Chapter 15

Wikis > Chapter 15

The Influence of Cognates on Second Language Acquisition


     Ever encountered a similar looking word in another language that you have come across on a sign or heard someone foreign speaking it ? Most probably a similar word in your own language came to mind and more often than not, that word is likely to have the same meaning as the word that you are thinking of. Such similar word pairs are called cognates.

However, it is as easy to be misled by the similarities shared between words due to their similar orthography and pronunciation. It is not always the case that what words in two languages mean the same, even though the words in the respective languages are spelled similarly. Such misleading word pairs are called false cognates, or more commonly known as false friends.

      Now that you have an idea of what cognates are, how does it come into play in second language acquisition ? Hence, it will be examined as to how cognates could positively influence, or otherwise, one’s learning process of a second or foreign language. Also, how cognates may even have real-world implications beyond just merely picking up another language.

What Are Cognates ?

     Cognates refer to words that are derived from the same source as another language (Crystal, 2011). An example is the English word ‘astrology’ which is similar to the Spanish equivalent ‘astrología’. These cognates are derived from the same Greek root ‘astir’, which means ‘star’. As such, Spanish and English has maintained the original semantics from the ancient root and are relatively similar in orthography, phonology and semantics.

     Due to being derived from the same parent language, though not always the case, cognates are essentially word pairs in two languages that share similar orthography, semantics and phonology. An example would be cognates between English and French, both languages hailing from the Indo-European language family. The two have the same word for ‘road, street’, which is ‘avenue’. The English word and its French counterpart are identical in semantic and orthography, with only a slight difference in the pronunciation. As French had in the past influenced the formation of the Modern English we know today, it is not unusual to encounter such cognates, also known as “vrais amis”, literally meaning ‘true friends’ or true cognates.

     However, words that resemble each other between languages do not necessarily have to be cognate pairs. They can be false cognates, or ‘false friends’, whereby two words appear to be similar but are actually semantically unrelated. For example, the Spanish word ‘pie’ is identical to the English word ‘pie’, but the Spanish word means ‘foot’ while in English, it means ‘a kind of pastry’. Hence, a L1 Spanish learner of English, and vice versa, may be misled into thinking that the L2 word that is similar to a word in their native language may have similar meaning and erroneously use the L2 false cognate. Hence, second language learners need to be conscious of the presence of false cognates that may interfere with their acquisition of L2 vocabulary.

Positive Influence of Cognates

Faster Recognition of Cognates due to Shared Form & Meaning

     Midgley,  Holcomb & Grainger (2011) highlighted the positive impacts of cognates observed in the second language learning of French by English L1 speakers. The researchers in this study used electrophysiological measures that measured electrical responses of parts of the brain to observe the effects of cognates on the brain when it processes such cognates in L1 and L2. Generally, when a small amplitude or change is observed, it would suggest that a new word is familiar or easily recognizable and therefore, cognitively easier and faster to process. Hence, as cognates in L2 are similar to those already known in L1, they would be familiar and hypothetically be easier to process its associated meaning.

     From the researchers’ observations of English native speakers learning French words via cognates and non-cognates had smaller amplitude, meaning faster reaction time, when the test subjects were asked to produce the French cognate after a practice trial, as opposed to producing a non-cognate. Hence, it was deduced that due to the shared orthographic form and meaning between the cognates in the test stimuli, it was much easier to process and retain the new vocabulary. The similar phonology, how they sound when spoken, was noted to have aided the recognition and memory retention of cognates. One would also be able to retrieve a cognate much faster. Hence, using cognates may aid  in reading and understanding L2 vocabulary.

Faster Retrieval of Cognates due to Shared Conceptual Representation

     Continuing beyond the initial recognition of words aforementioned, learning new vocabulary in a second language involves the retention of the words in one’s memory. However, with the cognate effect, memorizing cognates is much more efficient and productive as they share similarities to existing conceptual representations in your memory. Having learned words in the first language through trial and error, you form images in your memory and those words are tagged onto their respective images. As such, they form a conceptual representation in your memory capacity.

     It was found in a study by Lotto & De Groot (1998)  that Dutch learners of Italian had faster oral production of cognates in L2 when shown both word and pictorial stimuli in L1, as opposed to non-cognates. This suggested that there were shorter retrieval times for cognates. The researchers suggested that, due to having already formed concepts about the cognates in the L2, it was easier to retain the new Italian cognates by adding new information to an existing mental entry, which is a relatively undemanding cognitive process. Hence, when shown an image or word in the L1, they mental representation is triggered and easily accessed to retrieve the correct corresponding word in the L2. Hence, memorizing cognates would  be a much easier cognitive task in a new language.

Negative Influence of Cognates

As much as cognates have positive influences towards L2 learning, cognates also poses problems and hindrance in L2 learning. Cognates could cause problems to L2 learning due to the existence of false friends. False friends are words in two different languages that share orthographic and phonological elements, causing the two to appear similar but in most cases are not related semantically (Varela, 2010). There are two types of false friends.

Firstly, there is the ‘Total False Friends’ which are words that occur in instances where there is a no semantic difference between the L1 and L2 despite the words looking or sounding the same. An example can be found in Spanish and English, ‘abogado’ and ‘avocado’. Despite only having variation in one phoneme, they do not have any shared meaning. Abogado in Spanish means ‘attorney’ whereas avocado in English means ‘a type of fruit’.

Apart from total false friends, ‘Partial False Friends’ also exists. Partial False Friends occurs when there is a certain semantic overlap between the cognates. This simply means that they are two similar words that have at least one shared and one different meaning. An example of partial false friends in Spanish is the word ‘circulation’ or ‘circulación’. In both English and Spanish, the mentioned word means ‘pumping of the heart and blood throughout the body’. However, the words also carry other senses in the two languages. In English, it could also mean the ‘distribution of printed materials’ whereas in Spanish, it could also mean ‘traffic’. Hence, there is an obvious difference in meanings here though there is a shared meaning.

Semantic Transfers in False Friends

The existence of cognates, particularly false friends calls for a major concern as it could get really problematic in terms of semantic, syntactic and phonological transfers. The first issue with false friends is semantic transfer. L2 learners are often observed to use words or terms found in their L1 as an equivalent for usage in L2. This imposes a problem if words pairs are false cognates as it may result in miscommunication.

In a corpus-based approach to the analysis of false friends in the interlanguage of Spanish students, this very issue was observed to be a common trend. The study was based on two learner corpora; Santiago University Learner of English Corpus (SULEC) and International Corpus of Learner English (ICLE). An apparent trend of misusing of terms were found and one of these terms is the word ‘actual’. ‘Actual’ possesses the meaning of ‘real’ in English and ‘current’ in Spanish. Spanish students were found to be using the Spanish sense of actual in their sentence construction in English. This can be seen in the following examples where the usage of the word ‘actual’ is wrong.

(a) … our actual government is trying to modify the law to make homosexual marriage possible. (SULEC-WP-IL-DOCUMENT 671)

(b) Actual society is extremely violent, television has undoubtedly influenced in this increase of violence. <ICLE-SP-UCM-0005.5>

The sense that was relayed in both sentences above is ‘the real government’. However, the intended sense is ‘the current government’. While the differences and faults are subtle, the effect of miscommunication of meaning are real and thus needs to be addressed. The mistake committed in the above instances was found to be common in a large size of Spanish-English false friends lexicon. It is indeed very common for Spanish students to use the interlanguage terms as translations of each other despite of the variation in senses.

Phonological Transfers in False Friends


Apart from negative semantic transfers, L2 learners are also found to have problems with phonological transfers between the two languages. While false friends bear similar semantic meanings, they too share orthographic or phonological elements. Due to the similarity in orthography or spellings, L2 learners are often found to be confused with the differences in pronunciation. More often than not, they are seen to be mispronouncing words in their L2 as they rely on their knowledge of the L1 pronunciations to articulate the terms in L2. For example, in English, “air” is pronounced as /ɛː/ and in contrast, “air” in Malay is pronounced as /aɛ/. Both words look the same but do not share semantic concepts. An L1 English speaker may pronounce “air” in Malay as in the English phonological manner.


Acquiring an L2 seems to be causing a lot of problems for the learner as well as his surroundings. Does this means that one should not learn more than one language? Absolutely not. There are a number of solutions that could tackle the issue of learning false friends and getting confused over their usage or pronunciation. Teachers of L2 languages should inform the learners of the existence of false friends and present false friends of the two languages as soon as possible so that the student can internalise the semantic difference of the lexical items. Audio visual materials can also be used concurrently to further facilitate learning and teaching. Visuals help a great deal in both learning and teaching as picture representations are clear and leave no room for confusions.

Additionally, to counter phonological contention, in both the L1 and L2 languages, audio clips can be used to allow the students to learn the two pronunciation in parallel such that they will be able to better internalize the phonological properties of the two terms hence enabling them to avoid confusion in articulating the words. With these solutions in place, the full benefits that cognates can provide can be derived!

Real World Implications

So how does knowledge of  the existence of cognates affect us? Well, it does have practical pedagogical and medical implications!

Pedagogically, L2 or foreign language teachers can group learners according to L1s that have cognate counterparts in the specific L2 that they are learning. This way, learners with languages with cognate pairs can learn at a faster pace. At the same time, this advantage for some would not affect those with language backgrounds that have no cognate pairs to the new language (L1 Chinese, L2 English).

Medically, knowledge of cognates can be used for treatment of aphasia (Kohnert, 2004). Aphasia: a result of brain damage, causing impairment in one’s ability to decode or encode conventional linguistic elements for the purposes of speaking, listening, reading or writing. Bilinguals with aphasia would usually face varying degrees of deficit in their repertoire of languages. Thus, re-learning of words in both languages are often needed and in some instances, one language would need more re-learning than the other. Sadly, most current cases of intervention involve a mismatch in patient-clinician language repertoires (Wallace, 1997)! Patients are treated as monolinguals and plans are made for monolingual intervention, ignoring the fundamental nature of bilinguals. Recent research found that cross-linguistic relationship between word forms (cognate pairs) can be exploited in bilingual aphasia treatment. The interconnections may be used to our advantage in developing intervention programs designed to facilitate functional gains in both languages of the bilingual individual with aphasia, especially when one language is more affected than the other!

Moving Forward

In looking forward, we can expand research on the positive impacts of cognates on treatments for aphasic bilingual patients and the specific approaches that can be used as currently, there is a lack of substantial research in this area.

Additionally, we can also study the cognate effect on children who are starting to learn a L2 in primary school. It is questionable whether their cognitive abilities are developed enough to allow them to take advantage of the cognate-effect like adults can.


In sum, cognates can bring positive benefits if we take caution in using it. At the same time, it can be the saving point for those with sudden language loss and needs to learn language again as in the case of aphasia!


Chen, H.-C. (1990). Lexical processing in a non-native language: Effects of language proficiency and learning strategy. Memory and Cognition, 18, 279–288.

Crystal, D. (2011). Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (Sixth Edition) . UK: Blackwell Publishings.

Kohnert, K. (2004). Cognitive and cognate-based treatments for bilingual aphasia. Brain and Language, (91) 294–302.

Lotto, L., & De Groot, A. (1998). Effects of learning method and word type on acquiring vocabulary in an unfamiliar language. Language learning, 48(1), 31-69.

Midgley, K. J., Holcomb, P. J., & Grainger, J. (2011). Effects of cognate status on word comprehension in second language learners: An ERP investigation.Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23(7), 1634-1647.

Varela, M. L. R. (2010). The problem of false friends in learner language: Evidence from two learner corpora. In I. M. Fandiño, B.  C. García, I. La. Martín  & P. L. Sandino (Eds.), Language Windowing through Corpora. Visualización del lenguaje a través de corpus (pp. 717-729). Coruña: Universidad da Coruña.

Wallace, G. L. (1997). Multicultural neurogenics: A resource for speech-language pathologists. Communication Skill Builders.