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:
- We cannot assume that spoken cognates will be comprehended. They are probably more likely to be comprehended, but you have no guarantees.
- 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.