Beware the False Friends! (When Learning Spanish)


You have heard of them: Cognates. These are the words that sound similar in two different languages, often making learners jump for joy. How nice is it to not have to memorize a new word because you already know it?

In Spanish there are literally thousands of words that look like their English counterparts. When I first started learning I was thrilled at how many words sounded the same: tourist-turista, university-universidad, artist-artista, medicine-medicina etc.

For a while you will think that you can get away with just tweaking words; adding an ‘o’ or an ‘a’ or a ‘dad’ here and there. You might even fancy yourself pretty fluent in Spanish. My advice? Don’t get too cocky.

The first time I realized that my technique of falling back on or inventing cognates was flawed, was at my new Spanish boyfriends parents’ house in Seville. I had only been in Spain for a few months. I was overconfident in my language abilities, but anxious about meeting my new beau’s family for the first time. In my nervousness, I spilled red wine all over his mother and was horrified. I tried to communicate how embarrassed I was and told her I was ’embarazada.’ I found out the hard way about false cognates and how to say the word ‘pregnant’ in Spanish.

I have made many maaaaany other goof ups while trying to master ‘El Español’. Most of them have been embarrassing and many of them have been because of those damn false cognates, or false friends, as they are also known.

So as a gift to all Spanish learners so that they may reduce the amount of times they make an arse out of themselves, I present a list of words to watch out for. You’re welcome.

False English/Spanish Cognates

1. ‘Preservativos’ are not preservatives but rather condoms!

2. If someone asks you if you are ‘constipado/a’, they are asking if you have a cold or a stuffy nose.

3. If you want to say you are excited about something, say ’emocionado/a’ and not ‘excitado/a,’ which means aroused. If I had a peso for every time this one caused major misunderstandings.

4. ‘Molestar’ is to bother or annoy, not molest. I learned this after a very confusing conversation where someone was telling me about his dislike of clowns.

5. ‘Ropa’ is not rope. ‘Ropa’ means clothing. I found this out when I attempted to ask a storekeeper to cut off a piece of string from a package I had just purchased. Not knowing the word for string I figured that ‘ropa’ would be close enough. It wasn’t. I ended up asking him to cut off his clothes.

6. ‘Exito’ is ‘success’, not a way out. If you tell someone you are looking for the ‘exito’, you might get some great advice, but you will not be pointed to the exit door.

7. ‘Fabrica’ is a factory not a piece of cloth.

8. A ‘rapista’ is a somewhat uncommon name for a barber. Don’t be alarmed if someone tells you they are going to see one. They are just going for a haircut.

9. I once thought someone was telling me I was too sensible, which made no sense to me at all. They said I was ‘sensible‘ which I later learned meant ‘sensitive’. Over-sensitive I can admit to. Too sensible? Not so much.

10. ‘Sopa’. You’d think it would mean soap but it doesn’t. This is the word for soup. Soap is ‘jabon’.

11. Order ‘tuna’ and you will get an edible cactus or a university group of musicians who wear tights and capes. If you want fish in a can, ask for ‘atun’.

12. ‘Enviar’ is to send, not to envy.

13. ‘Pie’ is not an all American dessert. It’s your foot.

14. ‘Arena’ is sand, not where you are going to watch the sports/theatre/music event. Ask for the arena and you will be directed to the beach.

15. If someone is ‘culto’, they are cultured, not part of a cult.

16. ‘Gracioso’ is funny, not gracious.

17. ‘Groceria’ is rudeness, not where you go to buy your food.

18. ‘Libreria’ is a bookstore. A library is a ‘biblioteca’.

19. If you are looking for a luxury hotel, don’t ask for a hotel de ‘lujuria’. Lujuria is lust. Luxury is ‘lujo’.

20. Sometimes it’s how you say it too. If you are talking about someone’s ‘mama’, you are talking about their breast or you are telling them to suckle something. A ‘mamá’ is a mother. Stress the part of the word that the accent is on…maMA.

21. Same with father. A ‘papa’ is a potato. A ‘papá’ is a dad.

22. Again, those accents matter. ‘Inglés’ is English. ‘Ingles’ is groin.

23. ‘Raro’ means strange or odd. It cannot be used to mean ‘rare in a good way’, or to tell a waiter how you want your steak cooked…unless you want it cooked in a weird fashion I suppose.

24. If someone is talking about ‘la trampa’ they are talking about a trap, not calling you names.

Does anyone know of any other false cognates? Add them to the list!

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17 responses to “Beware the False Friends! (When Learning Spanish)

  1. Great list. I remember being taught “embarazada” in my high school Spanish class and thinking that would be such an embarrassing mistake. I’ve been trying to learn Malay, and there are a few false cognates with English. “Air” means “water”. I kept looking at the bottle water labeled “air” thinking that it meant it had gas as opposed to being still water. It’d be even worse if I had tried to put “air” in my tyres as the nozzles are right next to each other at the petrol station.


    • Yes, getting air and water mixed up could cause a few problems! Learning a new language definitely exposes you to lots of embarrassing and funny mistakes hey? Humiliating at the time sometimes but makes for some funny anecdotes.


  2. Your post made me laugh out loud! I haven’t studied Spanish since high school, but I remember some of these false cognates. I’m just starting my own list, but in German this time. Thanks for sharing via #SundayTraveler!


    • I’m sure that my Spanish teacher introduced me to some of them too but I was probably daydreaming about sunflower fields and cute Spanish boys at the time. I’m more of a hands on learner I guess. Didn’t pay attention in class but after making a fool out of myself…lesson learned. A list of German false cognates would be interesting…feel free to share a link here if you post your list on your blog.


  3. A friend of mine has been trying to get me to learn Spanish. I’ve been using Duolingo on and off to pick up keywords. I haven’t encountered any of these yet, but I’ll be sure to be on the look out. #3 I think is the same in French – I remember being taught that by my high school French teacher and swearing to next mix them up!


  4. Haha some of these are really great! I really need to re-learn Spanish! Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler 🙂


  5. Hahaha, this is a great post. My favorite is no. 4 and would love to hear the whole story. I bet it’s funny! Loved the episode with in-laws that you just met and not realizing it told them that you are pregnant. Imagine what was going through their head in that second 🙂


    • Yes both #4 and telling my then bf’s parents that I was expecting a baby were confusing situations for me haha. Luckily, years later when I met my husband’s mother for the first time (who also only speaks Spanish), my language skills were much much better so I didn’t make any huge goof ups (that I know about anyways!)


  6. dios mio, I have so many of these situations since moving to Costa Rica and learning Spanish. And don’t forget all the slang connotations. Not sure about Spain Spanish but in Costa Rica I swear every word has like 5 meanings. Pipa is a pipe used for smoking weed AND coconut. Tigre is tiger but also means bored. Pega means peeled but also means annoying. Perico is a parakeet but is slang for cocaine. Oh I could go on and on. Glad I haven’t slipped up on estoy embarazada though I think I’d get kicked out if my boyfriend’s family thought I was serious haha.


    • Oh yes, that tricky slang!! Just when I get all arrogant and figure I am super fluent in Spanish, I go to another Hispanic country and I feel like a beginner again. Coming from Spain to Mexico was interesting…’coger’ for example, which in Spain means to ‘take’, like as in a bus etc.,in Mexico is more like ‘take’ in a sexual way..and is very vulgar to use…like the f word. Even though I knew this before coming to Mexico, it took me a while to get out of the habit of using it. I just kept saying it without remembering what it meant haha. And I also had a hard time in Costa Rica and Cuba with all the street lingo that I had no clue about. I had not heard of the Tico slang you mentioned, for example. Thanks for adding it!


  7. Pingback: Lost in Translation: More travel stories! | Europe Diaries:My travel stories and experiences·

  8. Pingback: Lost in Translation: More travel stories! - Europe Diaries·

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