Improve your Spanish vocabulary with Cognates

As a high school student and college undergraduate, Spanish was easier to learn than other foreign languages offered at school since so many words were similar to English. After studying Spanish for a few years, I noticed trends in certain words so it became easier to guess how to say a word in Spanish if I didn’t know of the top of my head.

Eventually I learned these types of words were called cognates where two languages come from a similar origin. The word cognate itself is even a cognate since the Spanish translation of it is cognado. Between English and Spanish alone there are already thousands of cognates. For example to say abandon would be abandoner. Accent is acento. Future is futuro and so on.

So how can you figure out how to translate an English word into Spanish? Use these general trends to help you:

  • Trend #1 -tion/-ción: Words that end in “-tion” in English such as abbreviation usually end in- ción in Spanish so you would have abreviación. Other examples include composition/composición and fabrication/fabricación.
  • Trend #2 -ty/-dad: Words that end in “-ty” in English such as personality usually end in “-dad” in Spanish so you would have personalidad. Other examples include clarity/claridad and generosity/generosidad.
  • Trend #3 -al/-al: Words that end in “-al” such as abnormal usually end in “-al” in Spanish so you would have abnormal. Isn’t that awesome? Just watch out for spelling. Other examples include essential/esencial and traditional/tradicional.
  • Trend #4 -ic/ico: Words that end in “-ic” in English such as athletic usually end in “-ico” in Spanish so you would have atlético. Other examples include toxic/tóxico andironic/irónico. Notice that after putting the ending “-ico,” the word often gains an accent mark on a vowel.

More cognate trends exist, but they involve verbs in the infinitive or infinitivo form, which we will discuss in a later post.

Tip #1 – The more complex a word is, the more likely it is to be a cognate. So if the word is super long and advanced like electromagnetic, there’s a good chance that its cognado is electromagnético.

Tip #2 – Beware of False Cognates! When you try to guess the Spanish translation it may sound right, but double check first! For example, to say “idiom” in Spanish is not idioma (which means language) but actually modismo! Also, to say “embarrassed” in Spanish is not embarazada (which means pregnant!) but actually verguenza. Check out this website for a list of common false cognates from the blog YucaLandia.

Tip #3 – Also beware of False Friends! We’re not talking about fake friends, but a language term where a word in English and Spanish that are written exactly the same, but they mean completely different things. For example, a pie in English is a yummy dessert but a pie in Spanish means 1 foot (measurement). Check out this website for a list of common false friends from eLearn Spanish Language.

Tip #4 – Check out this amazing website for a list of almost all the Spanish cognates in existence from Spanish Cognates.

Once you start studying cognates and finding connections between English and Spanish words, your vocabulary will improve drastically!

Also, the great thing about cognates is that it works both ways. If you are teaching ESL students who learned Spanish as their first language, this is a great way to teach them some new English vocabulary. Happy studying 🙂


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