Cognates: Words in two more more languages with similar spellings and pronunciations. They also have similar meanings.

Have you noticed words that sound alike in different languages that end up with similar meanings? Like the word ‘telephone’ which sounds the same in English and French (without accent of course) and mean, well, telephone (millennials will scratch their heads, umm… cellphone maybe?).

I rarely noticed cognates growing up, words being just words, until I spent a year in Egypt. There I discovered that ‘Saleem’ and ‘Shalom’ in Arabic and Hebrew sound alike and, yes, both mean the same thing ‘Peace!’. That had a profound effect on me, considering the state of affairs between Egypt and Israel during the latter parts of the 1970’s!

Languages usually share cognates amongst their language families. Thus it isn’t surprising that English, French, Spanish and Italian share a number of cognates. And since English also derives from Germanic languages, Anglophones share a number of cognates with our Deutsche cousins, such as Blau (Blue), Apfel (Apple) etc.

Cognates are an important part of developing comprehension in a second language. Not surprisingly, researchers who study first and second language acquisition have found that students benefit from cognate awareness. Cognate awareness is the ability to use cognates in a primary language as a tool for understanding a second language. Children can be taught to use cognates as early as preschool. As students move up the grade levels, they can be introduced to more sophisticated cognates, and to cognates that have multiple meanings in both languages, although some of those meanings may not overlap. A very interesting article regarding cognates and comprehension can be found HERE.

So the next time you hear a word in a foreign language you recognize there is a good chance it will be the same in English, and you are on your way to learning a second language.


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