What are cognates?
In linguistics, cognates are words that have a common origin. Since English has its roots in the Germanic language family, there are many English words that are similar in sound and orthography to German words such as heart/Herz, house/Haus, and bear/Bär. Few native German speakers are currently entering U.S. schools so these connections are of less interest than the Romance-based words that make up another important chunk of English vocabulary.
What role do Romance-based cognates have in written English?
Romance-based cognates came into English in two ways: (a) from French words that resulted from the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and (b) from the Latin words that have been used, since the Renaissance, to label scientific products and processes. During the approximately three centuries that the Normans dominated the English court, French was the language of the ruling class—legal, ecclesiastical, fashion, and cuisine. The last three words are examples of French loan words in English and can be contrasted with German-origin words that have similar meanings; ecclesiastical/church, fashion/clothes, and cuisine/food.
As these examples show, Romance words are often the words that are used in written language—the vocabulary of content areas and literature. Romance words are also important in that they often belong to morphological families that share similar meanings (e.g., origin, original, originality, unoriginal). As the complexity of content and text increases, the number of words that belong to Romance-based morphological families increases. Nagy, Anderson, Schommer, Scott, and Stallman (1989) estimated that, in the middle grades and beyond, “more than 60% of the new words that readers encounter have relatively transparent morphological structure—that is, they can be broken down into parts.” (p. 279). Many essential academic process words like compare (comparar), connect, (conectar), process (proceso), and investigate (investigar) are cognates as well as content words.
Like French (and Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Catalan), Spanish is a Romance language that is derived from Latin. This shared heritage means that the forms of many Spanish words are similar to the French-origin words in academic texts. Rose Nash (1999) in NTC’s Dictionary of Spanish Cognates presents 20,000 cognates. (Keep in mind that there is also a NTC Dictionary of False Spanish Cognates—-not as many but it’s important to remember that every apparent similarity isn’t a cognate).
Do Spanish speakers learning to read in English automatically transfer their knowledge of cognates?
Recognizing the connections between academic English and Spanish helps the comprehension of native Spanish speakers who can make the connection. But native Spanish speakers will not necessarily make the links if these relationships are not made explicit. Without such guidance, making these links will be especially difficult for native Spanish speakers do not read in their native language. The pronunciation of most cognates is usually different enough that children may not realize that word that they typically use in conversations (e.g., facil or frío) share meanings with facile or frigid in their schoolbooks. Without guidance in understanding the similarities—and expecting to encounter these similarities in content area texts and literature, Spanish-speaking students may never know that they have a foundational vocabulary on which they can draw.
Will instruction in cognates confuse for students who are native English speakers or speakers of non-Romance languages?
Native English speakers and speakers of non-Romance languages need to become adept with the Romance system of English if they are to become proficient readers and writers of literary and academic English. Information about cognates can be a useful way to communicate this information in that cognates typically are members of rich morphological word families and—in the process—connect to meaningful ideas.
What form should instruction of cognates take for native Spanish speakers and their classmates?
Truly understanding and owning an aspect of language to the point where individuals use that knowledge in reading can take a long time. This observation applies whether that aspect is the existence of Spanish-English cognates or the features of morphological word families.
Becoming facile with cognates and/or in the morphology of Romance-derived words does not necessarily result from a single lesson or even a series of lessons, especially for students who have spent several years in reading instruction where the phonology of the Anglo-Saxon words of English has been the focus.
The first principle, then, is that teachers of students from the middle grades through high school need to view cognate and morphological instruction as an essential and consistent part of their instruction.
At the same time, there are many ways in which teachers can support students in understanding the Romance system of English that can and should be taught to students in the middle grades and beyond. I can’t develop the entire curriculum for this instruction in this column but I can give you some illustrations of how a fundamental stance toward cognates and Romance-derived words can be developed.