Spanish False Cognates: 3 Ways To Make Your Spanish Sound Less “English”

false cognates in spanish make you sound less English

Do you feel like your Spanish is good…

You can get your point across…

But your Spanish still sounds a bit too English?

In this article, I’ll show you 3 simple steps for sounding less English.

You’ll learn about false cognates in Spanish, idioms and more… and start sounding more Spanish right away!

English To Spanish Translation

There are many aspects of Spanish that make it easy for English speakers.

Often, an English to Spanish translation can be perfectly literal, and you can produce a native sounding sentence without changing the English word order at all.   

For example, if you misplace your phone, you might ask: “Where is my mobile?”

If you tried to say this word-for-word in Spanish, you’d get: “Dónde está mi móvil?”

And you’d be right – this is correct Spanish. 

This is an example of when a direct English to Spanish translation works well. 

But, as you’re probably aware, this isn’t always the case … especially when it comes to vocabulary.

Suddenly, you realise your mobile is in your pocket after all!

Feeling foolish, you say: “Actually, it’s in my pocket!”

You say it in Spanish: “Actualmente, está en mi bolsillo!”

Ooops!

If you didn’t sense any red flags at this point … you should have!

These are the kind of mistakes that immediately give you away as an English speaker.

In order to start sounding more native-like, you need to learn to identify when you’re using a literal English to Spanish translation, and figure out how native speakers express the same thing.

How can you do this? And what’s the problem with the sentence above?

Well…

spanish false cognates

1) Know Your Spanish False Cognates!

False cognates in Spanish (otherwise known as “false friends”) are words that are also found in English, but that are used differently, or carry a different meaning altogether.  

Let’s look at a very commonly misused false cognate in Spanish that we saw above:

  • English: actually
  • Spanish: actualmente 

In English, we use actually to mean: in fact. 

But in Spanish, it means something different: at the moment, nowadays

…a very different meaning.

This is a classic example of a false cognate in Spanish.

Here’s how you might hear an English speaker misuse this word in Spanish:

  • English: Actually, I wanted to tell you…
  • Incorrect translation: *actualmente, quería contarte…
  • What you really said: *At the moment, I wanted to tell you…
  • What you should have said: Por cierto, quería contarte

The correct translation of actually is por cierto.

So, Step 1 in making your language sound more natural is to identify the places you’re using false cognates in Spanish.

Once you’re aware of this, you can grab a Spanish dictionary and figure out the correct usage of the word.

In the case of actualmente…

  • Antes era un lujo pero actualmente es una necesidad
  • It used to be a luxury but nowadays it’s a necessity
  • Se encuentra actualmente en Suecia
  • She’s in Sweden currently

Now, you might be thinking this is going to be horribly confusing!

But really, it’s not.

When I first learnt Spanish, I found that simply reading lists of false cognates in Spanish, becoming aware I had to look out for them, and then paying attention…was enough.

For a great, visual list of false cognates in Spanish, check out this article from FluentU

spanish false friends

2) Phrasal Verbs & Their Equivalents In Spanish

Phrasal verbs are an integral part of English…

  • to break up
  • to look forward to

They’re also really tricky for second language learners of English, because the extra parts of the verb (e.g. “up” in break up) often have no literal meaning.

But they’re also present a challenge for English speakers learning Spanish, because they never translate literally.

For example:

  • English: to look forward to
  • Literal translation: *mirar hacia delante
  • What you said: *look in front of you (facing forward)
  • What you should have said: tener muchas ganas de

So, when it comes to phrasal verbs, you can be sure you’ll need to learn the true translation.

And given how common phrasal verbs are in English, it’s worth taking a systematic approach to learning the equivalents in Spanish.

  1. Think about some phrasal verbs you use often
  2. Look up their translation in the dictionary
  3. Make notecards or keep a dedicated list of these verbs
  4. Keep the list handy during your Spanish lessons, and try to drop them into conversation as much as possible

To get you started, here are the English to Spanish translations of some common phrasal verbs…

Example 1

  • English: to call back
  • Literal translation: *llamar para atrás
  • What you said: *to call backwards
  • What you should have said: volver a llamar

Example 2

  • English: to put up with
  • Literal translation: *poner arriba con
  • What you said: *to place up high with
  • What you should have said: soportar

Example 3

  • English: to turn up
  • Literal translation: *girar arriba
  • What you said: *twist/turn up high
  • What you should have said: subir/aparecer

Example 4

  • English: to come across
  • Literal translation: *llegar al cruzar
  • What you said: *to come to cross (the road)
  • What you should have said: cruzar caminos con

3) Add Colour To Your Language With Idioms

We use idioms to add colour and nuance to language.

Using appropriate idioms in conversation is a sure a sign of a sophisticated speaker of a language.

However, more often than not, they don’t translate literally…

Which makes sense if you think about it, as they don’t even make sense in our own language!

What exactly is a piece of cake? And what is a Spanish person going to think if you drop that in conversation? 🙂

So you won’t often find a direct English to Spanish translation of an idiom, but the sentiment expressed is often the same.

For example:

  • English: It’s a piece of cake!
  • Spanish: Es pan comido! (Lit: It’s eaten bread)

This makes Spanish idioms more memorable than you might think.

They’re also a tonne of fun, and will quickly endear you to native speakers when you get them right.

So here are a few common idiomatic expressions in English along with their (correct) Spanish equivalents…

  • It’s a piece of cake
  • Está chupado / Es pan comido
  • It cost me an arm and a leg
  • Me costó un ojo de la cara
  • Break a leg!
  • Mucha mierda!
  • He let the cat out of the bag
  • Se fue de tollo / Se fue de la lengua
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover
  • No guiarse por las apariencias / No dejarse engañar por las apariencias

Keep in mind, there are many other expressions in Spanish that we may not use at all in English. (Here’s a comprehensive list.)

The more you start to use common Spanish idioms, the less English you’ll sound!

In summary, making your Spanish sound less English … and ultimately more natural … starts with an awareness of the most common “danger areas” discussed in this post:

  • False cognates
  • Phrasal verbs
  • Idioms

Start to recognise these different areas of language, spot the differences, and learn how learn how the natives say it.

Your Spanish will quickly start sounding more natural, and your native speaking friends will appreciate the difference!

What are your top tips for speaking more natural Spanish? Let me know in a comment below.

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  • Guau, está muy completo y con palabras que realmente se usan. Felicitaciones!

    • Me dicen que “llamar para atras” ya se esta usando en estados unidos! 🙂

      • Sí, pero mi lado diabólico prescriptivista me dice que POR NINGÚN MOTIVO (tal como decir “aplicar a un trabajo” en vez de “postular”. Se entiende pero no te tomarán muy en serio).

  • cara

    Very useful, thank you!