By Carla Fernandez and Kinsey Bice
One of the most striking characteristics of languages throughout the world is that they often contain words that look similar, but may or may not mean the same thing. For example, if you’ve heard or read the word telephone in Spanish (teléfono), then you know it looks and sounds a lot like it does in English. Telephone and words like it are called cognates: They share similar form and meaning across languages. But not all words that look and sound the same also share a meaning. For example, the word pan means bread in Spanish and a cooking utensil in English. Words that share similar form but have different meanings across languages are called false friends. Researchers have made crucial use of cognates like telephone and false friends like pan in order to understand how bilinguals produce and understand language.
Research has shown that bilinguals reliably recognize cognates faster than non-cognate words (Van Hell & Tanner, 2012). This suggests that both of a bilingual’s languages are always “on” or activated, even when they are only using one. Researchers hypothesize that this dual activation allows the bilingual mind to recognize and process the word more quickly. Interestingly, a different pattern is found with false friends. When a Spanish-English bilingual sees a word like pan, conflicting information about its meaning is activated. Is it bread, or a tool for cooking? In the face of such conflicting information, the processing of these words seems to slow down. What’s remarkable about this is that, in conjunction with the cognate effect, it demonstrates quite clearly that when bilinguals are processing words, both of their languages are activated simultaneously.
Advantages of dual language activation in bilinguals have also been found in domains beyond word recognition, including memory retrieval. One memory retrieval task provides a category such as ‘animals’, and asks bilinguals to name items belonging to that category. Research has demonstrated that in performing this task, bilinguals reliably name more cognates than non-cognate words. It seems that when a word is accessible in both of a bilingual’s languages, it becomes easier to retrieve the word from memory (Blumenfeld, Bobb, & Marian, 2016; Baus, Costa, & Carreiras, 2013).
Another interesting research finding is that bilinguals of all ages can benefit from cognates. Studies comparing child and adult bilinguals have found that both groups are faster to understand and produce cognates as compared with non-cognates (Poarch & van Hell, 2012). What this shows is that the extent to which we benefit from cognates depends on the extent of our knowledge of the language, and not necessarily how old we are.
For older and younger bilinguals alike, cognates and false friends provide an important window into our understanding of language processing in bilinguals. They serve as a central research tool in examining how bilinguals manage their two languages simultaneously. Whether you say “potato” or “patata”, we hope you’ll agree that research on cognates provides us all with some tasty food for thought!
Baus, C., Costa, A., & Carreiras, M. (2013). On the effects of second language immersion on first language production. Acta Psychologica, 142(3), 402-409.
Blumenfeld, H. K., Bobb, S. C., & Marian, V. (2016). The role of language proficiency, cognate status and word frequency in the assessment of Spanish–English bilinguals’ verbal fluency. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 18(2), 190-201.
Poarch, G. J., & Van Hell, J. G. (2012). Cross-language activation in children’s speech production: Evidence from second language learners, bilinguals, and trilinguals. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 111(3), 419-438.
Van Hell, J. G., & Tanner, D. (2012). Second language proficiency and cross‐language lexical activation. Language Learning, 62(2), 148-171.