Level Up Language Learning: Cognates are True Friends

There are true friends, false friends, and acquaintances.

Friend or False Friend?

Most languages belong to families, and just like siblings and cousins, they have a common grandparent. For example, the Romance languages have Latin as a common ancestor which explains why vocabulary in these languages is so similar from language to language in that family.

On a different note, many languages share a common influence. For example, ancient Greek loan words are present in many languages today. However, Ancient Greek did not become a parent to any other languages; rather it simply evolved into modern Greek and its various dialects.

Any two languages with common origins and/or which are influenced by a common language share a lot of vocabulary.

What are cognates?

Words derived from the same origin are called cognates. They may occur within the same language or across languages. Cognates may or may not retain the same meaning in every language which is why they are often divided into two main categories: true and false.

Sometimes true cognates are called friends and erroneous cognates are called false friends simply to make these categories more easily understood. True cognates can act as bridges across languages to help learners connect their native language with a new language. They also indicate some shared cultural history to explore. When similar words in different languages retain the same meaning, they are said to be cognate. When they retain enough of their sound and spelling to be recognized but do not retain the same or nearly the same meaning, they are called false cognates.

False cognates are pairs of words that seem to be cognates because of similar sounds and meaning, but have different etymologies; they can be within the same language or from different languages, even within the same family.

The ability to use cognates in one language to help understand words in another language is called cognate awareness. Cognate awareness makes language learning many times more efficient.

Why study cognates to learn new languages? Students can often access unfamiliar academic terms in English by associating them with the equivalents, or by using knowledge of one language to unlock word meanings in another language. For instance, approximately 30 to 40% of all words in English have a related word in Spanish.

Cognates are the words that are easiest to learn because they’re similar to the words you already know. “Important” in English is a cognate with “important” in French and Romanian and “importante” in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. All of these evolved from the Latin importans.

English is a Germanic language despite the extensive French influence resulting from the Norman Invasion and that of Latin as the language of the Church and scholarship for so many centuries.

Let’s have a look at the word for "important” across several other Germanic languages.

  • wichtig in German

  • wichtig in Dutch

  • wichtich in Frisian

  • viktig in Norwegian and Swedish

  • vigtig in Danish

  • mikilvægt in Icelandic

All of these actually mean “weighty” or bulky in these languages, but weighty is another way to say “important” in English, so the connection, although not so obvious, is there.

What is the most practical way to use cognates to improve your language learning?

Engage in a matching word game.

Studying cognates in columns side by side should not be the only way cognate awareness is employed in language learning. When reading any new foreign language text, try to highlight or note all of the possible cognates (along with any other unknown words) and explore them one by one during the second reading. You may be surprised when some unknown words turn out to be cognates.

Cognates can act as bridges across languages or, at least, links that help learners connect their native language with a new language. They also serve as a reminder of a shared history and the mixing of our cultures.

On International Tolerance Day, an interesting video featuring two young women, debuted then went viral. One, a speaker of Spanish, and the other, a speaker of Arabic, discovered their languages have more in common than they would have previously imagined. The links between Arabic and Spanish made their way into English as well.

Numerous words which came to English from Spanish actually have Arabic roots. For example, the Arabic, ليمون or "laimun" entered Spanish and became "limón" and then "lemon" in English. "Alcohol" in English and Spanish (spelled alike but pronounced a little differently) is from الكحول ( pronounced al-kuhuul) in Arabic. "Jar" is "jarra" in Spanish which came from جرّة (jarrah) in Arabic.

Arabic words entered the English language through a particular era of history of the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors in the eighth century invaded and took control of much of what is modern day Spain and Portugal. During this occupation, their language, Arabic, spread and mixed with the local languages which were rooted in Latin. The Moors eventually lost this territory, but its Latin-based languages were forever influenced by Arabic. As Latin-based languages infiltrated English, the Arabic loan words came along for the ride, and as a result, there many everyday English words which have Arabic roots.

Cognates make learning new languages easier and more efficient and for these reasons deserve special attention from instructors and learners. However, it's how much fun we can have with identifying cognates and tracing their evolutions that makes learning cognates one of the true joys of language learning.

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