you already feel completely immersed in the Spanish language.
You’re gonna accidentally say silly things, and that’s an important part of the experience.
Learning a new language is sometimes like feeling your way blindfolded through a minefield. What you assume to be safe ground could easily blow up in your face. With this lovely imagery in mind, you can probably see why it’s a good idea to learn about common mistakes before you make them. Take a few moments, explore this post and get to know Spanish false cognates a little bit better.
A Quick Introduction to Cognates
A cognate is a word that is basically written the same, with the same meaning, in both languages. For instance, the English word “sofa” is “el sofá” in Spanish. The same goes for the English words “idea,” “family,” “minute,” “restaurant,” and countless others.
Sometimes, a word only seems to be the same in both languages, but really has two completely different meanings. These are what we call false cognates, and they’re out there lurking just below the surface, waiting for unsuspecting students to amble by and pluck them up by accident.
20 False Spanish Cognates That Could Get You in Trouble
What it looks like: Embarrassed
What it means: Pregnant
Using the word embarazada incorrectly could leave you, well… embarrassed. There are a few different ways of saying “embarrassed” depending on the dialect, but what I usually go for is tener vergüenza. It literally means, “to have shame,” but it does the same job.
What it looks like: Exit
What it means: Success
If you were to ask someone where you can find the éxito you might be in for a bit of a philosophical reply. Instead, look for the signs marked salida, and get on with your day. To make things even more confusing, the word suceso in Spanish means “event” or “something that happens.”
What it looks like: Molest
What it means: To annoy
This one does take a while to get used to actually saying out loud, but it’s important to know. You don’t want to get the wrong impression from someone complaining that their boss “molested” them all day in the office. You might want to know that the true translation of “molest” is abusar (sexualmente).
What it looks like: Constipation
What it means: A cold
Be sure you get this one right before calling in sick to work, otherwise you might accidentally be giving your co-workers a bit too much information. If you are actually constipated, the word for constipation is estreñimiento, but you might still want to keep that to yourself.
What it looks like: Fabric
What it means: Factory
As much as I’d like to wear a shirt that’s made of factories, I don’t think it sounds very practical. Instead, just opt for one made of tela like everyone else, it’s probably much cooler and more environmentally friendly.
What it looks like: Soap
What it means: Soup
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important, and many people are making an effort to clean up their eating habits, but ordering soap in a restaurant might be taking it a bit too far. If you need soap, the word is jabón, not to be confused with jamón, which is “ham” and perfectly fine to order.
What it looks like: Realize
What it means: To do/to perform
If you want to say that you realized something in Spanish, the way to do it is to say, “Me di cuenta…” Realizar means “to do” or “to perform.” For instance, “You realized your plan to take over the world.” It’s kind of like the word “execute” in English.
What it looks like: Pie
What it means: Foot
Even though the two are spelled the same, there is a difference in pronunciation. In Spanish, pie is pronounced “pee-eh” and means “foot.” Two feet are dos pies, pronounced, “pee-ehs.” Something I always found funny is that the translation for “toes” is dedos del pie. Literally, “fingers of the foot.” If you want an actual pie, you should order un pastel.
In many regions, the English word for the dessert pie has been adopted directly and is said in a pseudo-English accent. Keep this in mind while exploring delicious Hispanic cuisine.
What it looks like: Introduce
What it means: Insert
Introductions are sometimes awkward enough without telling your friends that you’d like to insert them into each other. A correct introduction for your friends would be, “Quiero presentarte a mi amigo [Miguel].” No insertion necessary.
What it looks like: Record
What it means: To remember/to remind
To remember something is recordar. To remind someone of something is recordarse. In a sentence, “Recuérdame mañana que necesito grabar el capítulo nuevo de Juego de Tronos.” Literally, “Remind me tomorrow that I need to record the new episode of Game of Thrones.” Hint: Grabar means “to record.”
What it looks like: Rope
What it means: Clothes
Ropa actually shares a root with the English word “robe,” so it’s easier to remember. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that Cuban ropa vieja is actually made of old clothes. It’s actually a very tasty dish of shredded beef, usually served with rice. Actual “rope” is called cuerda or soga in Spanish.
What it looks like: Actual
What it means: Current
This is a confusing one for beginners as the words are identical, but have slightly different meanings. Actual in Spanish means “current” as in eventos actuales, or “current events.” If you want to say “actual,” use the word real. “Actually” would translate to en realidad, and is a quite common expression.
What it looks like: To assist
What it means: To attend
This one has the potential to set your head spinning. Asistir means “to attend” as you would do to a meeting or lecture. Atender means to “pay attention.” So, you can asistir a meeting in order to atender. The word for “to help” is ayudar, and the noun “help” is ayuda. Always a good one to keep in mind.
What it looks like: Delight
What it means: Crime
Whatever you do, don’t say “es un delito conocerte.” That means “It’s a crime to meet you,” and probably won’t make you very many friends. “Delight” translates to deleite, but in the previous example it’s better to say “es un placer conocerte.“ Placer means “pleasure.”
What it looks like: Choke
What it means: To hit/to punch
Chocar is what happens when two cars run into each other or two people get into a scuffle. It means “to hit” or “to clash,” not “to choke.” In Spanish, “to choke” is ahogarse if you mean that you’re choking on food or drowning. Estrangular is when a person chokes another person.
What it looks like: To contest
What it means: To answer
This seemingly strange translation actually makes sense when you think about it. In English, the word “contest” is used when you must answer an argument in court. So it’s easy to see how it could have some relation to the Spanish word contestar, which means “to answer” a question or a telephone. However, in court you would use the Spanish word impugnar to contest a verdict.
What it looks like: Large
What it means: Long
This is an easy one to mix up when you’re a beginner because the two meanings are so similar. However, largo is only used to refer to length, whereas grande is used to refer to overall size. So something could be both largo and grande, or just one or the other.
What it looks like: Rapist
What it means: Barber or Shaver
This actually isn’t a very common word, but still good to know. Rapista doesn’t mean “rapist” but actually means “barber” or more precisely, “a shaver” from the word rapar meaning “to shave” or “to crop.” However, a more common word for “barber” is barbero or peluquero. The word for “rapist” is violador.
What it looks like: To envy
What it means: To send
Far from being one of the 7 deadly sins, enviar simply means “to send.” You can “enviar” a letter, a package, or an email, but you can’t “enviar” your friends (well, I guess you could, but you should punch holes in the box). If someone has something you wish you had, you can tener celos (to have jealousy) or envidiar (to envy) them.
What it looks like: Preservative
What it means: Condom
So here’s the one that got me in trouble. What we call preservatives in English are called conservantes in Spanish. The word preservativo refers to condoms. You can also say condón, but just don’t say that they’re in your food or your roommates might tease you for an entire semester.
So there you go, if you can remember these 20 false Spanish cognates you’ll be able to avoid quite a few mix-ups.
If you want to practice, I suggest using news sources to learn Spanish to see if you can pick out any of these false cognates.
Another great route to go down is using FluentU. FluentU is designed to help you make leaps and bounds in your Spanish learning progress through real world videos.
FluentU takes real-world videos, like music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks, and turns them into Spanish learning experiences.
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the Spanish language and culture over time. You’ll learn Spanish as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of videos—topics like soccer, TV shows, business, movies and even magical realism, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive transcripts. You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used. If you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to a vocab list.
Review a complete interactive transcript under the Dialogue tab, and find words and phrases listed under Vocab.
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s robust learning engine. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and it recommends you examples and videos based on the words you’ve already learned. Every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re learning the same video.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store for iOS and Android devices.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.