The first time I went to a Spanish speaking country I figured that needing to know the language was over-rated. I jumped on a plane bound for Spain with an exaggerated sense of confidence, and a tiny phrase book that I assumed would cover everything I needed.
After landing in Madrid, I found my way to the train that would take me to my destination: the beautiful city of Seville in Andalusia.
Despite the jet lag, I was feeling pretty chipper until someone came to tell me that I was in the wrong seat. The number I had on the ticket matched where I was sitting so I couldn’t understand the problem or where I was supposed to be, if not there. It turns out I was in the wrong car and it took them half the trip to communicate it to me, much to their frustration and my bewilderment.
When the taxi that I took from the train station stopped outside of my new home in Seville, the driver said something to me and pointed at the door. I assumed he was in a hurry and wanted me to get out. After nearly being run over by a motorbike and being yelled at by both drivers, I realized that he was telling me to wait to open the door: “No abras la puerta.”
I enrolled in a Spanish language school the next day.
As soon as I started taking classes, I fell in love with El Español. I was delighted to realize how many Spanish words sounded similar to the English versions. My teacher called them cognates: artist—artista; tourist—turista; university—universidad; family—familia. It was so easy! (Or so I thought…) Whenever I didn’t know the Spanish word for something I just said it in English but made small adaptations to make it sound more Spanish.
That was until a couple of months later when I unintentionally made a big announcement at a dinner party hosted by my new Spanish beau’s parents. After accidentally spilling wine all over his mother, I attempted to apologize and convey my embarrassment. I told her (in front of everyone) that I was “embarazada.” I found out the hard way about false cognates and how to say the word “pregnant” in Spanish. It turns out that even though a word sounds similar in English and Spanish, the meanings can be very, very different.
This would not be my only encounter with false cognates or “false friends” as they are also known. I also discovered (to the great amusement of my Spanish friends) that:
- Preservativos are not preservatives but rather condoms!
- If someone asks you if you are “constipada,” they are asking if you have a cold or a stuffy nose.
- If you want to say you are excited about something, say “emocionado/a” and not “excitado/a,” which means aroused.
- “Molestar” is to bother or annoy. I learned this after a very confusing conversation where someone was telling me about his dislike of clowns…
- “Ropa” is not rope. “Ropa” means “clothing”. I found this out when I attempted to ask a storekeeper to cut off a piece of string from a package I had just purchased. Not knowing the word for string I figured that “ropa” would be close enough. It wasn’t. I ended up asking him to cut off his clothes.
While it’s not necessary to be fluent when you live in a Spanish-speaking country, having a base sure helps. That little bit of grammar and vocabulary you learn will come in handy in unimaginable situations. Plus the more you learn, the richer your new life will become. Just remember: making a bit of a fool out of yourself is all part of the process (and, as I prove, can lead to some very funny stories). And watch out for those false friends!
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