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  • Writer's pictureMargaret Nelson

Learning Spanish Cognates and False Cognates

Learning a foreign language can be difficult. There are new vocabulary words to memorize, new verb conjugations to master, and cultural aspects that are different from American culture. There is a lot to process, and if you’re not careful, you can feel overwhelmed.


I completely understand where you’re coming from. I took four semesters of Spanish in college, and I remember wondering what I had gotten myself into. When I first learned Spanish, it was hard to follow the conversations of native speakers. They spoke quickly, and they knew a lot more vocabulary than I did.


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Language learning often means a lot of studying.

As I learned more words and phrases, it became easier for me to listen and speak. However, my language skills exploded once I realized how many cognates there are in Spanish. A cognate is “a word that has the same origin as another word, or is related in some way to another word.” In other words, some things have the same names in both English and Spanish. Learning these cognates can help you expand your vocabulary with minimal effort.


However, you have to be careful because there are also many false cognates in Spanish. These are words that seem like they should mean the same thing in English and Spanish, but they do not. They often have very different meanings. If you misuse them, you can accidentally confuse others and even embarrass yourself.


Because of this, I wanted to go through a list of the most common cognates and false cognates. Doing so will help you to build your vocabulary. It will also help you to know which vocabulary words need extra attention. In the meantime, though, if you’re interested in learning Spanish but you need extra support, consider taking a Spanish class with ReDefiners World languages. For more information, click here.


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Consider taking a class with ReDefiners World Languages!

There are hundreds of cognates in Spanish, so we will only go over the most common ones. If you would like to learn more cognates, please click here.


Cognates:

  • Hospital (pro. oh-spee-tahl): Hospital

  • Medicamento (pro. mehd-ee-kha-men-toh): Medicine/medication

  • Vacaciones (pro. vah-kah-see-oh-neh): Vacation

  • Animal (pro. ah-nee-mahl): animal

  • Chocolate (pro. choh-koh-lah-teh): Chocolate

  • Brócoli (pro. BROH-koh-lee): broccoli

  • Cáncer (pro. KAH-ser): cancer

  • Vainilla (pro. vah-NEE-yah): vanilla

  • Paciencia (pro. pah-sehn-see-ah): patience

  • Actor (pro. ahk-tore): Actor

  • Festival (pro. feh-stee-vahl): Festival

  • Popular (pro. poh-poo-lahr): Popular

  • Televisión (pro. tell-eh-viz-ee-OHN): Television

  • Violín (pro. vee-oh-LEEN): violin

  • Ópera (pro. OH-per-ah): Opera

Cognates are pretty easy to learn since the words are very similar in Spanish and English. However, it’s still important to have a good strategy for learning them because there are thousands of them. Without a plan, it is easy to become overwhelmed.

To avoid feeling overwhelmed, here are some tips for learning cognates:

  • Create labels and attach them to objects around your home. For example, you can put a label with the word “medicamento” on a medicine bottle. Doing so will help reinforce the meanings of words in your head, especially if you see the labeled objects dozens of times per day. You’ll have to spend time labeling your objects, but once you do, it’s an easy way to integrate some studying into your daily routine.

  • Alternatively, you can draw pictures of the different cognates and label them in Spanish. This will help you to absorb the new information. This method might be an easier way to memorize the names of abstract concepts since it’s difficult to attach a label to them.

  • Use them in conversations as much as possible. The more you use the new information, the more it will integrate into your long-term memory. Once the information is in your long-term memory, you’re less likely to lose it, and you can use that as the foundation to add new words and phrases. This will help you to become fluent.


There is no doubt that cognates make your language-learning journey easier. Because English and Spanish share so many words and the alphabets are so similar, native English speakers often have an easier time learning Spanish. In contrast, speakers of languages like Mandarin or Arabic often have difficulty understanding Spanish since there are more differences than similarities between the alphabets.


However, learning another language can often have its difficulties. Even though English and Spanish have many words in common, there are just as many difficult words. These words are tricky to understand because they seem like they mean the same thing in both languages, but they do not. It is crucial to take the time to understand them, though, because if you don’t, it can cause a lot of confusion and embarrassment.


This is a picture of a Black woman sitting outside and studying.
Spanish language learners often have to memorize false cognates.

Just like with actual cognates, there are a lot of false cognates in Spanish. While there are too many to discuss in this post, we will discuss some of the most frequent false cognates. For a more in-depth list of false cognates, click here.


Here are some examples of false cognates to watch out for:

  • In Spanish, people introduce themselves by telling you their “nombre” (pro. nohm-bray). Nombre sounds like it should mean “number,” but it doesn’t. Nombre means “name.” If you’re talking about a number, you would use the word “número” (pro. NOOM-err-oh).

  • Embarazada (pro. ehm-bah-rehz-ah-dah) sounds like the English word for “embarrassed,” but this is not the case. Embarazada means “pregnant.” The word for “embarrassed” is “avergonzado/a” (pro. Ah-ver-gohn-zah-doh or Ah-ver-gohn-zah-dah).

  • El preservativo” (pro. ehl preh-serve-ah-tee-voh), sounds like the English word for “preservative,” but this is not the case. El preservativo means “condom.” “Preservative” in Spanish means “conservante” (pro. kohn-ser-vahn-teh).

  • The words for “father” and “potato” are very similar. “La papa” (pro. lah pah-pah) means “potato,” and “el papá” (pro. ehl pah-PAH) means father. To avoid confusing your parent with your side dish, I recommend emphasizing the accent in the word “papá.”

  • Sopa (pro. soh-pah) sounds like the English word for “soap,” but this is not the case. Sopa means “soup,” The word for “soap” is “jabón” (pro. hahb-OHN). This is not to be confused with the word “Japón” (pro. hahp-OHN), which is the name for Japan.

  • Emocionante (pro. ehm-oh-see-oh-nahn-teh) sounds like the English word for “emotional,” but this is not the case. Emocionante means “exciting.” The word for “emotional” is “sensible” (pro. sehn-see-bleh)

  • Pie” (pro. pee-ay) looks similar to the English word “pie,” but this is not the case. “Pie” means “foot.” The Spanish word for “pie” is “tarta” (pro. tar-tah).

  • If someone says that you are “culto,” it doesn’t mean that they think you’re in a cult. Culto (pro. cool-toh) means “educated.” If someone thought you were in a cult, they would use the phrase “de culto.” (pro. deh cool-toh)

  • Someone who says they did something “once” (pro. ohn-say) times isn’t saying that they did it once. They’re saying that they did it eleven times. If they wanted to say that they did something one time, they would use the phrase “una vez” (pro. oo-nah vehz).

  • If you tell someone that you’re looking for the éxito (pro. EH-gzih-doh), the other person will likely be confused. That’s because “éxito” means “success,” not “exit.” If you’re looking for the exit, you would use the word “salida.” (pro. sah-lee-dah)

  • If you want to play “fútbol” (pro. FOOT-bohl), don’t be surprised if your friends bring a soccer ball, instead of a football. In many Hispanic countries, fútbol is the name for soccer. You have to specify which type of football you want to play. If you wish to play American football, you have to use the phrase “fútbol americano.”

  • This next false cognate is good to know if you are in college. If you ask for directions to the librería (pro. lih-brair-EE-ah), you’re going to end up at a bookstore instead of the library. If you need a library, you have to use the word “biblioteca” (pro. bih-blee-oh-tehk-ah).

  • If you need new “ropas” (pro. ROH-pahs), you’ll end up with a bunch of shirts, pants, and dresses because “ropa” means “clothes.” It seems like it could mean “rope,” but this is not the case. If you need a rope, you would ask for “la cuerda” (pro. Lah kw-air-dah).

  • Someone who has had a good “educación” (pro. Eh-doo-kah-see-OHN) hasn’t necessarily had a good education. They’ve had a good upbringing. Someone who’s had a good education has had a good “formación.” (pro. four-mah-see-OHN)

  • You might be confused if someone tells you that they work in a “fábrica.” (pro. FAH-bree-kah) It seems like fábrica should mean “fabric,” but this is not the case. “Fábrica” means “factory.” If you need fabric, you would say that you need some “tela.” (pro. teh-lah)


False cognates can be overwhelming and confusing if you’re not careful. They can make your language learning journey more difficult by causing confusion and embarrassment. At this point, you might be asking yourself “how do I keep track of all of these false cognates?”


A shelf of books
Learning false cognates can be tricky.

To avoid confusion and embarrassment, you need to have the right strategy to learn these words and phrases. With this in mind, here are some tips for learning false cognates:

  • Figure out your preferred study method. With many of these false cognates, you have to find a way to integrate this information into your long-term memory. One of the easiest ways to do this is through studying. It might take some time to determine the right study method for you.

    • If you’re good at memorizing new information, consider making flashcards. The act of writing out the cards can help you remember the information, as well as using the flashcards. Alternatively, you can use an online flashcard maker or a flashcard-making app. Many of them have free plans, so you don’t have to buy a bunch of index cards. Many programs have smartphone apps. That way, you always have your flashcards, and you can study periodically throughout the day.

    • If you’re a visual learner, draw pictures of each item and label them in Spanish. Alternatively, make labels and attach them to the items in your home. This will help you to associate each item with the correct word.

    • If you’re an auditory learner, practice speaking these words with a friend.

    • If you’re a kinesthetic learner, move in some way while you learn the information. For example, you can practice speaking these vocabulary words with a friend while you go on a walk.

    • Regardless of your learning style, make sure to use the new information as much as possible. Have conversations, read Spanish language material, and write in Spanish as much as possible. This will give you plenty of opportunities to use this information, which will help you to build fluency.


As you can see, Spanish has a lot of cognates and false cognates. If you learn the cognates, you’ll be well on your way to learning the language, since cognates mean the same thing in Spanish and English. However, you have to be careful because there are plenty of false cognates as well. It’s equally as important to learn these false cognates. Not only will it expand your knowledge, but it will also help you to avoid confusing those around you and embarrassing yourself. For example, you don’t want to say you’re “embarazada” unless you’re pregnant. If you use this word instead of “embarrassed,” you risk causing a misunderstanding, confusion, or embarrassment, especially if you’re a male speaker.


Take the time to learn these Spanish cognates and false cognates, and you’ll be on your way to becoming fluent.


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You can speak Spanish like a native speaker in no time.

 

If you enjoyed learning about Spanish cognates and false cognates, consider taking a class with ReDefiners World Languages! We offer classes in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin. In all of our classes, we teach you how to speak the language, as well as how to navigate each language’s culture. See how much Spanish you already know by taking our free online Spanish Placement Test. For more information or to sign up, please visit our website or email us at info@redefinerswl.org.


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