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Ah, cognates! Don’t you just love them? They make many words – most with a Latin background – far more recognizable when jumping between Spanish and English. Education? Educación. Hotel? Hotel. Photography? Fotografía. Easy peasy, right? Cognates are words that share the same linguistic roots, and sometimes have the same meaning in two different languages.

Then you see embarazada, which, to someone learning Spanish as a second language, looks like “embarrassed.” So of course, you tell your friend that you are embarazada because you forgot your homework, and the odd looks commence. You really just told your friend that you are “pregnant” – and right now you are feeling avergonzado. You’ve just discovered a false cognate.

Anyone learning English or Spanish as a second language, or even growing up knowing both, might have realized by now that cognates can be false friends.

No, éxito doesn’t mean “exit”, culto doesn’t mean “cult”, and actualmente doesn’t actually mean “actually.” Even though some false cognates do come from similar roots, words and meanings evolve over time and Spanish and English have had plenty of time to do just that.
For a quick introduction to some of the most notorious of these cognates, check out FluentU’s illustrated guide to 20 False Spanish Cognates That Could Get You in Trouble. When you’re ready to get into the nitty gritty of the subject, head to the University of the State of New York’s 18-page glossary of false cognates in English and Spanish, along with their actual (not actual, which is Spanish for “current”) meanings.
Becoming familiar with false cognates can help you avoid trying to wash your hands with sopa or wondering why someone is taking cold medicine when they are constipado.

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And what if Spanish-English isn’t your language combination? Don’t worry! There are plenty of false cognates for speakers of French, Portuguese, and other Romance languages. “False friends” show up in languages that are not Latin-based as well. They may take the form of phrases or idioms that would translate the same, but they could have vastly different meanings, such as these examples from Chinese.

The moral of our story is to be careful that you actually understand what you are saying. Nevertheless, if someone corrects you for using the wrong word, don’t get too down about it. You learned something valuable. Besides, it might turn into the next inside joke that you both remember for years.

Do you have any stories of cognates that caused you problems? Let us know in the comments below! Don’t forget to check back next week for Links Interpreters Love!