Know Your Spanish “False Friends”

by | Feb 17, 2022 | Global | 1 comment

Be Silly, Not Afraid, When Learning Spanish

No one wants to sound silly when they’re speaking—and that is especially true when you are a Spanish learner trying to go beyond the initial “hola and “buenos dias” to more meatier conversations.

But let’s start with the assumption that you will make LOTS of mistakes in your quest to learn Spanish (or any other language for that matter) and follow that up with the assertion this is a good thing. If you’re not making mistakes, you are probably not trying hard enough or are not willing to take a few language risks which are all part of the learning process.

Lots of False Cognates in Spanish – English

Making friends with Spanish kstudio
Espana beach summer vacation

Then again, it’s one thing to make a mistake and quite another to make one that makes you want to have the tierra open up and swallow you whole. And when it comes to Spanish, one of the things that can easily trip you up are the false cognates, or, in the local vernacular, falsos amigos.

False cognates are words that look or sound similar to words in English but have an entirely different meaning. Most of them are innocent enough. For example, when you hear the Spanish word asistir you would reasonably assume that it is the verb “to assist, or help.” But you would be wrong. It actually means “to attend” since you would use the word ayudar as the verb for help.

Similarly, the Spanish word sensible would seem to mean, for the sensible among us, just that—sensible. But the word actually means “sensitive.” The word for sensible in Spanish is razonable or sensato.

Spanish Language Can Be Spicey With Los Falsos Amigos

If you make these little missteps, someone will hopefully correct you and you will continue on along your merry linguistic way. But there are a couple of words, in particular, that will trip you up and leave you a little bloodied before you pick yourself up again.

Let’s say, for example, you are chatting with that nice vendedor who always sells you those picture-perfect tomatoes. He tells you that because you are so beautiful (and he is so Latino that he can’t help himself), he will give you a special price. You feign false modesty and tell him, “Please don’t embarrass me—no me hagas embarazar.”

Well, you just replied to that seemingly innocent compliment with the exhortation, “Please don’t make me pregnant.” And that nice vendedor may be thinking that you just leapfrogged a few relationship steps… or that you have just fallen into one of the more common mistakes made by Spanish language learners.

Or how about when your new Latina friend invites you to her parent’s house for dinner? You decide to impress her father by letting him know you are excited to meet him in your best Español. Only instead of using the proper word, emocionada, you tell him that you are excitada, which is a whole different type of excitement typically generated from the waist down.

Don't let them egg you on freepik
Don’t let them egg you on Freepik

Some of the misunderstandings may come down to different words used for the same thing in different countries, especially when dealing with slang which is very regional. For example, while the word coger is simply a verb that means “to take” in some Latin American countries. In others, it’s “the act” that we will simply infer in this PG-rated column.


And while pecho does, indeed, mean breast, you probably want to use another word to differentiate between the human and animal variety when you are buying chicken from your local butcher.

No matter how hard you try, you will inevitably make some of these common mistakes and probably a lot more in your quest to become a hispanohablante (Spanish speaker). After apologizing profusely you can be comforted by the thought that you have provided endless amusement—and effective stories for blackmail—for your Spanish-speaking friends.

Had any interesting language snafus you’d like to share? We’re all ears!

by: Eileen Brill-Wagner