Confusing Words Are Everywhere!

March 26, 2024

¡Las palabras confusas están por todas partes!

No matter what language you speak or are learning, there are confusing words. You know, those words that sound or look alike but have different meanings. In fact, whatever language you grew up speaking – English for me – also has confusing words. It’s just that when you’re learning a new language – Spanish for me – those confusing words feel especially troublesome. After all, it’s hard enough to remember all the new vocabulary and verb tenses and what words to use and when! 

Fear not! Boulder Spanish is here to help with classes for every type of learner, travel immersion experiences, and more! 

From time to time in this blog, we will present a group of confusing words with some tips to get them straightened out and to remember which words to use and how to use them. Learning a new language is challenging, and also fulfilling. So let’s clear up the confusion around a few of my favorite confusing words. First, a few ideas to keep in mind:

Pronunciation (Pronunciación): Listen to native speakers pronounce a word. Even without being in Mexico, Ecuador, or Spain, this is easy to do these days with the help of pronunciation audio guides on your computer or smart phone. Then pronounce each new vocabulary word syllable by syllable until you can say the word precisely. With Spanish, it’s particularly important to focus on Spanish vowel sounds. 

A, E, I, O, U.        MU-chAs GrA-cI-As. A-dI-Ós. 

Different Spanish speakers may drop or gloss over consonant sounds, but you’ll hear the vowel sounds distinctly and that will help clarify a specific word and its meaning. 

Accents (Acentos): Especially with all the various verb tenses, accents matter a lot in Spanish. As you practice pronunciation, emphasize the accented syllables until they become automatic. 

Paying attention to both pronunciation and accents will require you to practice words and phrases over and over until they flow off your tongue and feel natural. This is especially fun in Spanish, though, since the musicality and rhythm of Spanish make it delightful to speak and to hear, even as we’re learning. 

Caballo (horse)          Cabello (hair)             Cebolla (onion)

These words were among my very first blunders in Spanish. I couldn’t keep them straight – or curly! 

Although these words look very similar, if you give them proper Spanish pronunciations – for example, por ejemplo, strong vowel sounds, the “ll” pronounced similar to a “y” in English, and a soft “c” for Cebolla – they don’t really sound alike, just as they don’t have similar meanings. 

{Remember the rule for a hard or soft “c” sound: say a hard “c” sound (like “k”, as in cat) before a consonant or “a,” “o”, or “u;” say a soft “c” sound (like “s”, as in city) before “e” or “i.”}

My tricks: I imagine the two “a” letters in Caballo as the two front hooves on a horse. Yes, you have to use your imagination! I associate the second part of Cabello, with “bello” (beautiful), as in beautiful hair. For Cebolla, I think “Say-o for onion,” because I like onions! Me gustan las cebollas.
¡Mi cabello es rizado y a mi caballo le gustan las cebollas! My hair is curly and my horse likes onions! 

Hombre (man)           Hombro (shoulder)      Hambre (hunger)

Here’s another tricky threesome that relies on clear vowel pronunciation. 

{Remember the “h” in Spanish words is silent, so emphasize the vowel sounds, especially that first vowel after the “h.”}

My tricks: These are a little complicated but you’ll see their quirkiness makes them work! For Hombre, I think of the Latin scientific name for “humankind,” or “wise man,” Homo sapiens, as it begins with “hom” and there is an “e” in sapiens. To distinguish Hombre from Hombro, since both begin with “hom,” I visualize a man slapping another man on the shoulder and saying, “Bro!” (short for “brother”), as some men do in greeting each other. “Hom” (man) + “bro” (shoulder) = Hombro. For Hambre, I visualize “ham” for “breakfast,” and I get “ham-bre.” Just be sure to use strong Spanish vowel sounds not English vowel sounds so that “hom” is distinct from “ham,” and “bre” is distinct from “bro.” And keep the “h” silent.
El hombre tiene mucha hambre y le duele el hombro. The man is very hungry and his shoulder hurts. 

Caro (expensive)        Carro (car)                      Pero (but)       Perro (dog)  

Here again, similar words with very different meanings. Pronunciation makes all the difference. 

{Remember, a single “r” is simply a tap of your tongue against the roof of your mouth. A double “rr” is a deliberate trill of your tongue and should have a unique sound.} 

My tricks: With these words, the vowel sounds are the same. So, as a Spanish learner, practice and have some fun learning to roll Rs for a variety of Spanish words. 

¡Sí, este carro es caro, pero mi perro puede correr más rápido! Yes, this car is expensive, but my dog can run faster!

Consejo (advice)         Conejo (rabbit)

OK, I’ll admit it. This is an amusing word confusion that I still stumble over from time to time. 

{My tip is to remember that Consejo has a “s” sound similar to the “s” sound in advice. Conejo does not. Just think of a cute bunny! Also, to say “to advise,” the Spanish word is the regular verb “aconsejar.”}

El conejo blanco me dio buen consejo. The white rabbit gave me good advice. 

Finally, it's true that the context of a conversation can help us to recognize and expect what word might be used, but context cannot always save the day, or even keep us from becoming embarrassed sometimes as we try to communicate in Spanish. It’s OK. Just smile, and know that learning from mistakes is a time-honored tradition. Spanish speakers will appreciate your effort.

¡Sólo sonríe! Los hispanohablantes apreciarán su esfuerzo. 

Hasta pronto,