Jump-start German

If you know English, you can get a quick start at learning German by learning about cognates. “Cognates” means “related,” while “cognition” means “perception.” When a word of a 2nd language makes you think of a word that you already know in another language, then you will have a relational perception of the two words. You might even think that the two words have the same meaning. In many cases, you would be correct.

Full Cognates

Words like “Hand, Arm, Finger” will make you think immediately of their English cognates. These words are called full cognates because they have the same meanings and are spelled exactly alike in two different languages.

Partial Cognates

Words which share meaning, but differ somewhat in spelling are called partial cognates. Partial cognates are usually easy to spot, because they often sound the same when spoken. “Zirkus” and “Zentrum,” often ring a bell with English speakers who can hear the words “circus” and “center” when they are pronounced.

Shared Heritage

The main reason for the abundance of cognates between German and English is the common heritage of the two languages. They are like cousins born to mutual grandparents. The oldest words of both languages are the words they have in common. Along with actual relatives, such as “Mutter, Vater, Bruder, Schwester, Onkel,” and “Tante," concrete concepts like “Milch, Wasser, Gold, Silber, Land,” and “Licht” are close enough in their spelling and pronunciation to be perceived as their English cognate cousins.

Stretching Perception

The last two examples mentioned above, “Land” and “Licht” each stretch the perceptual relationship in different directions. With “Land” the spelling is identical, but the meaning isn’t a full one-to-one relationship. In German Land means “country” and “nation” more often than “earth” or “soil” as it frequently does in English. “Licht” stretches the relationship across spelling lines, but a single, predictable change will immediately bring the cognate relationship ‘to light’.

False Friends

Cognates, whether full or partial, don’t guarantee equally-shared meanings with their counterparts. Besides stretching perceptions across the two dimensions of spelling and meaning, language learners have to contend with pesky false friends. These are words which look and/or sound exactly like an English word, yet they have no real relationship, or they have evolved to a distinctly different usage. If some tells you to come “bald” in German, they aren’t cursing you with hair-loss, they are inviting you to some “soon.” German speakers are relieved to learn there is no “poison” in a “Gift” shop. With modern communication speed, new concepts can be described by borrowing words from relatives. The English word “handy” serves as the name of the “cell phone” in German, and “single” doesn’t mean “available” if you’re involved in a relationship. As an American expression, the German “über” has grown way ‘over’ to a cultural ‘extreme.’

Cognate Recognition

False friends aside, learning cognates can jump start your efforts at learning German by increasing your “guess power” for new words and by strengthening the mental associations which help you remember their meanings. Since English and German share a heritage, there are clear traces of their relationship, which can greatly aid in cognate recognition for partial cognates. Practicing with a letter relationship key can help you to acquire cognate recognition skills. Try to figure out the English cognates for the 76 German words accompanying the letter relationship key. First, work with the consonants in the order that they appear, then try changing the vowels, and finally, consider the different possible endings.

L. Caplan-Carbin, Ph.d.