“Descend” in the water
The first time I really noticed this fact – that it’s easy to recognize and guess Spanish words if you speak English, but not so much the other way around – I was teaching a Colombian woman how to swim. She spoke only a little English. When I said “Go down in the water” or “Sink in the water” she didn’t follow. I racked my brain for a Latin-based word for “go down” or “sink.” Descend! “Descend in the water.” My Colombian student understood immediately.
Although I spoke no Spanish, I could guess that the Spanish word was similar to the Latin-based word in English. Indeed, the Spanish verb is descender.
The relationship between the languages is not, however, symmetrical. My Colombian friend could not rack her brain for another word for descender in Spanish and come up with ‘go down’ or ‘sink.’ These simply don’t exist in Spanish.
The reason: English’s two major vocabulary sources
English is famously – or notoriously – rich in synonyms, partly because for many words there is a Germanic version and a Latinate version. This reflects the history of English. It is a Germanic language (unlike Spanish, French, and Italian, which are Latin), but it has adopted Latinate words over centuries, directly from Latin, from Norman French, and so on. Here are some examples of similar or synonymous words, with Spanish and French translations.
Of course this system is not perfect: knowing both the Germanic ‘get to’ and the Latinate ‘arrive’ doesn’t help you figure out the word llegar in Spanish.
But the bottom line remains: the Latinate synonyms make it easier for English speakers to recognize and guess Spanish words, without Spanish speakers any clues about the Germanic English words. If you are learning Spanish or another Latin language, you can thank history for this perk–sorry, ‘advantage’ (ventaja/avantage).