False Friends in Spanish

by John Bascombe on Tuesday, May 22, 2012

False friends are every language learner’s nightmare. It takes a huge amount of linguistic competence, let alone confidence, to express yourself in a foreign language, and these tricky words don’t help. While hoping for the best and adding an o onto English words flukily works sometimes, false friends will stop your Spanglish becoming fully fledged español.
False friends are words that are similar to a word in your language, but mean something completely different.
Here are some false friends you want to be very wary of!

So I’m hoping everyone knows that once is the number 11, and not the number of times you should watch the Eurovision song contest (which is una vez, unless you’re a sadist). ¿Vale? Now then; while you’re enjoying your holiday to Honduras, or your vacation to Venezuela, and you’re out for dinner in un restaurante BE WARNED! If you ask the waiter for some tuna, you’ll be treated to a glee club or an edible cactus, instead of the atún you wanted.

If you’re unfortunate enough to need to see a doctor while away, you might want a dictionary consultation as well. Constipado doesn’t mean what you’d think it would; estreñido is that unfortunate ailment, whereas those suffering from a cold are (hilariously) constipado. But whatever your illness, don’t be embarrassed! If you tell the doctor that you’re embarazada, you will be offered all sorts of prenatal vitamins; avergonzado is the adjective you need to explain that you’re not actually pregnant, just victim to a false friend!

Now, for any argumentative readers, when making your point in español, make sure you’re saying what you mean. En absoluto confusingly means ‘abosolutely not’. Inconsecuente isn’t the best way to dismiss an argument, as it means ‘contradictory’; de poca importancia would be more effective. Don’t take offence if someone uses desgracia, as it simply means a ‘mistake’ or ‘misfortune’, unlike vergüenza or deshonra which mean disgrace. The word compromiso means a promise, obligation or commitment; it does not usually convey the sense that you have reached a mutually satisfactory conclusion, which the verb transigir implies. And for goodness sake, don’t get confused by this false friend or your argument could start up all over again; to apologise is disculparse, but apologia means defence!

If you find yourself in a police station in Peru, be careful what you confess to. Delito means a petty crime, which you shouldn’t take deleite (delight) in. The verb molestar may sound scary to the non-Spanish speaker, but it simply means to annoy. Decepción means disappointment, but for deception, use engaño or fraude. Misery in Spanish (conjugation jokes aside) is sufrimiento or tristeza, whereas miseria means poverty. Don’t let linguistic mistakes cause you tristeza (or miseria either, but that seems less likely)!

I always get mixed up with false friends, especially since salida = exit, yet éxito = success, and suceso = an event or happening! Learning languages can be very extraño, and you have to be bizarro to keep it up! (extraño means bizarre, and bizarro means brave in case you’re wondering!) So keep calm, carry on and learn from your mistakes!


Keywords: spanish vocabulary,learn spanish,false friends,spanish false friends

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