This newsletter’s featured member is Dr. Janet Van Hell, a Professor of Psychology and Linguistics and Co-Director of the Center for Language Science. Janet and her Bilingualism and Language Development (BiLD) Lab are a constant presence at Bilingualism Matters outreach events, and she also happens to be an expert on cognates. Here’s what Janet had to say about how she uses cognates in her research:
Since learning foreign languages at secondary school, cognates (such as cat, kat, Katze, chat) have been my life-long friends. Their overlap in spelling, pronunciation, and meaning across different languages made learning foreign language words much easier. As a language scientist, my love for cognates grew even stronger, as they form an ideal testing ground for studying fascinating questions about bilingual language processing.
Psycholinguists like myself exploit cognates’ overlap in spelling, pronunciation and meaning to study how these codes interact across languages in the bilingual mind and brain. We know, for example, that highly proficient bilinguals are faster to recognize and produce cognates than non-cognates, even when they are using only one language. These effects are taken to indicate that a bilingual’s two languages are always active and that the bilingual memory system is fundamentally permeable across language boundaries.
Psycholinguistic research also has implications for the classroom. Language instructors often use cognates to help vocabulary learning in their students. One way you can try this at home is through cool applications like the Cognate Highlighter Browser, a free plugin to Google Chrome that automatically highlights all English words understandable to Spanish speakers. Cognates are fun friends!