What You Already Know
In many places around the United States, Spanish is encountered at every turn—on street signs, on buses, at banks, and at restaurants. As soon as people begin learning Spanish, they discover that they know more Spanish than they had originally thought. In fact, Spanish is all over the world. Given the number of countries where Spanish is the official language, it most certainly ranks as one of the most widely spoken languages.
Recognizing Spanish-Sounding Words
To prove that you know more Spanish than you think you do, take a little quiz. Take a look at the following list, and see how many words you can understand.
Although you might not yet know how to pronounce these words in Spanish, you should be able to figure out what they mean, because all of these words are cognates. Cognates are words in different languages that share a similar meaning and spelling because they originated from the same word. True cognates share the same meaning. Pure cognates are spelled identically in both languages. False cognates share a common origin and spelling, but have completely different meanings.
Words such as actor, animal, central, error, hospital, idea, natural, radio, and taxi are true pure cognates. (Note that even though these words are spelled the same way in English and in Spanish, the pronunciations are different. You'll learn pronunciation guidelines and accents in the next chapter.) Words like accidente, autor, elefante, presidente, and teléfono are true cognates—they share similar but not exactly identical spelling.
But some cognates are false—although the pairs may look similar, they carry different meanings in different languages. Here's why: Many cognates between English and Spanish originated from Latin—hence the words “Latino” and “Latin America.” Over time, these words gained new meanings in each language, and ended up evolving in completely different ways:
asistir: “to attend” (not “to assist”)
anciano: “elderly man” (not “ancient”)
carta: “letter,” when referring to a form of written correspondence (not “cart” or “card”)
chanza: “joke” (not “chance”)
constipado: “congested,” as when suffering from a cold (not “constipated”)
delito: “crime” (not “delight”)
embarazada: “pregnant” (not “embarrassed”—though misusing this word could certainly lead to embarrassment!)
fútbol: “soccer” (not “football”)
recordar: “to remember” (not “to record”)