Friday, July 24, 2015

Language Learning: Cognates and False Friends

If you've ever taken foreign language classes before, you've probably learned about cognates, every language learner's best friend. Cognates are words in two different languages that share an etymological origin, and therefore usually contain some of the same sounds, which make them much easier to learn than other new vocabulary.

Most language teachers teach their students that cognates are terms that are identical or nearly identical, such as the English word "air" and the Spanish term aire. However, most linguists would point out that many cognates aren't identical, such as "star" and its Spanish equivalent estrella.

Regardless of how you choose to define the word cognate, knowing which terms in your language are nearly identical to those of the foreign language you're learning can be incredibly useful. If you've always wanted to learn a language but are afraid it will be too difficult, a great place to start is by learning a language that has a large amount of vocabulary in common with your own. For example, many English speakers find learning Romance languages such as Spanish and French easier than learning Chinese or Arabic because so much of the English lexicon is of Latin origin.

That said, one of the most important things a language learner can do is memorize the false cognates and false friends that pertain to the language they're learning. These linguistic tricksters are pairs of words that are identical or nearly identical, which lead people to believe that they have shared origins (in the case of false cognates) or shared meanings (in the case of false friends).

Learn your false cognates and false friends...
or risk the wrath of this lion.
When native English speakers learn a language like Spanish that has so many cognates with their own language, it's only natural that they would occasionally guess a term they don't know by modifying an English word to sound more like a Spanish term. However, this can be a very risky endeavor due to the existence of false friends.

In a best-case scenario, you might get lucky when guessing that atractivo is the Spanish word for "attractive". On the other hand, you could also try to tell a friend that you're "embarrassed" by using the word embarazada in Spanish. Once your friends have stopped laughing or congratulating you depending on your age and gender, you'll have even more reason to be embarrassed, since you've just used a false friend which actually means "pregnant".

If there are any native English speakers out there learning Spanish right now, we have a few more false cognates and false friends you might want to learn. The Spanish term éxito means "success", while a fábrica is a "factory" and sopa is "soup". You also probably shouldn't say you want to eat a pie since that means "foot". Finally, if you need to say the word "preservative" for some reason, don't use preservativo, as it means "condom".

Have you had any embarrassing situations with false cognates and false friends in the past? Let us know in the comments below.