False Cognates

Spanish level: Intermediate

Many find themselves in conversations and suddenly being misunderstood due to words that sound almost like the cognate in English, but mean something very different. A cognate is a word that sounds similar, or is spelled similarly as in English: for example, the word situation = situación. Often, these words save us when we aren’t sure and take a wild stab, hoping the Spanish is a cognate. Below we’ll cover some of the most common pitfalls of this type.

Atender / Asistir

Believe it or not, these two do not mean, respectively, attend and assist! These verbs mean, in a nutshell, to attend (as in assist), and to attend (as in attending a party, or a class). You can basically just swap these two in your brain, atender meaning to help, attend to needs, or care for, and asistir meaning to attend a function.
Examples: En el restaurante, nos atendieron muy bien. Asistimos al curso de español.
Before reading on, if you come up with a sentence for each of these in your own mind, you will cement the idea into place. It’s recommended to do this after every mini lesson here.

Entrenar / Capacitar

While entrenar does mean to train, it is mostly in reference to animals. Capacitar means to train as in for a job or show how to do a certain thing. Una capacitación is a training as we would think of it in English: a work training, or any other type. Entrenamiento usually refers to training dogs or other animals.
Examples: Voy a entrenar a mi perro (see also: adiestrar). Ya nos capacitaron para usar la nueva maquina.

Soportar / Apoyar

Soportar is a verb many think means support. It does, but it’s a support that indicates put up with, or tolerate. Think of 19th century Queen’s English: “I will support this no longer!” Apoyar is the verb to reach for when you want to support a cause or a friend.
Examples: Hay que soportar, a veces, el comportamiento de los niños. Me encanta apoyar a las artes, siempre asisto a todos los espectáculos de teatro. Ah, see what I did there? Compounding ‘asisto’ in your third mini lesson! Now you try: see if you can use these in a sentence, maybe including more than one verb from this article.

Tratar / Intentar

While not a cognate per se, this is a common overuse of one verb over another. Tratar means to try, but it also means to treat (as in how we treat others), and English speakers tend to use this verb when many times, intentar would be best.
Example: No sé hacerlo, pero voy a intentar.
Notice, too, that probar is also an option, meaning to sample–we might say in English, I’d like to try the green salsa, and in that case definitely use probar: Me gustaría probar la salsa verde.

Usar / Utilizar

These two both mean to use, or utilize. This is another case of an overuse of one verb over another. It’s not wrong to use usar–but if you want to sound a little more educated, try using utilizar instead of usar next time.
Example: Utilizamos solo los mejores ingredientes en nuestra comida.
Additional note about usar: many times it’s used in Spanish in a way we English speakers would use “wear”: Me gusta usar una falda y blusa en el estilo contemporáneo. Todos usan smoking en los casinos finos. (Smoking = tuxedo)


Okay, we get it, you’re embarrassed for all the cultural gaffs you make while trying to avoid them…but please, don’t claim to be embarazado, because that means pregnant! This one is best expressed through several other methods: Me da mucha pena que no pude asistir a la fiesta. Ella usó ropa demasiado casual para la boda, y no le dió pena. Qué pena, se me olvidó contestar tu mensaje. Estoy apenado con ella por haber roto su vaso.

If you’ve gotten this far in this Spanish lesson today, congratulations! The study of Spanish, or any foreign language, stimulates our intellect and opens up a new world of friendships. It is also important, besides the very obvious benefit of communication, to demonstrate to our lovely hosts in Mexico the respect for our adopted country of learning the language.

Elsanne Barrows