Cognates are really interesting words that share meaning and sound the same across languages. Languages that share the same roots also have a large number of cognates because of their shared histories. Spanish and English share a large number of cognates.
We’ve studied cognate recognition in young children. In that study of kindergarten and first grade children, we found that Spanish dominant children and English dominant children scored similarly on a receptive vocabulary test given in English. But, they showed different patterns of response. Those who were Spanish dominant were more likely to know the cognates– even those that were above their age level. English dominant kids tended to know non-cognates. So, consistent with other studies, we found a cognate advantage for Spanish-speaking children learning English as a second language. In a recent study, we were interested in whether bilingual children with DLD would show a similar cognate advantage.
They do. But, why does it matter? One thing the results show is that cognates might be easier to learn for bilinguals– even those with DLD. Cognates are just going to be heard more often in the input across both languages. And kids are able to map these similarities in form and meaning. I think that cognates provide a way to break into a second language if it shares historical roots and kids with DLD may be able to take advantage of this.
So, what did we do? We studied 112 Spanish-English bilingual children between the ages of 5 and 10. Of these, 25 were identified with DLD. We looked at their performance on the Expressive One Word Picture Vocabulary Test– Version 3. We used the 3rd edition because it is the most recent one that is translated. The more recent version in Spanish does not have the same items in the same order so it’s more difficult to compare across languages which was our intent here.
We gave the English and Spanish-bilingual versions. And instead of testing to the ceiling, we went 14 items above the ceiling. This is to account for differences in difficulty across the two tests and knowledge across children’s two languages. We looked to see which items children knew in both languages and which ones they knew in only one language.
We identified all the words that were cognates and looked at their frequencies. This was to decide whether or not we had to control for frequency in our analysis. If cognates occur more often within English or Spanish compared to the noncognates then results could be because of their frequency within the language. But, this was not the case, overall the cognates and noncognates on the EOWPVT are of equal occurrence.
As expected, children with DLD scored lower than those with typical development. But, both children with and without DLD tended to know more of the cognate words compared to the noncognates. It seems that bilingual children pay attention to words that sound the same and have the same meaning across languages and they learn them– maybe sooner than those that don’t. And children with DLD are sensitive to these words. This could mean that second language learning can be facilitated using cognates. And it could be that we can maximize transfer using cognates.