spanish english false friends cognates

20 Surprising Spanish-English False Friends Everyone Falls For

If you keep your friends close and enemies closer – what do you do about false friends?

If not identified, false friends will lead you to believe they are your allies.

In reality, they are lying. They are two-faced.

They have one story in English and another in Spanish.

Did you think I was talking about real people?

Nope, these false friends are words that sound the same in English and Spanish. They lure new users of the language into thinking they have the exact same meaning in both languages, and that you can count on them to communicate properly and effectively.

These linguistic false friends are just like human false friends. They can be overcome if you study them closely, manage to identify them, and keep your guard up when they are around.

20 Surprising Spanish-English False Friends Everyone Falls For

Beware! As with most two-faced creatures, you must be careful. While making mistakes is an essential part of the language learning process, there is no need to be played for a fool.

Knowing who these false friends are will help you stay away from unnecessary miscommunication and will ensure you always use them properly.

librería — bookstore | biblioteca — library

Meet librería and library. You could go to either one of these places to pick up books for your Spanish reading practice. The difference is that one of them is for profit (bookstore) and the other is more philanthropic (library). Can you guess which is which? From hereafter, it should not be a guessing game!

know thy enemy identifying and avoiding false friends in spanish

constipado — to have a cold | estreñido — constipated

One of the more dangerous pairs is constipado and constipated.  While they both indicate a lack of health, they refer to very different conditions. More importantly, they are both treatable with over-the-counter products. Obtaining any kind of medicinal product in Spanish-speaking countries requires you go to a pharmacy and speak with the pharmacist. So, it is wise to know the difference between these two.

Not knowing the difference could be disastrous! 

know thy enemy identifying and avoiding false friends in spanish

Double Warning for Heritage Speakers

If you are a heritage speaker (one or more members of your family is a native speaker of Spanish, but you were born and raised in a country that speaks a different language) you are more likely to fall prey to these mischief-making words. Your listening comprehension is high, but you probably have no more than 1000 words logged away for communicating in your less-used language (Spanish). You do not think by default in your heritage language and have to make a conscious switch to think of the words in Spanish.

This is especially true when formulating more complicated thoughts. However, you have grown up around the language and thus feel certain that you are speaking fluently. As a result, you are more likely to trust the validity of your false friends and use them with excessive confidence.

This duo has been known to fool even the most advanced heritage speaker:

conservante — preservatives | preservativo — condom

Need I say more? 

know thy enemy identifying and avoiding false friends in spanish

False Friends Catch You Off Guard

qué vergüenza — how embarrassing | estoy embarazada — I am pregnant

Consider Sarah’s case. It has been six whole months since she began to intensely study Spanish and she is feeling good about her Spanish abilities. She is a dedicated student and is starting to see results. The verbs seem to roll off her tongue somewhat naturally (and more importantly, accurately) and she is not having to think too long to find the nouns and adjectives in her mind that go with the stories she wishes to tell.

In this particular case, she is out with her newly-found group of Spanish friends and doing her best to keep up with everything that is going on while still enjoying herself. She is immersed in Spanish culture, the lively music, the delicious food, the drinks, the conversations; everything is in Spanish!

She is feeling relaxed yet in control. She is chattering away and feeling like she belongs. Right when she thinks things could not go any better, she spills her drink on one of her Spanish friends. Of course, she spills it on the one she thinks is the cutest, and pretty much the motor behind her motivation to learn Spanish!

Alas, she feels terrible about it and wants to remedy the situation as fast as possible. She wants to make sure her romantic interest is still within reach, since she already memorized a ton of helpful dating vocabulary and romantic phrases in preparation. She is now feeling anxious and nervous and no longer thinking clearly.

This is when the false friend pounces on her and triumphantly tricks her mind into uttering the un-retrievable words: “I am so sorry, I am pregnant!” (Lo siento, ¡estoy tan embarazada!) When what she really meant to say was: “I am so sorry, how embarrassing!”  (Lo siento, ¡qué vergüenza!)

It is, however, too late. Her friend stares at her, not knowing how to react to her bizarre behavior. After what might be one of the most awkward conversations of her life, Sarah and her friend figure out what Sarah had really meant to say. It would have spared Sarah from some uncomfortable moments had she known that qué vergüenza means “how embarrassing” but estoy embarazada means “I am pregnant”!

know thy enemy identifying and avoiding false friends in spanish1

Stay Alert

False friends will always take over when you are anxious, scared, or ecstatic. As a matter of fact, they will jump at the chance of fooling you in any situation in which your emotions or your physical needs are greater than your mental focus. This is why it is wise to know your enemies well.  This way, they will not overtake you in a moment of weakness. Learning these is similar to learning to count. Once you learn them, you’ll know them all by heart.

realizar — to carry out, perform or achieve | darse cuenta — to realize

False friends are a lot like parasites. That is, without their host (native language) they cannot survive. Once you realize (darse cuentathis, you will be freed of their power over you and be better equipped to achieve (realizar) your potential in Spanish. 

know thy enemy identifying and avoiding false friends in spanish

gangas — bargains | pandillas — gangs

Once again Sarah is with her Spanish friends. They are still teasing her about her pregnancy but have managed to momentarily forget about it since they are engrossed in a discussion comparing American and Spanish culture. She has managed to hold her own quite nicely, considering Spanish people are passionate about debating, arguing and discussing any topic. The conversation has steered towards violence and youth; this is a topic that stirs her passion and excites her. Impulsively she asks: “Are there a lot of bargains in Spain?” when what she really meant to contribute was: “¿Hay muchas pandillas en España?” She knows something is wrong when her friends turn to her with a puzzled and extremely high-raised tone asking: “¿Gangas?” 

All she can really do now is explain what she was trying to say and take the heat for her mistake. Spanish people like to tease others about anything and everything. Overall, the Spanish culture is less sensitive and allows for more heated interaction.

English speakers, on the other hand, do not choose to expose their feelings as much and are therefore, more uncomfortable when put on the spot. This is one of the greatest reasons learning a second language and culture is so beneficial. It stretches your personality and character allowing you to experience life in a brand new way!

She will have great stories to tell her children and grandchildren, though! 

know thy enemy identifying and avoiding false friends in spanish

lectura — reading | charla, conferencia — lecture

Take a close look at the words above. See if you can spot the differences between them!

Although almost identical in their format, the word lectura in Spanish is not in any way synonymous to a lecture in English.  You can certainly make inferences about how they are related, but you cannot use them interchangeably.

know thy enemy identifying and avoiding false friends in spanish

recordar — to remember | grabar — to record

Hmmm, let me see if I can remember…Yes, I remember. You may not record these words as alternates. recordar ≠ record. 

know thy enemy identifying and avoiding false friends in spanish

I get the feeling you are quickly getting the hang of it. Here are a few more:

introducir — to insert (an object) presentar — to introduce (people)

know thy enemy identifying and avoiding false friends in spanish

carta — letter (paper and playing) | tarjeta — card (credit, debit, greeting)

know thy enemy identifying and avoiding false friends in spanish

Above all, remember that any new skill requires practice, practice, practice and a good healthy dose of mistakes! As long as you are open to learning from them, they will always lead you in the right direction.

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