September 12

Learning to Cognate in Spanish: It’s Not Just about Learning Words, It’s about Learning to Think


When I wrote about the book My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor earlier in the week, I didn’t have quite enough room to talk about all the things from the book that stood out to me while reading. Hence, installment number two. I think (and hope) that you, dear reader, will find it interesting, and that it’s more than me satisfying my desire to express all of the thoughts I had while reading a great book.

output in Spanish


One line from the book that has stuck with me is this: “My ability to cognate was erroneously assessed by how quickly I could recall information, rather than by how my mind strategized to recover the information it held.” Not only did I appreciate the insight into the frustration a stroke victim might experience, the use of the word “cognate” as a verb was novel to me. As a language learner and language teacher, I am used to “cognate” meaning words with similar linguistic roots that may (or may not) have the same meaning in different languages. In this context she is using cognate to mean her ability to process incoming information and produce output, the verb form of the noun “cognition”.

I love that there is always something new to learn about language and that the more I explore it — both my native and my acquired tongues — the more I discover and enjoy. As an amateur linguist, I am curious to know the etymological connection between these uses of cognate. What roots do these two ideas share? I can understand how they would be related, but the language lover in me would love to know the exact history of the evolution of that combination of sounds (spoken language) and that combination of written marks (written language) being associated with those ideas. I also love the meta layer of using language to think about language. Anyone else? Just me? OK cool.

This line also made me think about learning to cognate in Spanish. While the first thing that pops into my head when I hear that phrase is conjugating verbs (the ever present task, as anyone who took a foreign language class in high school knows, that is sometimes the only thing that sticks with people after those classes — great for passing a test, not always so great for actually communicating with other people), it also makes me think about the importance of being able to think in your target language. Acquiring a new language is not just about learning isolated words and phrases and verbs. It’s about training your mind to operate in a new way. It’s about integrating all the things you learn into a synthesized mind that is more than the sum of its parts.

It takes a while to get to that point, and along the way there will be lots of ups and downs. Like Jill, the neuroanatomist who had a massive stroke, you will have times where you will feel like you can’t express what you know. The knowledge is in there, but you can’t quite get it out and show what you know. Don’t give up! It may take a while for your brain to be able to produce output in Spanish, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t learning. Jill found alternate ways (like music) to express herself during her recovery, and this was key for her confidence and motivation. Keep exposing yourself to authentic language, and you will make progress.

If you want to absorb and produce Spanish and improve your fluency, Pars Omni Spanish Voices is a great way to do just that. You can download it for free and start exploring right now!


language acquisition, language learning, learning Spanish, metacognition

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