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Spanish False Friends: beware of these words!

Spanish and English have a lot of vocabulary in common. But not all words that look similar in the two languages mean the same thing: these words are false friends.

Spanish and English: natural language friends

False friends in Spanish and English are words that sound or look similar but mean very different things in English and Spanish. This makes them more difficult to learn because you must remember that while they sound similar to other words, they do not have the same meaning, and you must memorize the actual meanings for them.

The most difficult part may be distinguishing them from words that sound familiar. The Spanish language evolved from “Vulgar Latin”, a language spoken during the Middle Ages. Many English words, as you may know, are loanwords – words borrowed from another language with little or no modification.

These are normally the inverse of false friends. Graffiti, model, and terrace are examples of loanwords – in Spanish, grafiti, modelo, and terraza.

types of spanish false friends

Types of false friends

False friends fall into four different types:

  • Words that sound similar but mean very different things.
  • Words that look similar but have different meanings.
  • Words that have been borrowed from the English language but do not mean the same things once translated.
  • Words that have similar roots and were developed in the same way but have different meanings

Examples of Spanish-English false friends

Words that sound similar but mean different things

  • Librería: bookstore (not library). The Spanish word for ‘library’ is biblioteca.
  • Constipado: to have a cold (not to be constipated). The Spanish word for ‘constipated’ is estreñido.
  • Lectura: reading (not lecture). The Spanish word for ‘lecture’ is conferencia.
  • Actual: current (not actual). The Spanish word for ‘actual’ is real.
  • Balde: bucket (not bald). The Spanish word for ‘bald’ is calvo.
  • Bigote: moustache (not bigot). The Spanish word for ‘bigot’ is intolerante.
  • Casualidad: coincidence (not casualty). The Spanish word for ‘casualty’ is víctima.
  • Colegio: high school (not college). The Spanish word for ‘college’ is universidad.

When spoken, each of these words sounds similar, which can be difficult when learning Spanish for the first time. Many of these can be easily confused when someone is speaking quickly or at a regular rate, and their different meanings can change the tone and meaning of the conversation.

When learning a new language, it is critical to pronounce words clearly and use body language to convey meaning where appropriate. Those who are teaching others a new language should start slowly and gradually increase their speed to ensure that the differences can be heard and the correct meaning is conveyed.

Words that look similar but mean different things

  • Bizarro: dashing (not bizarre). The Spanish word for ‘bizarre’ is extraño.
  • Bombero: firefighter (not bomber). The Spanish word for ‘bomber’ is bombardero.
  • Campo: countryside (not camp). The Spanish word for ‘camp’ is campamento.
  • Carpeta: folder (not carpet). The Spanish word for ‘carpet’ is alfombra.
  • Cita: appointment (not city). The Spanish word for ‘city’ is ciudad.
  • Codo: elbow (not code). The Spanish word for ‘code’ is código.

When written and read, each of these words resembles its false friend, but their meanings are distinct. It is easy to mix them up, which can alter the meaning of an entire sentence or even a paragraph, making learning to read a second language difficult.

When learning to read in Spanish, keeping a dictionary nearby can help you look up any words that seem out of place or that you are unsure of, as well as gain clarity through context and surrounding words. Reading the entire sentence, as well as the sentences before and after the one with the confusing word, and considering what other word would make sense in that space, can often help determine the meaning.

This can assist in determining what the writer is trying to say and clarifying the meaning of the word. This method of learning may be more effective than memorizing each word individually.

Words borrowed from English but mean different things once translated

  • Gripe: flu (not gripe). The Spanish word for ‘gripe’ is cólico.
  • Complexión: physique, constitution (not complexion). The Spanish word for ‘complexion’ is tez.
  • Recolectar: to gather (not to recollect). The Spanish translation of the verb ‘to recollect’ is recordar.

Each of these words has been adapted from the English language and given a new meaning in Spanish. However, remember that many Spanish words were borrowed from English but retained their meaning. Airbag, backup, camping, email, gag, iceberg, modem, parking, picnic, ring, shorts, windsurfing, zoo, and so forth.

Words with shared roots but mean different things

  • Preservativo: condom (not preservative). The Spanish word for ‘preservative’ is conservante.
  • Asistir: to attend an event (not to assist) The Spanish translation of the verb ‘to assist’ is ayudar.
  • Contestar: to answer (not to contest). The Spanish translation of the verb ‘to contest’ is disputar.
  • Estar embarazada: to be pregnant (not to be embarrassed). The Spanish translation of the expression ‘to be embarrassed’ is tener vergüenza.
  • Molestar: to bother (not to molest). The Spanish translation of the verb ‘to molest’ is abusar sexualmente.
  • Realizar: to complete something (not to realize). The Spanish translation of the verb ‘to realize’ is darse cuenta.

Furthermore, many words have been taken directly from Latin and included in both English and Spanish, with the same meanings. These are NOT deceptive words. Admirar (to admire), civil (civil), debatir (to debate), emerger (to emerge), impulso (impulse), mediocre (mediocre), perfume (perfume), simple (simple), usar (to use), or virus are some examples (virus).

spanish false friends

How did Spanish-English false friends occur?

Both Spanish and English are widely spoken languages that share several characteristics. Because Spanish evolved from Latin, it shares many similarities with the Latin language, and English evolved from several languages, including many words rooted in Latin.

Because they developed their common language in different ways, they have several similar sounds. Some variations of the same root word will look very similar to each other even though they mean very different things.

Though this has caused confusion for those who speak either English or Spanish and are attempting to learn the other, it has also resulted in the creation of many words that are similar in spelling and sound but do not mean the same thing, making it even more difficult to distinguish which are false friends and which are not.

Furthermore, many words are the same in both English and Spanish but have been borrowed entirely from other languages. Many words have been borrowed from the Greek language (amnesia, drama, gas, panorama, sepia, etc.).

Many languages have borrowed from each other throughout history, resulting in a lot of word overlap as well as many words that appear or sound similar but have very different meanings, causing confusion.

How to use Spanish-English false friends correctly

It is often necessary to memorize all of these words in order to ensure that you are using them correctly. This can be overwhelming, but it is doable by paying attention to cues and using them more frequently.

While straight memorization may appear difficult, once the words are used, they will be easier to remember and will come to you naturally when you need them. Loaned words can feel familiar and safe, and they can help you build your language faster, so use them when you can, but make sure to pronounce them correctly and use them appropriately.

Those with similar sounds to English will be easier to remember and can make it feel more familiar, improving sentence flow.

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