What’s A Cognate?

I was reading aloud to my class the other day and read el chico no era muy inteligente. A few minutes later, a kid asked in English “was he dumb?”

I told him, I said “el chico no era muy inteligente, and the kid said “ya, but is that smart or dumb?”

This is when it occurred to me that he had heard een-tell-ee-hen-tay (the way it sounds in Spanish), but his brain was not doing what my brain would have done (and I had assumed his would): heard the sound, imagined it written out, and then looked for a similarity.

Anyway, what I got from this was two things:

  1. We cannot assume that spoken cognates will be comprehended.  They are probably more likely to be comprehended, but you have no guarantees.
  2. Cognates– in languages where they are easy to see (eg English and French; English and German, and not English and, say, Chinese)– are going to be best used in written form, were the visual system has a better chance of picking up on them than does the auditory.

    However, this may not be true in eg Japanese, where a word like “McDonalds” sounds like “Ma-ku-don-ad”– recogniseable– but has to be written out in an alphabet that will pose challenges for newer learners.

Anyway, lesson of the day: yes, cognates are your friends…but you still have to choose them carefully, and not bring them everywhere.




  1. Hi Chris, MacDonald’s in Japanese is actually makudonarudo. I think there would be a short version too but I can’t remember it. Either one would be yes, unrecognisable to most students. One of my grade 5 classes always asked me to say MacDonald’s. They were amazed how different it sounds.
    Other examples in Japanese are pasukon which came from pa-sonaru konpyu-ta or personal computer and one that I didn’t realise myself (because I studied in Japan before the technology existed) is sumaho which was shortened from suma-to ho-nu or smart phone. You can see from those 2 examples that they often take the first 1 or 2 syllables from each word to make a new word. Interesting, right?

  2. Short version of マクドナルド (makudonaludo) in Kanto is マック(makku) and マクド(makudo) in Kansai.

    The English word “McDonalds” is almost completely incomprehensible to Japanese speakers (Three syllables in English, six in Japanese!).

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