This article is not about friendship, as some of you may have interpreted when reading the title. False cognates, or “false friends” as they are called informally, are words that look and sound very similar in form, but that have a completely different meaning in another language. It is precisely because of their similarity that they are easily confused.
Here, I provide you with a list of the ten most common “false friends” that native English speakers try to use when speaking Spanish. You won’t believe that such similar words can have completely different meanings. Enjoy!
1. Actually / Actualmente
“Actualmente” is used in Spanish to talk about a current situation, an action that happens at the present. For example, if somebody says “actualmente vivo en Santiago” they are just saying “I currently live in Santiago”. If you want to say “actually” in Spanish, you have to say “en realidad”.
Example: “That is the only reason I am going, actually.” = “En realidad esa es la única razón por lo que voy.”
2. Attend / Atender
“Atender” means “to look after”. If you hear somebody say “la enfermera atiende a los enfermos” they are just saying “the nurse looks after sick people”. People can also “atender el teléfono”, which means “to answer the phone”. If you want to say “to attend” in Spanish, you have to say “asistir”.
Example: “Yesterday I attended a rock concert. It was great!” = “Ayer asistí a un concierto de rock ¡Estuvo genial!
3. Carpet / Carpeta
If you ever hear the question “Ttienes una carpeta para guardar los documentos?”, Spanish speakers are not asking you for “a carpet for holding documents”. “Carpeta” means “folder”. If you want to refer to the woolen fabric for covering floors, that is “una alfombra”.
Example: “The carpet in your apartment is very dirty.” = “La alfombra de tu departamento está muy sucia.”
4. College / Colegio
When a young boy says “Me gusta ir al colegio” it does not mean that he is attending university classes and is exceptionally gifted. He is just saying, “I like going to school”. “Colegio” means “school”. If you want to say “college” in Spanish, you have to say “universidad”.
Example: “My son attends college in Orlando.” is “Mi hijo va a la universidad en Orlando.”
5. Embarrassed / Embarazada
If you are a man and you feel ashamed in a social situation in a Spanish-speaking country, don’t ever say “Estoy embarazado” … It literally means “I’m pregnant”! And, as you know Mother Nature has not reserved that privilege for men. That would sound hilarious for native Spanish speakers. If you want to say “embarrassed” you have to say “avergonzado/a”
Example: “I’m embarrassed about what I did.” is “Me siento avergonzado por lo que hice.”
6. Excited / Excitado
If you meet a native Spanish-speaking friend that you have not seen for a long time, and you want to express your happiness and enthusiasm about seeing that person again. Don’t ever say “Estoy excitado de verte”! in Spanish, that means “Seeing you makes me feel sexually aroused”. You don’t want to give the wrong idea, do you? If you want to say “excited” in Spanish, you have to say “entusiamado/a”.
Example: “Jessica was very excited about going to the movies.” = “Jessica estaba muy entusiasmada con ir al cine.”
7. Library / Librería
If you want to borrow books at your educational institution, and you ask a Spanish speaker where “la librería” is, you are asking for a different place! “Librería” in Spanish means “bookstore”, a shop that sells books. If you want to ask for the library, then the word you are looking for is “biblioteca”.
Example: “Where is the nearest library in this city?” = “¿Dónde está la biblioteca más cercana en esta ciudad?”
8. Professor / Profesor
You may be surprised that kids in Spanish-speaking countries call their primary school teachers “profesor”. Don’t be confused, it does not mean that for teaching in Spain or Latin America you need an MA or PhD. In Spanish, “profesor” is used to refer to both school teachers and university professors.
Example: “My Spanish teacher is great!” = “¡Mi profesor de español es fantástico!”
9. Subject / Sujeto
There are topics that you don’t usually discuss with everybody. If you don’t want to talk about a subject, the worst thing you can say in Spanish is “No quiero hablar de ese sujeto”. It means “I don’t want to talk about that person”. If you want to change the subject, the word you need is “tema”.
Example: “That is a very interesting subject.” = “Ese es un tema muy interesante.”
10. Vicious / vicioso
We often hear of bad things that happen in the world, such as murders, violent attacks, etc. When watching the news and seeing a violent or vicious event, you can’t say “Es un ataque vicioso”, your Spanish-speaking friends will be confused and probably ask what you mean. “Vicioso” means “addictive”. If you want to refer to a vicious act, the word in Spanish is “violento” or “feroz”.
Example: “Three men were sent to prison for vicious attacks.” = “Tres hombres fueron enviados a la carcel por crueles/feroces ataques.”
I hope you have learnt a lot about “false friends”. Of course, there are words that are similar in both languages and that we can use without problems (e.g. absolute = absoluto; activate = activar, etc.), but it is not always the case. Using false cognate can make you feel “embarazado” (pregnant!) for a while, so you better study some of the most common in order to avoid misunderstandings. They really are bad pals!