One of the simplest, most effective shortcuts to learning English is to use cognates as a tool for understanding vocabulary. Cognates are words in two different languages that have similar meanings and spellings because they have the same linguistic derivation. In other words, the two tongues took these words from the same source. Cognates cannot always be found between markedly different languages, such as English and Japanese; however, because Spanish and English were both heavily influenced by Latin, they share many of these pairings. According to linguists, between 30 and 40 percent of all English words have a Spanish cognate.
Raising Cognate Awareness
Even though cognates can be used as a helpful bridge between the two languages, not all ESL teachers make good use of cognates. The reason? In far too many cases, educators focus on the target language too much. They might even forbid students from speaking their native Spanish language in class. This is almost always a mistake, since research shows that students can internalize vocabulary more rapidly when they can connect it to words they already know. Here is a short list of some basic cognates students should be exposed to when learning English:
English – Spanish Cognates
Family – Familia
Class – Clase
Radio – Radio
Gorilla – Gorila
Center – Centro
Desert – Desierto
Magic – Magia
Even though these cognates have the same or similar meanings, they can still be quite different. After reading the pairs aloud, it is important for educators to point out the subtle differences in pronunciation and spelling. Identifying these differences often helps students incorporate other English words more readily and rapidly—even when they aren’t cognates.
Words Of Warning
As effective as using cognates may be, it is important to impress upon students that things aren’t always as they seem. In some instances, English and Spanish words that appear to be linked because of similar spellings and/or pronunciations may not be genuine cognates. For example, the English word “embarrassed” (humiliated) and the Spanish word “embarazada” (pregnant) are false cognates because they do not share the same meaning. As such, they should not be linked for learning purposes. On the other hand, it is imperative that educators help their students identify these false cognates when learning English. An effective exercise is to write a list of cognates and false cognates on the blackboard and have students pick out the pairs that are NOT the real thing.
Make it a point to familiarize yourself with cognates and false cognates, and you’ll be well on your way to a more fluent foundation in the English language.