If you are new to the Spanish language, you will quickly find that there are many Spanish words that sound quite similar to our English words. For those planning to go abroad to a Spanish-Speaking country with very limited knowledge of the language, this may bring you some relief. You may think: Whew! It may not be so hard to get around after all!!
Well, I’m sorry to complicate things, but false cognates do exist and are sometimes misused by native speakers as well. A false cognate is a word in one language that sounds like (and is possibly spelled similarly to) another word in a different language. When traveling abroad, you should certainly be aware of using false cognates so that you can avoid embarrassing situations and even the possibility of offending others.
The following are scenarios involving the use of a few common false cognates:
You decide to have a night out on the town with some friends who you have met while studying abroad. As you and your friends walk down the street, you trip and fall flat on your face! You quickly get up and laugh the situation off, but you later admit your true feelings as you all move to a different location. You say, “¡Estoy tan embarazada!” Although you meant to say that you are really embarrassed, you’ve told your friends that you are really pregnant! Not only will they be concerned about your fall, but now they will also probably be wondering if you should really be out tonight!
A friend seems kind of down today. You ask him what’s wrong and he replies saying, “No me siento bien. Tengo un constipado terrible…” You look at him strangely for a moment and wonder why he is being so open! But you quickly realize that you have simply run into yet another conversation that includes a false cognate. Your friend is simply saying that he does not feel well due to his terrible cold. Awkward conversation averted!
An acquaintance looks upset about something. You decide to go over there and find out what is wrong. She looks up at you with sad eyes and says, “Juan [her best friend] me molestó ayer y no estoy seguro de lo que debo decirle.” Worried and concerned, you let her know that you are there for her whenever she needs you – day or night! She appreciates the kind words, but she wonders why you care so much that Juan has annoyed her!
Although misunderstanding words can be funny at times, the use of false cognates may cause offense or lead to a bad first impression. Mistakes are bound to happen, but (now that you know a little bit more about those tricky words) you are well on your way to being superb representatives of yourself, your university, and America!
Photo and Written by Hillary McLean
Hillary is an Education Abroad Peer Ambassador. She participated in a Service Abroad program with Shoulder to Shoulder Global. She is studying Dietetics, and she is pre-med.