Cognate Advantage

This article caught my eye today. It’s published in Psych Science and looks at the effects of L2 on L1. Often, studies of sequential bilinguals look at the effects of L1 on L2, but here the investigators examined reading effects of L2 on L1. Specifically, participants were young adults (college students) who were native speakers of Dutch. They spoke (and read) English as a second language. They were asked to read passages in Dutch while investigators tracked their eye movements. What’s really cool about eye-tracking studies is that they offer a “window” into how a person is processing information. If they allocate a lot of attention to something it might be because they need extra time to decode or process. If they spend less time on something it’s likely because they were able to assimilate that information quickly.

Van Assche and colleagues found that these bilinguals spent less time looking at words that were Dutch/English cognates. This result means that learning English to an extent changed the way they processed Dutch. English exposed them to another written language which means they learned more words to spell. But, cognates which have the same meanings and similar spellings across languages was like getting a double dose of that form of a word. It was so familiar through exposure in both languages that these bilinguals needed less time to process those words.

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