Consider for a moment, the following scene: You're having a chat when suddenly the attentive eyes of your conversation partner narrow and a slight furrow crosses their brow. You hesitate for a second and repeat what you just said, exactly as you just said it. A slightly more quizzical look. Now, if this conversation is happening in your newly learned second (third, fourth...) language, you are familiar with the feeling. You just have to figure out why you are not being understood. Was it pronunciation? No, you talk to this person all the time; they "get" your gringo accent. How about an incorrectly conjugated verb? Doubtful; the expectation that you conjugate and distribute gender haphazardly is semi-expected and the context clues should have allowed them to comprehend what you were trying to say.
What about a wrong word all-together? It sounded right though. It even sounded Spanish. Then you realize the problem. Those damn false cognates! To those who are not language people, these are those pesky words that sound or look like a word in your native tongue, but in fact means something completely different.
False cognates are the meat of any good miscommunication story. I was reminded of how essential differentiating between these words is twice this past week. First because an English teacher colleague was doing an activity with her students involving the avoidance of such language in their writing (false cognates obviously work both ways). She had printed copies of a paper that outlined many such examples and graciously gave a copy to me.
Within the next day I had my own misstep. While at the ninth grade semester awards ceremony, I was attempting to translate what an English-speaking teacher was giving an award for to our Spanish teacher. The award was acknowledging a student's improvement over the course of the semester and so I erroneously used the word "improvisando," which, incidentally, is a word. She asked for clarification and I repeated the same thing, wondering why she didn't understand. She then let it go. Meanwhile I played the conversation back again and again until I realized I had told her the student had received the award for "improvising" which, in hindsight, would be a stupid thing to give an award for, unless, perhaps, it was a drama class. I then turned to her and said "mejorando" and the spark of understanding jumped back into her eyes.
Other common examples of mistakes that I've made in the past include using "equivocado" - which, ironically means "wrong" - when I was attempting to say equivocate. Or using "nudo" when trying to say naked (actually "desnudo"), which means "joint" or "knot." Telling a taxi driver to head to the sports arena by saying "arena de deportes" will get you to possibly a giant sand box as "arena" means "sand" and "anfiteatro" or "plaza" are two of the words referring to an arena as English-speakers know it. "Carpeta" does not mean "carpet," it means "folder" ("alfombra" is carpet), the verb "contestar" means "to answer" while "to contest" something is "impugnar," and "red" in Spanish means "network" while the color of the same spelling is "rojo."
Unfortunately, I have made mistakes with all of them. However, none have been more blush-inducing than mixing up "embarazada," which refers to being pregnant, for being embarrassed. To make matters worse, in Colombia "pena" means embarrassment, not its potential homonym friend and fellow false cognate "pain," which is actually "dolor" (which does not mean "dollar").
Had enough? When I'm at the end of my rope - "cuerda," "ropa" means "clothes" - I try to just laugh it off! Spanish actually has it right, as they call this part of speech "amigos falsos," or "fake friends." I literally couldn't have said it better myself!