Spanish – Beware of False Friends
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. -Princess Bride
Cognates are words that sound or are written the same and mean the same in Spanish and English. For example garage. The cognate is your friend right up until it really is not, at which point it becomes a false friend. Taking the time to learn cognates is a great way to expand your Spanish skills very quickly. It is worth the effort. But lying under this expansive list of words you’ll find some landmines, quietly awaiting to create hilarious conversations.
As an immigrant to the US from Paraguay, my Spanish was better than my suburban classmates’ but certainly not even close to native-like. When I returned to my home country in my twenties I had no idea how much I had yet to learn. There was this one conversation that in retrospect must have been a riot to watch. It went something like this: I stated “I hate condoms in my food.” The retort was quick and accompanied with recoil. “Who the hell likes condoms in their food?” I answered back: “Americans love condoms in their food, they put them in everything!” At this point he stopped, focused on me for a moment with a perplexed look and finally asked, “What do you think a condom is?” Now I answered confidently “You know, chemicals in food.” He laughed and laughed, told the guy next to him and they laughed together. Finally I learned a lesson that I would never forget.
Preservativos — Condoms; Preservantes – Preservatives.
I also teach English to locals and they are constantly asking me to translate some weird things English speakers say and do. When I get around to teaching adjectives we have a good laugh about the word excited. They then realize that expats are not the horny toads they thought they were. Exitado in Spanish looks like excited but it really means horny or turned on. The locals have forever wondered why these visitors are sexually excited by going to the beach, getting dinner or going on a trip.
Exitado – horny; Emocionado – excited
Both of these situations will invariably make you embarrassed and you will impishly offer “Estoy tan embarasada.”
A treat for onlookers for sure but only further digging your proverbial hole. Let me elaborate with some hearsay. Some time ago there was an article about a woman in Nosara that got very drunk and fell over into a table of glasses, tumbling them onto the floor in an explosion of broken glass; thankfully she was unharmed but still ended up in an ambulance. When she got up from breaking the glasses she declared “Lo siento, estoy tan embarasada.” In her drunken state she kept repeating this until the ambulance showed up. They were called because a very pregnant woman was drunk and maybe going into labor in their restaurant. My personal favorite is when a guy declares his embarrassment and everyone just looks blankly at the medical miracle.
Embarasada – Pregnant; Avergonzado – Embarassed.
When you want to introduce someone to someone else you do not say “Quiero introducirte a mi mamá.” This was my mistake and my mother quipped that she had no intention of getting inside the young man.
Introducir-to put something in something else; Presentar – to introduce someone.
Finally there is the pesky ser and estar phenomenon. They both mean “to be” but have different uses. Basically ser indicates permanence like your nationality or gender and estar is for things that change, for example emotions or state of being. Misusing these words can cause some hilarious outcomes. If you say “Estoy borracho” you are stating that you are drunk; if you say “Soy borracho” you are saying you are a drunkard. I was teaching a class about this once and a student looked up from the example sheet looking pale and distraught and said in a strained voice, “Please tell me ‘No estoy rica’ means I am not rich.” I explained that “Yo no estoy rica” means “I am not tasty.” Her eyes widened and she explained her situation. While building her house she had many workers milling about and she would joke that she wasn’t rich. This became her little joke with them and they would laugh and laugh. She realized she spent two years telling the guards and workers “I am not tasty but…”
Learning a language has as much to do with attitude as skill. Learning to laugh and have fun with it makes fluency more graspable. All of these mistakes made for a memorable learning experience and I assure you the lesson was learned immediately and permanently. Add cognates to your tool box of language and go out there and speak to anyone who will listen. You never know when a verbal blunder will make you a new friend.
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