Better to Be Alone than in Bad Company: Cognate Synonyms Impair Word Learning

The effects of cognate synonymy in L2 word learning are explored. Participants learned the names of well-known concrete concepts in a new fictional language following a picture-word association paradigm. Half of the concepts (set A) had two possible translations in the new language (i.e., both words were synonyms): one was a cognate in participants’ L1 and the other one was not. The other half of the concepts (set B) had only one possible translation in the new language, a non-cognate word. After learning the new words, participants’ memory was tested in a picture-word matching task and a translation recognition task. In line with previous findings, our results clearly indicate that cognates are much easier to learn, as we found that the cognate translation was remembered much better than both its non-cognate synonym and the non-cognate from set B. Our results also seem to suggest that non-cognates without cognate synonyms (set B) are better learned than non-cognates with cognate synonyms (set A). This suggests that, at early stages of L2 acquisition, learning a cognate would produce a poorer acquisition of its non-cognate synonym, as compared to a solely learned non-cognate. These results are discussed in the light of different theories and models of bilingual mental lexicon.

1. Introduction

Almost every individual has been exposed, at least to a certain degree, to a language other than the one she speaks. This is true now more than ever, considering that we live in a globalized world and that we are increasingly exposed to tourism, international media, and several other sources of linguistic diversity. In such a scenario, learning a new language is a challenge that many of us face. The motivations, realities, and modalities for second language learning are various, but irrespective of this, people tend to assume that some languages are easier to learn than others. This conclusion is often drawn simply by comparing the target language with the known one(s). Even though cross-linguistic similarity can arguably be one of the key factors that determine how easy it can be for a learner to acquire a new language, the comparison between two languages is multifactorial, as they can be catalogued from very closely related to very distant, depending on the criteria and the dimension we are focusing on when comparing them, see [1,2]. Intuitively, people normally tend to classify two languages as more similar or more distant based on how much their lexicons look alike, and consequently, equate similarity with ease, being an “easy” language if the word forms of the two languages are similar, and “hard” if they are not.

Attending to the lexicon, the most salient similarity that one can observe between two languages are the words known as cognates. Cognates are words from different languages that considerably overlap in meaning and form [3,4]. For example, the words “important” in English and “importante” in Spanish share all but one letter at the orthographic form level, and they have the exact same meaning, thus being close-to-perfect cognates. Therefore, one can think that, when an English native speaker learning Spanish encounters “importante” for the first time, she will understand and internalize it immediately without much effort. Thus, it is not surprising that cognates hold a special status in psycholinguistics and second language acquisition research, and therefore, have been extensively studied (for a review, see [5,6]).

Cognates have been found to be usually more easily processed in many experimental paradigms, both in production and in comprehension tasks. For example, either identical (e.g., piano-piano) or nearly-identical cognates (e.g., important-importante) are translated faster and with higher accuracy than non-cognates in translation tasks [7,8,9], as well as named faster and with fewer errors in naming tasks [10,11]. Furthermore, cognates are faster recognized than matched non-cognates in lexical decision and word identification tasks, especially in the second language (hereafter, L2, see [12,13,14,15,16]).

The cognate advantage that is found in both production and comprehension tasks has been typically explained by means of the structure and architecture of the bilingual mental lexicon. Following the non-selective tài khoản of lexical access in bilinguals, as defended by models like the Bilingual Interactive Activation model (BIA, [17], and its extensions, the BIA + model, see [18,19], and more recently, the BIA + s model by [20]), when a word is presented, its corresponding translation equivalent in the other language is activated too, especially when the two words share the orthographic structure [21]. Thus, when a cognate is encountered by a bilingual speaker, similar orthographic representations are activated in both languages, spreading activation to the common semantic representation, as it is widely accepted that the semantic system is shared between the two languages of a bilingual speaker [17,19,22,23,24,25,26,27]. This semantic activation, in turn, makes the reading, translation, learning, or recognition of the cognate word faster as compared to non-cognates via top-down modulation [19]. In production tasks, the process is even more straightforward. The initial activation at the semantic level of an element that is to be named automatically coactivates its corresponding translation equivalents, and in this way, cognate translations will activate similar or even the same phonological units in both languages, making it easier to utter cognates than non-cognates [28,29].

As a consequence of the above-mentioned facilitation effects and the stronger activation processes that cognates undergo, several studies have demonstrated that cognates are commonly faster retrieved from memory and less likely to be forgotten than non-cognates. Hence, cognates are easier to learn than non-cognates ([30,31]; for an overview, see [32,33]). Obviously, this has very important implications for any L2 learning scenario and any word learning method or paradigm in general. For example, the meaning of unknown cognate words can be successfully inferred by native speakers or learners after explicit instruction in word inferencing strategies [34], and relying on the L1 of English language learners has been shown to be a successful way to develop vocabulary knowledge in English, if both languages share cognates [35]. The role of the cognates is even more relevant in vocabulary learning at early stages of the language learning process since cognates have been found to be the guiding word types at the lowest levels of language competence [5]. Usually, vocabulary learning at these stages is deeply rooted in paired-associate learning, presenting the learners with pairings of their native-language words and their foreign-language translation equivalents (e.g., table-mesa for an English-Spanish combination). This way, an already known concept (i.e., a concept that the speaker can name in her mother tongue or L1) acquires a new lexical label in the L2 by means of its L1 counterpart (namely, an L1-mediation process; see [24]). Admittedly, the L1-L2 translation equivalent mapping is not the only instruction way, but it is still widely used at different levels of language teaching. Other methods usually involve picture-association methods, where the L2 word is presented together with a picture of the concept it represents [36,37], which has been shown to produce a superior recall of the learned L2 words as compared to a similar situation with L1-L2 word pairs [38]. Nonetheless, and irrespective of the teaching method employed, it has been repeatedly shown that cognates are easier to learn than non-cognates in adults [30,31,33] and children [39], even if the learners are not intentionally made aware of the cross-linguistic similarity [40].

As we become experts in the second language and move forward in the language learning process, we progressively encounter and have access to more words in that language. Once a new word is learned and stored in the bilingual mental lexicon, this item develops and strengthens connections within the system at semantic, lexical, and sub-lexical levels, both within and between languages [21,28,41]. Interestingly, the representations that already exist in the mental lexicon might determine the ease with which a new item can be learned and incorporated. For example, in a study exploring the effects of synonymy, Webb [42] discovered that during L2 word learning, words with already known synonyms (e.g., “locomotive”, whose high-frequency synonym “engine” was already known by participants) were easier to learn than words without a known synonym (e.g., “pawn”, “reef”, or “spear”). Considering that synonyms—words belonging to the same language that differ in form but highly overlap in meaning—have an impact on word learning, and that cognates—words belonging to different languages but that overlap in form and meaning—are easier to learn, in the current study, we asked whether cognate synonyms would have a differential effect in word learning as compared to other types of words. Concretely, we posed the question of whether L2 non-cognate words with a cognate synonym are learned differently from L2 non-cognate words with no synonyms at all. As a way of illustration, and imagining a Spanish native speaker learning English, we were interested in knowing if she would learn differently “couch” than “mirror”, considering that the first word has “sofa” as a synonym, which has a cognate translation equivalent in Spanish (“sofá”).

To this end, Primary and Secondary school students learned translations of Basque concrete nouns in a new fictional alien language. Concrete nouns were used as they are better learned than abstract nouns [36,43,44]. The translations were associated with visually presented pictures in order to boost the connections between the semantic system and the new lexical items [45]. Pseudo-words (i.e., words belonging to a fictional foreign language) rather than real words from a real foreign language were used to rule out any possible influence of pre-existing knowledge of the experimental materials. Participants learned different sets of cognate pseudo-words (similar to the word in participants’ L1, Basque) and non-cognate pseudo-words (with no connection to participants’ L1, Basque). Critically, some of the non-cognate and cognate pseudo-words were semantically related in pairs, as each one of the cognate pseudo-words had a synonym in the non-cognate set. In contrast, other non-cognate pseudo-words had no synonyms (see Materials and Procedure for further details). Thus, we had three kinds of pseudo-words: cognates, non-cognates with a cognate synonym, and non-cognates without a synonym. These would correspond to the words “sofa”, “couch” and “mirror” in the above-mentioned example. We had different predictions for each one of the types of items. First of all, we predicted that cognates would be learned better than the rest of the word types [18,39,46]. However, more importantly, we expected that the cognate facilitation effect would drag all the attention to the cognate synonym, harming the learning of its non-cognate synonym. In other words, the easiness of learning “sofa” would make it preferable for learning, and “couch” would become less salient and harder to learn. On the other hand, non-cognates without a cognate synonym would not suffer from this cognate attraction effect, and “mirror” would be learned better than “couch”, as “sofa” is dragging the attention from “couch” but nothing is prevailing over “mirror”.