Of all the hurdles language learners face, false friends are perhaps the most frustrating. False friends or false cognates are words that look or sound the same in two different languages, but have completely different meanings.
For Spanish and English language students, it’s important to remain wary of these linguistic landmines, as there are many in the two languages. Here are just 10 of the most frequently encountered Spanish–English false friends, but there are lots more out there, so be sure to consult a dictionary if you’re ever in doubt!
1. Simpático vs Sympathetic
This is usually one of the first Spanish–English false friends taught to language learners. Although they seem similar, ‘simpático’ really means ‘likeable’ and ‘agreeable’, whereas ‘sympathetic’ translates to ‘compasivo’.
2. Embarazada vs Embarrassed
Many a non-native Spanish speaker has been left red-faced when trying to say ‘I’m embarrassed’ with the statement ‘estoy embarazada’, which in fact means ‘I’m pregnant’! The correct translation for ‘embarrassed’ is ‘avergonzado’.
3. Actual vs Actual
These are subtler false friends: ‘actual’ in English is an adjective used for emphasis or to mean ‘real’, but the Spanish ‘actual’ means ‘current’ or ‘contemporary’.
4. Compromiso vs Compromise
When negotiating in Spanish and English, remember that ‘compromiso’ means ‘commitment’ or ‘obligation’, while ‘compromise’ is translated as ‘componenda’ or ‘mutuo acuerdo’.
5. Un americano vs An American
Whereas ‘an American’ in English invariably refers to someone from the United States of America, in Spanish, ‘un americano’ refers to anyone from North and South America.
6. Cancelar vs Cancel
‘Cancelar’ is an especially difficult false friend, as in some contexts it does mean ‘void’ or ‘cancel’, but in financial contexts, it means ‘pay off’ or ‘settle’.
7. Recordar vs Record
‘Recordar’ means ‘to remember’ or ‘to remind’, so if you’re asking a Spanish-speaking music producer to record your song, be sure to use the verb ‘grabar’.
8. Tuna vs tuna
When ordering seafood at a restaurant, think twice before asking a Spanish-speaking waiter for ‘tuna’, as you’ll be served prickly pear! The Spanish word for tuna is actually ‘atún’.
9. Preocupado vs Preoccupied
Here we have another subtle false friend: when using ‘preoccupied’ to mean ‘distracted’ or ‘lost in thought’, the correct Spanish translation would be ‘distraído’ or ‘absorto’. ‘Preocupado’ means ‘worried’ or ‘concerned’.
10. Suceso vs Success
Our last false friend packs double the punch. Firstly, ‘suceso’ means ‘event’, not ‘success’, but what really adds to the confusion is the fact that the word for ‘success’ in Spanish is ‘éxito’, another false friend! (Just to clarify: ‘salida’ is the Spanish word for ‘exit’.)
From identifying false friends to learning idioms and perfecting pronunciation, language-learning is full of challenges, but as the saying goes, nothing worth having is ever easy.
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