We have a new article published in Early Childhood Services called, Cognates Facilitate Word Recognition in Young Spanish-English Bilinguals’ Test Performance (Perez, Peña, & Bedore, 2010). This is part of a study funded by the NIH called Diagnostic Markers of Language Impairment. In this study, we’re trying to identify the combination of markers that best identify bilingual children who have language impairment. One of the tests that we use in the study is the TOLD-P:3. Early in the study Anita Perez noticed that children who were Spanish dominant seemed to do well on cognate items on the receptive vocabulary subtest of the TOLD which is given only in English. We decided to explore this question further by giving the next group of kids participating on the project all the items from that subtest. That way we could have item data of the same set of items for a group of kiddos.
Some of the children were kindergarten age so we didn’t know if they would be sensitive to cognates. Much of the literature focuses on older children. For kids who can read alphabetic languages (like English and Spanish) that use the same alphabet they can “see” the similarity in the words in addition to hearing the phonological similarity.
We wondered if children could figure out what a word was when it was presented verbally in another language just from hearing it– even if they don’t know the language well. Coincidentally, the TOLD vocabulary items include about 50% cognates. So, we were able to look at children’s response to cognate and noncognate words. Examples of the cognates include those Latin-based words like “velocity,” “floral,” and “infantry.”
Overall, the kindergarten and first grade children who had higher exposure to Spanish than English were more sensitive (that is they responded correctly) to cognate words than noncognates. The kids who had more exposure to English were more sensitive to noncognate words.
What does this mean? Well, if you are working with young children who are in the process of learning English, it may be that cognates are a way to bridge understanding. Even if they are not aware that the words are similar, they seem to make good guesses and assumptions of meaning based on what they do know.