Sharing the same origin or etymology, cognates are words that are easily recognized across languages with common roots. Studying cognates is a great way to improve vocabulary and fluency. It’s a lot of fun too, albeit with pitfalls and advantages:
- some sound the same but have different meanings (those famous false friends or faux amis such as library and librairie);
- some sound completely foreign until you see the written version. That is, pronunciation is completely different;
- Looking for patterns, such as prefixes and suffixes specific to each language, simplifies comprehension;
- despite similar meanings, usage may be quite different.
There are several ways to make use of this marvelous connection between certain langage groups :
- Learn a few cognates at a time. There are lists (see links below), go ahead and browse but unless you are a full-time student, you won’t want to learn these by heart.
- Notice word endings and patterns. In the example attention vs attention vs atención, we see that -tion is a shared ending in English and French while Spanish has transformed this into -ción, dropping the double letters (tt). Keep your eyes and ears tuned to such patterns to better be aware of potential cognates.
- Learn to differentiate the pronunciation. French /sion/ and English /ʃ(ə)n/ or /Shun/
- Learn cognates with their non-cognate synonym(s). This particularly applies to learners and speakers of English which has words from a many sources. For example:
- Mesdames, Messieurs, votre attention s’il vous plaît–> Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. (cognate)
- Attention! La voiture!! –> Watch out! The car! (non-cognate)
- Fais attention, le trottoir est glissant –> Be careful, the sidewalk/pavement is slippery. (sidewalk: non-cognate compound noun + pavement: looks like a cognate but isn’t; derived from old French)
First focus on similarities and differences at the most basic level. Look up be careful, watch out and attention to get a good grasp of basic meaning. Keep it simple.
Then move on to deeper meaning, usage and nuance. Compare example sentences. Take your time to master one word for the simple reason that one word will lead you to many more!
To pursue with attention, care and watch out:
- The father focused his attention on the baby –> Le père a porté son attention sur le bébé
- He was careful with the baby → Il a fait attention avec le bébé
- He took good care of the baby → Il a bien pris soins du bébé.
- The father attended to the baby → Le père s’est occupé du bébé.(In English, attention, attend and attentive share the same etymology)
- What an attentive father! → Quel père attentif / attentionné !
- Be careful with the baby! → Sois prudent / fais attention avec le bébé.
- Watch out for the baby! –> Attention (pour) le bébé!
For truly effective learning, mastering usage and nuance must be counterbalanced with practical considerations. This is where you, as a learner focus on your own needs :
Business: careful monitoring
Social health: attentive caregivers
General : attend to…, s’occuper de…, être prudent...
Pour revenir à nos moutons (to get back to the subject), cognates are useful. Beginners gain a sizable vocabulary base, intermediate-level students study usage while advanced-level students will fine-tune usage and further expand their vocabulary base as required. Careful studying and listening will help you avoid stilted or incorrect usage.
However…beware of using too many cognates in English, especially in American contexts where shorter and to the point is revered.