Cognates and their Significance for Multilingualism

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In general, “cognation” means “any kind of relation”; in grammar, cognates are terms that are morphologically related. These are words of similar pronunciation, spelling and meaning in two languages, and that are particularly relevant to the understanding of written texts.

Since they share the same etymological origin, it is important to learn cognates at an early age. How do they impact multilingualism?

About Sounds, Structures and False Friends

The English language belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages, and is closely related to Frisian, German and Dutch. In turn, English was enriched by additions from Latin and French, due to the Normand conquest by William the Conqueror (1066) on the English Islands. In fact, almost a third of all English words are derived from French, and these two languages share thousands of cognates, such as:

  • True cognates: Words with a similar meaning
  • False cognates: Different meaning, like actually and actuellement
  • Partial cognates: Pairs of words that have a similar meaning in some context, but not in others.

False cognates —also known as faux amis or false friends— are words that have a common origin but evolved through different paths and gained a meaning in one language and another partially or totally different meaning in a related language.

Around 33% of all English words are directly or indirectly derived from French, and it is estimated that English-speakers that have never studied French already know 15,000 French words.
Source: ThoughtCo

In addition, since two thirds of English words have a Romanic origin, there are many cognates between English had Spanish. Some examples are: hospital/ hospital, construcción/ construction, alerta/ alert, error/ error, parte/ part, moderno/ modern, simple/ simple, manual/ manual, and reducir/ reduce, among many others.

There are also false cognates, that usually pop up in machine translations and can be very insidious. In English, “embarrassed” means “ashamed or abashed”, while in Spanish, “embarazada” means “pregnant”. “Library” in English refers to the place from which one can borrow books; in Spanish, “librería” means “store that sells books and stationary products”. “Cartoon” in English means “an animated show”; while in Spanish “cartón” means “cardboard”.

Learning to Recognize Cognates as The Basis of Learning

Children learning foreign languages have early contact with these pairs of words. This experience is key for their language skills in adulthood. Among other benefits, being bilingual or multilingual since infancy improves our memory and brain function, and reinforces our ability for multitasking. It also improves our skills in other academic areas and even grants us a more thorough understanding of our native languages.

More than 67 million people currently living in the United States speak a language other than English in their homes.
Source: Center for Immigration Studies

Until age 3, the brains of children are particularly well suited to learn a second language, thanks to their plasticity. Babies exposed to a bilingual environment are able to detect language differences as early as month 6, and they can learn a second language as easy as they learn to walk.

Likewise, detecting cognates is a useful technique to promote learning of a second language, although this is only effective when the proper strategies are used to guide students to the desired outcomes. These are some of the goals:

  • To identify cognates while reading.
  • To match cognates to their correct definition.
  • To identify the difference between true and false cognates.

The United Kingdom receives 28% of all students who wish to learn English as a second language, followed by Australia (24%), Canada (19%) and the United States (10%).
Source: Statista

Exposing children to early reading out loud and all kinds of oral expression in a language different to their native language is the best way to facilitate learning and the recognition of cognates in a game-like context.

The future generations will be grateful, because, as we know, learning other languages allows us to broaden our horizons and see the world from different perspectives.

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