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Cognates: A Language Learner’s Best and Worst Friends Posted by on Jun 16, 2014 in Language Learning

Just starting to learn a new language? Well, what if you I told you that right now, you already know dozens (if not hundreds!) of words in that language? Depending on the language, it’s true!

What is this sorcery I speak of? They’re called cognates, and they are your best friend right now. Cognates are words that have the same etymological origin, aka words that sound the same, or very similar, in both languages. So if you saw the Spanish word “banco” and assumed it means “bank,” you’d be right, because those words are cognates.

In the early stages of language learning, when you’re trying to acquire a mass of basic vocabulary, set aside some time to search for cognates. They’re extremely easy to memorize once you realize they exist, and a quick Google search for “[language]-English cognates” should show you the way.

Native English speakers will find this approach particularly useful for romance languages like French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, but learners of virtually any common language should benefit from learning cognates. More linguistically distant languages, like Japanese or Arabic, still feature many cognates with English because they have borrowed English words. If you study vocabulary related to technology, for example, you’re bound to come across a number of words you recognize. The Japanese word コンピューター (konpyūtā) means, as you might have guessed “computer”. It may not seem like much, but cognates add up, and adding a few dozen new vocabulary items to your arsenal in a matter of hours is a big confidence booster.

But learner beware! Because every rose has its thorn, all that glitters isn’t gold, and sometimes, cognates can be a total pain in the… brain. Why would this magical upper hand on a new language be a bad thing? Because of a little thing we like to call false cognates, or false friends. These are NOT your BFF.

If you saw the Spanish word “embarazada,” you, using your language-y logic, might assume it means “embarrassed.” So, you’d probably be surprised when I told you it actually means “pregnant.” I’m sure you can see how saying how “embarazada” you are could lead to some confusion, and even more embarrassment! (Now the polar bear picture makes sense, right?)

So when you’re setting aside time to learn cognates, spend a good chunk of that brushing up on false cognates. Not only is it a good opportunity to learn some new vocabulary, but it will also weed out any false friends that may be hiding under the cover of darkness to embarrass and confuse you, the innocent language learner.

Have you ever had an embarrassing mix up involving false cognates? Share your stories in the comments!

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About the Author: meaghan

Meaghan is the Marketing Communications Manager at Transparent Language. She speaks enough French and Spanish to survive, and remembers enough Hausa to say "Hello my name is Meaghan, I'm studying Hausa." (But sadly that's it).


  1. Ronnie:

    Yes, beware the “faux amis”!

    I think that armed with that caveat, cognates can be a useful language learning tool in that it’ll be that much less vocabulary to learn. If you encounter an unfamiliar word, a cognate can get in the neighborhood, pregnant polar bears not withstanding! 🙂

  2. Ronnie:

    Sorry, that should be “a cognate can get you in the neighborhood”.

  3. S:

    Brilliant and brillante (it) have different meanings but what happened to my mother-in-law was far more embarrassing…she said an italian verb that means to ski as a French one, because the two languages are very similar. The problem is that in French that verb means to poop. It was incredibly funny fro her French friends, less funny for her I suppose.
    At least, that’s what she told us… I do not know French and luckily it is difficult to mix words between Italian and Swedish 🙂

  4. Simone:

    I had a very embarrassing moment when I was learning English. Preservatives and ‘Präservative” are not the same thing! The German word means condoms!

    • meaghan:

      @Simone I may have made the same mistake myself in French… always good for a laugh! 🙂

  5. Morgan:

    I know this is an old post, but I tell my students this story every year as a cautionary tale for false cognates.

    My 3rd year of college Spanish, we had to tell a story about what we did over the summer break. My friends and I went rock climbing in AZ but we couldn’t find a place to tie our rope into the rock, so we climbed without ROPE.

    In my mind, rope=ropa, right? False. I told the whole class my friends and I (male friends) went climbing without clothes. I got some weird looks and thought they were just impressed. So embarrassing.

  6. Kurt:

    “La caution”. French for “the deposit”.

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