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Should I Use Cognates To Learn A Language?

There are a lot of ways to learn a language. Some good, some not so good. Comparative linguistics is one way of looking at various languages and understanding the similarities and differences between them. Major breakthroughs in our understanding of languages happens through the field, and I, myself, absolutely love it, choosing to study it to get better understandings of how grammar works.

Some people theorize that it is possible to learn languages through other, similar languages. Taking their native language, and, with enough cognates (words with shared linguistic origins such as Mudder in German and mother in English), try to learn another language through it. Sure, it is useful for finding cognates between languages and helping find words that you can pick out of any text or language program. You can easily pick up a few words in French by going over French words in English texts. However, that is the problem. FEW.

There is considered, generally, about 10,000 words in English that have been borrowed or derived from French. Of these, about 1700 words have both the same meaning and look exactly the same. It is super useful to study French through the context of English because there are so many words that you can pick up through the study. A recent news article claims that the English government was looking to remove all words of French origin from official documents to make it all more English-y. A popular reactionary meme takes the image of the text proclaiming it and then highlighting the dozens of works that actually come from French thus removing most of the meaning from the proclamation. We all had a real kick out of it, of course. The point is that there is so much of French inside English that removing French influence would absolutely cripple the English language.

This sheer influence translates to recognizing so many words that it is a real boost to individuals trying to study French. However, a few things get in the way to prevent a user from being able to look at the cognates and really learn just from cognates. With French, the biggest challenge for anyone, regardless of background and native language, is the phonetic system and the difference in spelling and pronunciation. The casual listener and reader on will notice that sounds will not match phonemes the way that English would, even with words that look exactly the same between the languages.

Attention in French and attention in English sound very differently but not so differently that someone would struggle too hard with it. The key to these words is by specifically attacking the pronunciation system and memorizing the many pronunciation rules and the many exceptions to those rules. It is very difficult to go through French without an understanding of those rules. You want to know the differences in spelling between languages and potential rules in changes. For instance, -tion becomes -cion in Spanish and -cao in Portuguese, making it a little easier to translate some of the words you already know.

The best way for a person to learn a language is through context. Seeing a word repeatedly in the context of several sentences, as in going through regular reading, is the best way of understanding how a word works. This is how children learn it, through repeated usage over time. Rote memorization does not work unless you specifically contextualize the word in a way to make it make sense to you. Bartosz Czekala at Universeofmemory.commakes it clear that you cannot use flashcards to memorize words if the flashcards are not designed by you. You need to make your own sentences for every word that you are attempting to learn.

This brings us to the next obstacle of the cognate strategy: grammar. Grammar isn’t always important. You don’t need it starting out for basic word acquisition. Knowing the word ‘o cachorro’ as ‘dog’ in Portuguese is enough to know the word. However, to advance your understanding and context of the dog, as in the dog runs, you must be able to:

  1. Know the word for dog.
  2. Know the word for runs.
  3. Know the appropriate conjugation for runs in the context of the subject.

The dog run. The dogs runs. Neither of these are correct because the verb does not apply in form to the subject. There is no subject-verb agreement. It can be dangerous to thus learn run out of context because you take the risk of learning the word wrongly. Of course, it is simple enough to be corrected by a native speaker to then say “runs” instead of “run.” However, if you take your learning as a whole and you learn a lot of words outside of context of sentences and grammar, then you will be forced to go back and relearn everything from scratch.

I made this mistake when I was very young and trying to learn French verbs. I didn’t realize there was a complex conjugation system where the difference in subject changes the ending of the verb. Je monter un cheval. I to-ride a horse. I did not realize I would need to change the ending to monte. If I wasn’t careful, I could potentially use rouler which also means ride but means ride in a different way as in riding in a car. Is it better to memorize a bunch of words now outside of context and then relearn it through grammar later? I do not believe so. Context matters, and is too important to ignore.

Take a look at the following article by Thoughtco for more explanation about German to English cognates and a better explanation of cognates in general!

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