Saturday science subject: Cognizing cognates

— 4:00 PM on January 23, 2010

Learning a second language in high school or before can have many obvious advantages, from making new friends to opening up new job prospects. As Scientific American reports, a study carried out by psychologist Eva Van Assche and her colleagues at the University of Ghent in Belgium now suggests knowing a second language can also make you a faster reader.

The team took 45 native Dutch speakers who had learned English at 14 or 15 and recorded their reading speed—with surprising results, as Scientific American explains:

The researchers asked the participants to read a collection of Dutch sentences, some of which included cognates—words that look similar and have equivalent meanings in both languages . . . They also read other sentences containing only noncognate words in Dutch.

Van Assche and her colleagues recorded the participants' eye move­ments as they read. They found that the subjects spent, on average, eight fewer milliseconds gazing at cognate words than control words, which suggests that their brains processed the dual-language words more quickly than words found only in their native language.

Too bad the story doesn't really go into the mechanism behind that response. Perhaps, when deciphering a word in one language, knowing a similar-looking word in another language adds an extra layer of certainty that speeds up the deciphering process?

In any case, Van Assche and her colleagues will pursue their research to see whether bilingual people behave differently when it comes to spoken language, too. Scientific American says prior studies have shown bilingual kids do a better job of solving problems that "involve misleading cues."

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