After teaching English to French and Spanish speakers for a few years, I quickly realized something was amiss: most, if not all, of my students had been using “realize” in a strange way.

I went on to investigate why this was so. And this is what I found.

One of the great things about Spanish and French is that I, as an English teacher, don’t need to be fluent in these languages to teach English. Despite English being a Germanic language, a lot of English vocabulary have the same roots in the Romance languages, particularly Latin, French, Spanish and Italian. This is why many French and Spanish speakers rely on the similarities between their languages and English to figure out an English counterpart for a word they’d like to use.

Unfortunately, learning English like this isn’t always so reliable. Many times French and Spanish speakers find themselves using a word that looks somewhat similar, but are in fact very different when directly translated. These words are the false cognates, the faux amis in French or the falsos amigos in Spanish.

One such word is “realize.”

I’d typically hear a student say something like this:

  • They realized the buildings quickly.
    We realized the project.
    We had to realize our discussion.

Though a part of me feels there is some truth in them, the sentences are jarring to the ear. Why?

Realizar vs Réaliser vs Realize

A quick look at the French and Spanish counterparts explains everything. According to, realizar is a transitive verb that means “to execute, to carry out, to do, to materialize or to produce.” The French word réaliser, says Reverso Dictionary, means “to perform, to make something happen or materialize.”

  • And what of the English realize? Merriam-Webster defines it as “to bring something into concrete existence; to cause to seem real; to convert assets into actual money; to bring or get by sale or effort.” Another definition is “to be fully aware of something.”

The Spanish/French and English definitions intersect at some point. And yet to the English-sensitive ear, the usage seems off because realize is more commonly used to mean “to be fully aware of something.”


  • 1. I realized I had loved her all along. (I wasn’t aware of my love for her then, but now I am.)
    2. She realized that the car salesman had cheated her. (She didn’t know it at the time, but now the reality that some cheating has taken place is now clear).
    3. They realized that they had taken a wrong turn. (They made a mistake and had not been aware of it, until now.)

When French and Spanish speakers use “realize” with other definitions, English speakers are more inclined to reject it because the phrase sounds unusual, and may be better off with other terms or idiomatic phrases, as shown below:

Oración rara Más común
We realized the bridge quickly. • We constructed the bridge quickly.
• We finished the bridge quickly.
• We built the bridge quickly.
The projects were realized. • The projects were carried out.
• The projects were completed.
We realized our discussion. • We had a discussion.
• We performed the action points that we had discussed. (Sentence varies depending on the meaning intended.)

“Realize” may also be used in other contexts which bear more similarity to the French/Spanish counterpart:

  • 1. She had realized all her dreams. (Her dreams have come true.)
    2. After ten years, his worst fears were realized. (What he dreaded happened.)
    3. We needed cash so we realized all the assets. (We converted all the assets to money.)

In short, if you want to sound like a natural when using “realize” in a sentence, you must use it when speaking of attaining full awareness.

The rest of the time, “realize” may be used with concepts like dreams, hopes, ambitions, fears, and money (“realized profit” is a technical term).

If your English teacher tells you that you used “realize” in a weird way, it’s most probably because there exists other more suitable terms or idioms that more popularly take its place.

Contributed by Lolita Villa
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