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Written by Diego Achío

September 23, 2020

False friends. Don’t be fooled!


If you’re familiar with two or more languages you surely have run into “false friends”, and many times, these encounters may seem funny. But depending on the situation, they might not be as friendly. Do you know what a false friend is in a language?


Don’t worry. I am not talking about that kind of friends. False cognates, better known as false friends, are words in two languages that look similar or are pronounced the same, but mean completely different things.

Beware of false friends

Words like family, group, class, actor, and fantasy,are examples of false friends where the meaning of the word is what you think it is when reading them. Due to these occurrences, we start using words in Spanish or other languages that are similar to other words in English, but many times we use them without actually knowing their meaning.

Some examples of false friends can be:

  • Librería: Some English speakers might associate the word “librería” with a library, but if you ask someone in a Spanish-speaking country where the library is, you’ll end up in a bookstore for sure.
  • Actualmente: It might seem similar to the word “actually”, but actualmente is an adverb that means “in the present time.”
  • Éxito: This is a very popular false friend. And no, you won’t find this word above any exit door, because it actually translates to success.
  • Advertencia: Imagine that you work for a company in which email communication with business associates in a Spanish-speaking country is crucial, and you get an email from a company with the subject “advertencia.” Before you move it to the junk folder, you should keep in mind that advertencia means warning or alert.
  • Embarazado/embarazada: This is probably one of the most common mistakes among those who speak English and Spanish. If what you’re trying to say, “I’m ashamed“, in Spanish, don’t say “Estoy embarazado/a.” People will think you’re announcing your pregnancy!

You see? We’ve all been there!


What can be done to avoid falling victim to false cognates?

Research: To prevent this kind of errors you must do some research. A quick Internet search will tell you if the meaning of that new word is actually what you imagined.

Be unassuming: If you are not sure about the translation of a word from one language to another, the best you could do is to accept that you don’t instead of guessing its meaning. It is better to admit that you don’t know the meaning and then look it up rather than using the wrong word and causing a misunderstanding.

Learn from past mistakes: You can not only learn from you mistakes, but also from those of other. Do your best to not make the same error twice.

Can you remember any false cognate used by you or by other people? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there!


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