False Friends: 20 Spanish to English translation traps to avoid

This blog post about false cognates / false friends in Spanish to English translation has an interactive comprehension quiz following the article.

What are “False Friends”?

English and Spanish have a lot in common. We have similar grammatical forms and a loads of shared vocabulary. This makes sense, both languages have strong influences from Latin. This means that English learners can often deduce the meaning of a word that looks like a word in Spanish. In fact, this type of deduction is a sign of a good learner. These words that are similar in both languages are called “cognates”.

However, sometimes this can be tricky, there are a lot of words that look just like a Spanish words, but really mean something completely different.

These sneaky words are called “false cognates” or “False Friends.” They can really confuse you as you learn English, but don’t worry! I’ve been teaching English to Spanish speakers for more than 20 years and have collected a list of some of the most common English “false friends” that cause problems for my Spanish-speaking students and I’m here to help you avoid using them incorrectly. If you’re a Spanish-speaking English learner, this is the perfect guide for you to avoid confusing mistakes!

Let’s have a look at 20 common false friends in English.

20 Common False Friends

  • Actual
    • In English, “actual” usually means something real, authentic or genuine, unlike in Spanish where it means current. If you want to talk about something related to the present, current would be a better choice.
      • Don’t say:The actual time is 3:00 PM.”
      • Do say: “This is the actual watch that Keanu Reeves wore in the Matrix film, it says that the current time is 3:00 PM.”
  • Assist
    • In English, “assist” means to help or support, while in Spanish, “asistir” means to attend or be present at an event.
      • Don’t sayCan you assist the revision class?”
      • Do say “Can you attend the revision class? It will really assist you in your exam preparation.”
  • Carpet
    • In English, “carpet” is a floor covering, but in Spanish, “carpeta” refers to a folder or a binder.
      • Don’t say:I put my documents in my carpet.”
      • Do say: “As I put the document in my folder, I spilled my orange juice on the carpet.”
  • Constipated
    • In English, “constipated” refers to difficulty in passing bowel movements, but in Spanish, “constipado” means having a cold or congestion.
      • Don’t say:I have a cold and my nose is all blocked up. I’m feeling constipated.
      • Do say: “I have a cold and can’t breathe because I’m congested. My brother hasn’t been to the toilet for days, he’s constipated.”
  • Embarrassed
    • In English, “embarrassed” means feeling self-conscious or ashamed, but in Spanish, “embarazada” means pregnant.
    • Don’t say:She is going to have a baby because she is embarrassed.”
    • Do say: “When she was pregnant she was embarrassed by her husband’s jokes.”
  • Exit
    • In English, “exit” refers to a way out or a departure point, but in Spanish, “éxito” means success.
      • Don’t say:The project was a huge exit..
      • Do say: “When the office lights went out it was completely dark and everybody started looking for the exit to get out, but without success, as they couldn’t see anything.”
  • Fabric
    • In English, “fabric” refers to textile material, but in Spanish, “fabrica” means factory.
    • Don’t say:This fabric produces textiles.”
    • Do say: “The factory produces fabric like cotton and silk for the fashion industry.”
  • Fabrication
    • In English, “fabrication” often refers to making up a false story or lie, but in Spanish, “fabricación” means manufacturing or production.
      • Don’t say:The company is involved in fabrication of materials.
      • Do say: “We invested money in the company because they said that their manufacturing process was really efficient, but the data they provided was a fabrication, it was total lie.”
  • Soap
    • In English, “soap” is used for cleaning, while in Spanish, “sopa” is soup.
    • Don’t say:That soap is delicious.”
    • Do say: “After cooking the fish soup he washed his hands well with soap to get rid of the fishy smell.”
  • Sensitive
    • In English, “sensitive” means easily affected or emotional and “sensible” means someone or something that it logical, reasonable and not silly.
    • Don’t say:He is very sensible to criticism.”
    • Do say: “He is sensitive to criticism, but he’s sensible enough to accept good advice.”
  • Librería
    • In Spanish, “librería” means a bookstore, while “library” in English is a place where people can borrow books from (bibilioteca).
    • Don’t say:I bought a book from the library.
    • Do say: “I borrowed a book from the library.”
  • Mayor
    • In English, “mayor” refers to the head of a city or town, but in Spanish, “mayor” means older.
    • Don’t say:His mayor brother is a politician.”
    • Do say: “His older brother is the mayor of the city.”
  • Molest
    • In English, “molest” has a much more serious and negative connotation, referring to a sexual offense, while in Spanish, “molestar” means to bother or annoy.
      • Don’t say:I hope that I’m not molesting you.”
      • Do say: “I hope that I’m not bothering you.”
  • Pretend
    • In English, “pretend” means to act as if something is true when it is not, while in Spanish, “pretender” means to intend or plan.
      • Don’t say:I pretend to go to the party.”
      • Do say: “He pretended to be ill so that he didn’t have to work because he wanted to go to the party..”
  • Realize
    • In English, “realize” means to become aware of or understand something, but in Spanish, “realizar” means to carry out or accomplish.
      • Don’t say: “I just realized my dream.”
      • Do say: “I just realized that this word has more uses than I thought!.”
  • Rope
    • In English, “rope” is a strong cord or string, while in Spanish, “ropa” means clothing.
      • Don’t say:She wears elegant rope.”
      • Do say: “I need to buy some new clothes.”
  • Tap
    • In English, “tap” means to make someone feel self-conscious or ashamed, while in Spanish, “embarazar” means to impregnate.
      • Don’t say:The tablecloth tapped the table.”
      • Do say: “As he waited, he tapped his fingers on the tablecloth that covered the table.”
  • Large / Long
    • In English, “large” means big or spacious, while in Spanish, “largo” means long.
      • Don’t say:Her hair hangs to her knees, it’s really large.”
      • Do say: “Her hair hangs to her knees, it’s really large.”
  • Sensible
    • In English, “sensible” means reasonable, which aligns with the Spanish meaning of “sensato.”
      • Don’t say:Speak to him kindly he’s very sensible.”
      • Do say: “Speak to him kindly he’s very sensitive.”
  • Record
    • In English, “record” is a noun that refers to a documented achievement or accomplishment, while in Spanish, “recordar” means to remember.
      • Don’t say:I record when my daughter was young.
      • Do say: “When my daughter was young I recorded her school play with a video recorder, when I watch the video I remember it like it was yesterday”.”
  • Discussion
    • In English, a discussion is simply a conversation, in Spanish “discusión” means an argument.
      • Don’t say:The couple separated because they had a discussion.”
      • Do say: “The couple split up because they had an argument about money, they should have had a discussion about finances before it became a problem.”

Have you been using any of these words incorrectly? Can you think of any other common English false friends? Let us know in the comments below!

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