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Learning German - Cognates And Fake Cognates

Aug 17, 2007
It has been often speculated and questioned which foreign language is easier to learn for a native English speaking person or for someone that already masters the English language. Spanish has the advantage of being so widely spread and having influenced the entire world already, however it is a Latin language, hence a bit harder to adjust to. French is also quite popular, but it is also a Romance language (hence a "daughter" of Latin languages) and it's often considered "artistic" enough as to make it harder to learn for an English speaker. German on the other hand, shares the same lexical foundations as English, both being Anglo - Saxon languages, but it is way to often related to the "German long words" which makes learning it a scary process. Still, of the three options German remains the most accessible one because of the large shared set of cognates in the English and German languages.

Cognates are words that look and sound alike in both languages and their meaning and syntactic values are also equal. Sometimes these cognates are identical, but they can often stray off by a few letters and still look and sound similar. The important thing is that they keep their shared meaning and syntactic value, becoming "fake cognates" in any other case. Fake cognates are quite numerous between the English and German languages and they will oftentimes be a hindrance to learning them. So Germans learning English will have an equal amount of trouble with fake cognates (called "falsche freunde" in German) as English speaking persons trying to learn German.

Cognates and fake cognates are sometimes divided into a few categories, as follows:

Category A (words look alike, mean alike and almost sound alike)

Examples of cognates falling in this category include: butter, winter, best, etc.

Category B (words almost look alike and they mean the same thing)

Examples of category B cognates include (German - English): bier - beer, bett - bed, faust - fist, Gott - God, haus - house, maus - mouse, laus - louse, etc.

Category C (words falling in this category are fake cognates, but they can become cognate in a specific context)

This is not a very large category of words, being an intermediary between cognates and fake cognates. Examples could include: see - see (Sea, in German), residenz - residence, etc.

Category D (words that almost look alike but never mean alike)

Words falling into these categories are pure fake cognates. Examples are abundant, such as (German - English - German true meaning): baum - beam - tree, sterben - to starve - to die, wald - weald - forest, warden - weird - to become, schmerz - smart - pain and the list could go on for a while.

Category E (words look identical but their meaning is completely different)

This is a particularization of category D fake cognates in which the two "false friend" words are identical in spelling and pronunciation. Obviously, the list is smaller, examples including (German/English - German true meaning): hall - corridor, slip - underwear, gift - poison, billion - milliard, bald - soon, etc.

You can find a more complex list of cognates and false cognates all over the Internet and it's a good thing to start with them whenever you're trying to start learning German. Cognates will help you a lot in understanding the German language and it will make it feel a lot closer to English than any other language. In addition, knowing fake cognates will also help you in avoiding the traps of using a word in an incorrect context.
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