Cognates: The Key to Rocking Spanish… Or Quickly Being Humbled

“So this one time in Costa Rica…”

Many of my language blooper stories could start out this way. At a time in my life when I was flying high from a recent college graduation and my first full-time paying job, I felt on top of the world. Invincible even at only 22 years of age!

Until of course, I tried to communicate in Spanish. Then I just felt like an adult woman trapped inside a 2-year-old’s language skills.

Early in my Spanish journey, I discovered the gems that are cognates. Cognados, if you will. Language expertos have listed as many 20,000 words that flip-flop back and forth between English and Spanish that have almost the same spelling and always the same meaning. GOLD, I tell you, especially if you find yourself in a Spanish immersion experience and still need to get daily life chores done (There’s a grocery shopping blooper coming… daily life chores were my first forced Spanish communication errores!).

Anyway, cognates can be anything from your basic vocabulario…

Ocean / Ocėano

Art / Arte

Hotel / Hotel

…to your multi-syllabic, important-sounding adult words…

Independence / Independencia

Extraordinary / Extraordinario

Fortunately / Afortunadamente

Cognados are a great place to start if you want to learn Spanish. A quick Google search can help you double your vocabulary! Flashback to the beginning of my language journey when I thought my vocab had doubled, and…

Armed with my new knowledge of this 20,000 word bank of cognates, I set off to the grocery store to stock up on a few essentials. Going to the grocery store always. gave. me. a. headache. Not only was I lost in a different store with different versions of food, but I was also terrified of asking where anything was. (Pride at it’s best… well, worst.)

My usual routine was to have a lista and to wander up and down every aisle until I had filled my cart with said items. This one time in particular, I had successfully found everything except hand soap. You know, the pump-bottle-kind that you can put on your bathroom counter for convenient hand washing. I had paced the store at least 3 times and with still no success.

Enter cognates. Soap… In cognate world, sopa would make a lot of sense.

So I ventured up the courage to ask in my humbling 2-year-old Spanish something like ¿Dónde está la sopa? The woman paciente promptly took me to the SOUP aisle.

Hmm…. this cognate thing wasn’t working out like I had hoped.

You see, there are also these things called false cognates. Cognados falsos. And I found myself right in the middle of learning one of these pairs to avoid. They are deceivingly similar in spelling, so it is easy to assume they are also similar in meaning.


(Another cognado falso to avoid is embarrassed / embarazado. Too many of my fellow gringo friends have learned that while you think you’re saying “I’m embarrassed” when you say “Estoy embarazado/a,” you’re actually saying you’re pregnant. BIG. OOPS.)

So that day I learned that soup = sopa and soap = jabón. ***sigh***

Like I said, this woman paciente (now super paciente to continue assisting me despite my language blooper) persevered and helped me find what I was really looking for. When we arrived in the soup aisle, I shook my head (while sweating profusely at the realization I was once again humbled/humiliated) and my 2-year-old Spanish took over as I vigorously rubbed my hands together as if washing them and said oh-so-eloquently, “Es un líquido… las manos…” She tried again and took me to the ONE bottle of hand soap left (No wonder I couldn’t find it?!). Now beat red and feeling that grocery-store-headache coming on, I placed the bottle in my cart, said “Muchas gracias,” and made my way to the check out.

(Checking out was another whole headache… I didn’t have a Costa Rica bank account or debit card yet, so I was paying in cash, and while $1 became 500 colones, it felt very strange to pay 20,000 colones for $40 of groceries… My inner $$$ nerd was so overwhelmed with this conversion rate… But that’s another story for another time!)

Cognates are truly lifesavers in many grocery store situations. Need to ask where are the tomatoes? ¿Dónde están los tomates? Can’t find your oregano spice? ¿Dónde está el orégano? Looking for coconut? ¿Dónde está el coco?

But of course I picked a pair of cognados falsos to try out, right?

Oh well, we live and learn. While sweating in embarrassment, ha!

3 thoughts on “Cognates: The Key to Rocking Spanish… Or Quickly Being Humbled

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