Level Up Language Learning: Your Old Friend Etymology

Updated: Jun 12

Make Etymology Your New Old Friend


Studies have confirmed that a larger vocabulary can lead almost any individual to better economic opportunities and a more rewarding life. Of course, whenever you aim for fluency in another language, continuing to learn new words is crucial.



Learning new words by memorizing definitions is tedious and un-engaging. To efficiently build and maintain a really useful vocabulary, you must be able to analyze words and relate them to your own language and existing foreign language vocabulary in whatever way possible.


Studying etymology is not merely memorizing lists of roots, prefixes and suffixes but to look at how a word has transformed in its structure and in the meaning it conveys. Etymology helps us appreciate the world and its words from a much broader perspective. Indeed, etymology is so fascinating that many have studied it for its own sake.


Etymology, the study of word origins,

offers meaningful linguistic information

to the second-language learner.


Discovering what a new language has in common with one’s own language has all the attributes of what educational psychologists term meaningful learning. This is a type of learning connected to prior learning, making it highly retainable and more generalizable, superior to simple rote learning of vocabulary.

For example, let's focus on how etymology can help English learn Romance languages. The chief source of Romance languages-- such as but not limited to Spanish and French-- is Latin. English, on the other hand, is a Germanic language.


If English is Germanic, why are so many words used in English rooted in Latin? One major reason is that England was invaded by the French Normans in 1066, an event which established French as the language of choice among the ruling class. The influence of this event remains evident in the English language.


Here are some examples of the many French words present in modern English:


Elite is from the Old French word elit, meaning chosen.

Delegate is from the Old French word delegat.


That's good news for you if your goal is to learn French. What about Spanish?


The Latin root of the English word innovate is nov which comes from the Latin for new. Nuevo means new in Spanish. The English word surgery and its Spanish equivalent cirujia both come from chirurgia, which is Latin for work with hands.

Using etymological connections to learn a foreign language

gives you a better understanding of English too.


Latin is, of course, only one way to tie English with romance languages. Most romance languages incorporate a vast amount of Greek and Arabic language elements as well. Part of common English parlance are numerous Greek-derived words like metro, originally from the Greek word meter meaning mother. We know, that's deep.


However, romance languages contain words with linguistic origins apart from Roman, Greek, and Arabic etymologies. The histories of other etymologies are also of major importance in learning new vocabulary.


For instance, If you wanted to remember that lighthouse in Spanish is faro, it helps to know that the lighthouse in Alexandria, Egypt, the most famous lighthouse of the ancient world, was known by the name of the king of Egypt or Pharaoh.


Faro is simply pharaoh spelled phonetically in Spanish.



Perhaps the most popular reason to study etymology is to be able to guess the meanings of new words, but there are lesser known benefits as well.

  • Etymology allows connection with culture and history, two powerful sources of context, making language study more rewarding.

  • Familiarity with the etymologies of words correlates with fewer spelling and pronunciation errors.

  • Knowledge of etymology makes it much easier to distinguish between the meanings of similar words and memorize long words efficiently.

Start Simple: Knowledge of the etymologies of the words you most want to remember will serve you well. Give it a try!


The next time you have to learn some difficult vocabulary, try looking them up in a physical etymological dictionary at your local library or on a fantastic site like the Online Etymology Dictionary: https://www.etymonline.com Just be careful. Resisting the allure of etymology could be trickier than you imagine.

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