When you’re learning a new language, cognates can feel like a life preserver. In a sea of unfamiliar vocab, these familiar-looking words will help you stay afloat. Spanish in particular seems to have an abundance of words with a resemblance to their English counterparts. It’s even an ill-advised joke to tack -o or -a on to the end of an English word in the hopes it will have a Spanish cognate. But we should advise you to never actually try that when speaking to someone in Spanish, because it can come across as a bit rude. Instead, do your best to learn which words are actually Spanish cognates and false cognates (also called false friends). We’ll get you started with these helpful lists.
There are a lot of Spanish cognates. Probably thousands. Here’s a sampling of some of the most common you’ll run into, but this list is very far from comprehensive.
|the problem||el problema|
|the hotel||el hotel|
|the error||el error|
|the automobile||el automóvil|
|the airport||el aeropuerto|
|the menu||el menú|
|favorite||favorito (masc.), favorita (fem.)|
|the doctor||el doctor (masc.), la doctora (fem.)|
|the radio||el radio|
|the metal||el metal|
|the occasion||el occasión|
|the vegetable||el vegetal|
Spanish False Cognates
|Spanish Word||What It Looks Like||What It Really Means|
|el campo||the camp||the field|
|la carpeta||the carpet||the folder|
|el preservativo||the preservative||the condom|
|la sopa||the soap||the soup|
|la ropa||the rope||the clothes|
|chillar||to chill||to shriek|
|enviar||to envy||to send|
|la injuria||the injury||the insult|
|el costumbre||the costume||the habit|
|el éxito||the exit||the success|
|el pie||the pie||the foot|
|atender||to attend||to assist|
|la librería||the library||the bookstore|
|el pariente||the parent||the relative|
|remover||to remove||to stir|
|recordar||to record||to remember|
|la fábrica||the fabric||the factory|
Is There Any Way To Recognize False Cognates Automatically?
We wish there were some magic way to tell the difference between real and false cognates, but there is sadly no trick to it. The best you can hope for is that the context clues tip you off as to when a word doesn’t mean what you think it means.
That doesn’t mean cognates are entirely random, though. They occur because both Spanish and English derive a lot of words from Latin. Spanish is a direct descendant of Latin, and English just came into contact with the Latin language so much that it borrowed a lot of vocabulary. If you’ve ever studied Latin intensively, it can make learning Spanish a lot easier (and the cognates will make plenty more sense). Of course, it’s not exactly a “shortcut” if you have to learn a whole other language to understand Spanish better.
None of this means that cognates aren’t helpful. It’s really a numbers game: there’s an estimate that about 90 percent of Spanish words that look like English words are indeed cognates. And even when you do look at the false cognates listed above, they’re often not entirely unrelated. Confusing librería for “library” when it really means “bookstore” might cause a brief miscommunication, but it’s not like libraries and bookstores are completely different things. If you see a Spanish word and think you know what it means, there’s a pretty fair chance that you’ll be right.