How strange would it be if an English speaker in a French market said they wanted their food ”sans préservatives”. Whereas this makes sense in English, in French “sans preservatives” means without condoms. It’s not anybody’s fault! It is a cognate!

A cognate is a “false friend” or a word that sounds like it has a similar etymological origin to a word in a different language, but actually has a completely different meaning. Cognates are trickier as they can fool learners, especially those who speak languages that share similar features.

How do you avoid embarrassing yourself in a conversation? There are a few ways of dealing with situations like these: You can either go ahead and experiment with different words in the target language or you can try to focus on using words you have studied in advance. In the first case, there are sure to be mistakes, but don’t worry! Afterall, you are a foreigner and, therefore, you are forgiven if you make a mistake (it will also be a funny story to tell your friends in the future! 😉). In the second case, you can use cognates to help you learn a new language and associate them to words in your language to retain the meaning.

Cognates are not something we should be afraid of. On the contrary, we should use them as a bridge to learn a foreign language and memorize additional bits of information without the fear of making mistakes.