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ELC Santa Barbara English Grammar Lesson – False cognate words! September 19th, 2016

After forgetting what time his exam was, the frustrated student told his Spanish teacher, “Estoy embarazada” (which means “I am embarrassed”… right?) The Spanish teacher looked him up and down and said, “If you are, then you would be a medical miracle!”

What did the Spanish student actually say? In Spanish, embarazada does not mean “embarrassed” — it means “pregnant!”

This Spanish student fell prey to the same language tricks that many English learners do. Languages, particularly Romance languages (French, Italian, and Spanish) have a lot of words that appear to be very similar in English. They might sound the same and/or look the same. Students mistake these seemingly similar words to have the same meaning, but they don’t always!

This becomes a big problem when students over-rely on their translators. They may not get the exact meaning between the languages, or they may get even more confused. Using a student dictionary in English (such as www.learnersdictionary.com) will allow you to have a simplified definition and examples in context.

Here are some examples of other false cognates:

English words that look like French words…

[entrée] English: main course // French: appetizer
[college] English: university // French: middle school or high school
[eventually] English: finally // French: possibly (éventuellement)

English words that look like Italian words…

[bald] English: without hair // Italian: brave (baldo)
[camera] English: a device for photos // Italian: a room
[misery] English: extreme sadness // Italian: poverty (miseria)

English words that look like Spanish words…

[assist] English: to help // Spanish: to attend (asistir)
[college] English: university // Spanish: high school (colegio)
[large] English: big // Spanish: long (largo)

False friends chart