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.
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.
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
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.
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’.
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
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.