If you are just starting out in language learning, you may be looking for abbreviations to help you learn faster. While it’s true that repetition and immersion and easy practice time are keys to your success in learning a language, there are a few handy tricks you can use if you want to advance from beginner to intermediate level.
Today we have a particularly useful trick that you may have learned long before you even learned a new language. Let’s go back to the last time you saw a movie in a different language. For most of the movie, you’ve likely been watching English subtitles. But do you remember the moments when you recognized a word or a line of dialogue?
You don’t need to have your ears cleaned. You heard that right! Congratulations, you’ve discovered your very own cheat code for language learning: the related word. Let’s break down everything you need to know about this handy shortcut below.
What is a relative?
A related word is a word whose appearance and meaning are the same in two or more languages. For example, the word “bon” in French has the same meaning and appearance as the word “bueno” in Spanish – both mean “good”, based on the Latin root “bene”. We can ascribe this common thread to the larger etymology of language, more precisely to the history of language.
The evolution of language can be difficult to understand, but luckily you don’t need a degree in linguistics to understand related ones. Take the example above. The common root in the word “bene” indicates a common origin between French and Spanish, which means that both belong to the same language family.
Like Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian, French and Spanish evolved from Latin. Together, these five languages make up the Romance languages. Between them, words with common roots (“aqua”, “flor”) or prefixes and suffixes (“contra”, “dys”) will stand out.
English is not part of the Romance language family – it actually belongs to the Germanic language family – but you will find many relatives between English and other languages. The effects of immigration over history, even in the last few decades, have changed the way we speak dramatically. And luckily for us, relatives have linked the language in a way that directly benefits our language learning experience!
Why are relatives helpful?
Build up vocabulary quickly
When learning a language for the first time, it takes time to learn new vocabulary. It’s not about reading it once – it’s about retaining enough meaning to use or recognize the word in conversation. Because related words match the form and meaning of words in your native language, you don’t have to spend time flipping through flashcards. You have come across the word countless times in speech or on paper!
The next steps are up to you. When you are learning a conversational language, you need to be able to pronounce the word with the correct accent. If you take it a step further in language learning, you should spend a little more time keeping the nuances of the related language to yourself, including any spelling variations or written accent marks.
Think about the latest news article you read or the nature show you watched. You’ve likely come across a few unfamiliar words, but that likely didn’t affect your understanding of the subject. How is learning a new word in your native language so smooth?
The answer is simple: the power of inference. You have spent years improving this skill, so it is only natural that you should be able to accurately guess the meaning of an unfamiliar word based on your understanding of the phrases or sentences that surround it. If you’ve had a conversation in a new language, you’ve definitely used this skill!
Recognizing related words can reinforce your superpower by providing an instant anchor and framework of understanding. Try it the next time you talk – you’ll be surprised how quickly your brain can make these connections!
Improve your understanding of your native language
Whether you’re preparing for standardized tests or just want to add to your reading list, learning a language – especially a language related to your native language – can improve your vocabulary. Like the Romance languages, English words have many of the same Latin roots.
There are many examples of this: The prefix “contra” means “against”, “bio” means “from or in relation to life” and “super” means “beyond or beyond”. Each of these has a similar meaning in at least one other language. And the same inference skills we discussed in the previous section apply to recognizing words with these roots! Improving your native vocabulary has never been easier and you can do it right alongside your language study trip.
What are common examples of relatives?
Relatives are relatively easy to identify by their common stem, suffix, or prefix. They differ only slightly in spelling and pronunciation, depending on the language you speak. The fastest and most fascinating way to learn multiple languages at the same time is to identify relatives within a language family.
While cognates are common between two related languages, cognates between all languages within a family are relatively rare – there are approximately 39 words that occur in the five primary Romance languages (McCann, Klein & Stegmann, 2003, p. 30).
We have compiled 10 of these words for you in the table below, with their Latin origin and their English equivalents.
The Romance languages
|fishes||Poison||pesce||pez / pescado||peixe||fish|
English and Spanish relatives
While the table above shows cognates in a language family, there are many cognates in English with unrelated languages that are helpful in learning. Just keep in mind that these cognates are exclusive and may not appear as English cognates in other languages.
The following table provides examples of perfect relatives between English and Spanish.
What is the difference between a related word and a loan word?
While cognates can exist in many languages, you will find fewer cognates between languages as the gap between their origins and alphabets increases. Take English and Chinese – while they are still the two most widely spoken languages in the world, by our definition they have no related similarities (although there are a small handful of similar-sounding words).
So how do we explain the ubiquity of the word “pizza” or “pīsà / bǐsà” in Beijing? Or the similarity between “ping-pong” and “pīngpāng”? These are loanwords or words borrowed from one language and added to another with minor adjustments to spelling or sound. Like related words, they are incredibly useful for building your vocabulary quickly.
However, related words are unique in their ability to make connections between languages within the same family. If you want to learn multiple languages at the same time, related words provide a permanent foundation for understanding. And as we discussed above, relatives can also improve your understanding of your native language.
What should I put attention on?
Beware of the wrong relative – the word that looks similar to a term in your native language but has a completely different meaning! All languages have them, but some are more difficult than others. Try to wrap your head around the dichotomy “yes” and “no” in Polish. It definitely takes getting used to!
While false relatives can lead to very memorable jokes, they can also lead to serious misunderstandings. If you rely on language while traveling, make sure you have a firm grip on any false cognates that might get in your way. Nobody wants a wrong relative to be the root of confusion when it comes to jumping on the right train or reporting symptoms to a doctor.
Cognates are a fantastic shortcut for building your vocabulary quickly and a fun look at how the language has evolved over the years. We love them because they are a perfect tool for learners at any stage and are especially useful for building vocabulary in multiple languages at the same time! They can even help you improve your understanding of your native language.
Identify relatives and practice your inference skills with immersion-based learning from Rosetta Stone. We’ll help you avoid the related pitfalls and perfect your accent to make sure your vocabulary fits seamlessly into any conversation. With over 25 languages to choose from, get started learning and using a language today!