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Spanish false friends cognates

Keep Your False Friends Close: Our Guide to Learning False Friends in Spanish

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Let’s do a little vocabulary exercise. Take a look at this sentence: 

Comer las frutas en la cafetería es su actividad favorita. 

If you’ve been learning Spanish for a while, that’s pretty easy to translate, right? “Eating fruit in the cafeteria is his favorite activity”.  

No problem. Now try this one: 

La multitud emocionada observó la boda real 

Uhhh… what? 

You’d be forgiven for translating that literally as “the emotional multitude observed the real body”. 

Of course, that doesn’t make any sense. 

What it actually means is: “The excited crowd watched the royal wedding”. 

That, my friends, is the power of Spanish false friends. 

As you can see in the first example sentence, Spanish and English have some lexical overlap. This is because French – a Romance language related to Spanish – was the main language spoken in England for hundreds of years, following the Norman conquest in 1066. Hundreds of French words were adopted into the English language. 

This sizeable shared vocabulary is one reason why Spanish is among the easiest languages for English speakers to learn. With so many common words, it’s often possible to make a guess at Spanish words you don’t know.  

However, relying on this method isn’t always helpful! Words that look the same don’t always have the most obvious translation.  

What are False Friends and Where Do They Come From? 

False friends are similar-looking words in different languages that have completely different meanings. 

They get their name because they lure you into a false sense of security. 

What’s interesting is that it’s not just coincidence that these pairs of words exist. Here’s how they are formed: one language “borrows” a word from another language, at which point the word had the same meaning in both languages.  

Over time, semantic drift takes place and the word’s meaning changes in both languages, taking on new definitions following technological, societal or evolutionary advances.   

This can sometimes take the shape of a new, narrower definition of the word. Take the English word ‘reunion’ for example. This means “to meet after a long time apart”.  

The original Spanish word reunión simply means ‘meeting’, but when the word was borrowed into English (from the French réunion), the term ‘meeting’ already existed, and so the English word ‘reunion’ shifted to take a more specific definition. 

The 3 Different Types of Spanish False Friends 

Like reunión and ‘reunion’, many false friends had the same origin, before taking different directions over time. We can loosely group these words into three sets according to how ‘false’ they are as friends.  

1. Entirely unrelated definitions

These can be words of different origins that just happen to sound the same. For example, the Spanish word mucho – from Latin multus, is actually unrelated to the English word ‘much’, which comes from Old English mycel).  
Another way this can happen is when words that originated from the same term evolve in completely different directions, to result in two completely unrelated terms. ‘Embarrassed’ and embarazada (pregnant) are perfect examples of this. 

2. Related concepts, but different definitions. 

The words ‘history’ and historia illustrate this. Both concepts refer to a story of the past, but the English word is the story of a people, place or broader organization, whereas the Spanish historia describes a personal account of something, a story.  

3. The only difference is in nuance or strength of meaning. 

This is where the least amount of semantic creep has happened. A perfect example is ‘to ignore’ and ignorar (to not know). Both terms relate to a lack of knowledge, but the English term implies the person doesn’t know something on purpose. 

Being aware of the different variations of false friends can help with learning them. With groups 2 and 3 of the above list, you can research learn multiple words from the same concept when you encounter Spanish false friends – that’s excellent for quick vocabulary building!  

Tips for Learning False Friends in Spanish 

  • Dedicate time to memorizing misleading vocabulary, just as you would with completely new words. Build a list of them and review it regularly. We’ll give you some of the main offenders to start with further down this post. 
  • Resist the temptation to assume a new word’s definition. Likewise, don’t assume you can just Hispanicize an English word. Although it’s easy to take new words at face value, not taking the time to look up their meanings can cause a huge deal of embarrassment! (Don’t get me started on the time I offered a plate of condoms to a table of Spanish business travelers while working in a hotel…)  
  • Use a monolingual Spanish dictionary to look up your new words. This will naturally boost your vocabulary, and you’ll also learn how to describe an unfamiliar concept in Spanish. The ability to describe something using other Spanish words is super helpful if you’re nervous about false friends! 
  • When you’re having a conversation in Spanish and the other person uses a word you’re not sure of, ask them to explain it to you. You could also check with them by reiterating what they said using different words. Not only is this great for learning false friends, but it’s a handy way to show someone you’re listening to them! 

Examples of False Friends in Spanish 

With these tips in mind, let’s give you some false friend vocabulary to start your list. These words seem like cognates, but they’re not.  


Spanish-English False Friend Pairs with Their Actual Translations


Spanish
Translation
False Friend
English
False Friend
Spanish
English Translation
crónica, historia historyhistoria story 
intolerante bigotbigote moustache 
lenteja lentillentilla contact lens 
regocijo jubilationjubilación retirement 
cuerpo bodyboda wedding 
biblioteca librarylibrería bookshop 
cuerdo sanesano healthy 
desfile paradeparada bus stop 
reencuentro reunionreunión meeting 
abusar 
sexualmente 
molestmolestar to disturb 
atún tunatuna prickly pear 
de verdad, 
en realidad 
actuallyactualmente currently 
de mala fama notoriousnotorio well-known 
elegante graciousgracioso funny 
cuerda roperopa clothes 
aguacate avocadoabogado lawyer 
investigador scholarescolar school kid 
universidad collegecolegio school 
grande largelargo long 
placer delightdelito crime 
engaño deceptiondecepción disappointment 
tejido fabricfábrica factory 
presentar introduce
(someone)
introducir insert 

Hopefully this list should make you more aware of false friends. 

A Sure-Fire Way to Level Up at Learning Spanish 

Some would argue that you find the most value in language learning in making mistakes. The vulnerability of saying the wrong word is what helps us connect to each other as humans (and often provides a good story to tell later).  

The best language-learners tend to have personalities open to risk-taking. Taking a risk, and getting a word wrong, means you are more likely to get corrective feedback. Plus, as a bonus, you’ll probably never forget that word if you’ve been corrected on it! 

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