Is there an existing method, (published in a book/in an article), for teaching languages with cognates and/or etymology?

I'm primarily interested in Indo-European family, but any of such teaching method interests me.

  • 3
    It's not really clear what you're referring to, and also questions like this should be asked at Language Learning. And from my experience you would want to be extremely careful using cognates for teaching language because of the etymology fallacy. Just because words are cognate doesn't mean they have similar meanings now.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Dec 28, 2019 at 21:55
  • grammar is much more important for language learning. the comparative might be helpful at that, anyway. but it's trivially not recommendable, because now you have to learn many more languages, just to learn one. unless you go for entertainment value instead of scientific rigor. or if you are actually trying to teach all the languages.
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 4:10
  • @Curiousdannii In the language learning site, they won't make linguist answers. Linguist are supposed to be one who develop new language teaching methods. I don't understand how language method developing is not a linguist thing and a part of the linguist job. The other SE is for learners, not people who analyze the language (i.e linguists)
    – Quidam
    Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 11:10
  • 1
    " careful using cognates for teaching language because of the etymology fallacy. Just because words are cognate doesn't mean they have similar meanings now." it's all the interest of this method. If you use it, you realize why there are false friends, and what is their link (because they have always an etymology link)
    – Quidam
    Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 11:11
  • @Quidam How do you know you won't get satisfying answers at the Language Learning site?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 11:39

2 Answers 2


This is probably a question for Language Learning SE, but I think it does have some interesting connections with linguistics, so here you go.

TL;DR what you're asking about used to be the norm, has disappeared, and is now making a comeback but not as a primary method.

Second-language acquistion

If you want a review of language methodologies that involve comparison to a familiar language, I recommend Hall & Cook, 2012: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444812000067

The short version is that until about a century ago, the Grammar-Translation method dominated. This method combined teaching explicitly grammatical knowledge with translation exercises. As you can imagine, a good knowledge of cognates and etymology is a great aid in translation — particularly if you're doing a lot of rough translation for the sake of practice, because it allows you get past many unfamiliar words.

Other methods that were more socially oriented began to supplant GT, culminating in the immersion method spearheaded in Canada in the '60s and '70s. These were guided first by the communicative approach ("I can get my message across"), then by the action-oriented approach ("I can do various tasks in the language"). Immersion is generally unfriendly to both pillars of Grammar-Translation: rather than explicit grammar, it aims for functional grammar osmosed through context and action, much like children born or transplanted into a linguistic community learn; and rather than comparing languages, it focuses on the target language, since every minute of input and output counts when the main means of learning a language is actively using it.

However, in the last two decades researchers have begun to wonder and investigate whether this method neglects the possible benefits of comparison. The core argument is essentially what you're asking about: what is familiar can elucidate what is unfamiliar. (Marzano et al., 2000 suggest this is a general principle in teaching, not just teaching languages.) Other arguments run along psycholinguistic lines — does the brain really compartmentalize each language, or does it build a unified linguistic system?; pedagogical lines — can the first language help regulation, organization, etc.?; practical lines — are we deluding ourselves that we can actually stop students thinking in their first language?; cultural lines — does the prohibition of the first language result in shame and inhibition?; and more.

As a result, some researchers and teachers advocate methods that involve more strategic use of the first language, including direct comparison of structures. However, I doubt there is any method that exclusively or even principally relies on etymology and cognates. This is because there's so much more to skillful use of language than vocabulary, and even etymology and cognates are unreliable for vocabulary acquisition (hence the translator's term "false friend".)

Selected bibliography

Here's a short list of interesting reads if you want to see some of what people are writing in terms of comparative methods. Bolded are stronger recommendations if you only have time for a few.

This is probably already much more than you needed, but if you want more, let me know. There are some cool small-scale case studies of specific ways to use the first language in the classroom.

  • Alegría de la Colina, A., & García Mayo, M. (2009). Oral interaction in task-based EFL learning: The use of the L1 as a cognitive tool. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 47, 325–345. doi:10.1515/iral.2009.014

  • Ballinger, S., Lyster, R., Sterzuk, & Genesee, F. (2017). Context-appropriate crosslinguistic pedagogy: Considering the role of language status in immersion education. Journal of Immersion and Content-Based Language Education, 5(1), 30-57.

  • Cook, V. (2001). Using the first language in the classroom. Canadian Modern Language Review, 57(3), 402–423. https://doi-org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/10.3138/cmlr.57.3.402

  • Copland, F., & Neokleous, G. (2011). L1 to teach L2: Complexities and contradictions. ELT Journal, 65(3), 270-280. doi:10.1093/elt/ccq047

  • Cummins, J. (2007). Rethinking monolingual instructional strategies in multilingual classrooms. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics/Revue canadienne de linguistique appliquée, 10(2), 221-240.

  • Hall, G., & Cook, G. (2012). Own-language use in language teaching and learning. Language Teaching, 45(3), 271-308. doi:10.1017/S0261444812000067

  • Jessner, U. (2008). A DT model of multilingualism and the role of metalinguistic awareness. The Modern Language Journal, 92(2), 270-283.

  • Kupske, F. F. (2015). Second language pedagogy and translation: The role of learners’ own-language and explicit instruction revisited. Brazilian English Language Teaching Journal, 6(1), 67-81.

  • Laufer, B., & Girsai, N. (2008). Form-focused instruction in second language vocabulary learning: A case for contrastive analysis and translation. Applied Linguistics, 29(4), 694-716. doi:10.1093/applin/amn018

  • Prince, P. (1996). Second language vocabulary learning: The role of context versus translations as a function of proficiency. The Modern Language Journal, 80(4), 478-493. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.1996.tb05468.x

  • Swain, M., & Lapkin, S. (2000). Task-based second language learning: The uses of the first language. Language Teaching Research, 4(3), 251-274. doi:10.1177/136216880000400304

  • Turnbull, M. (2001). There is a role for the L1 in second and foreign language teaching, but—. Canadian Modern Language Review, 57(4), 531–540. doi: 10.3138/cmlr.57.4.531


Grammar is much more important for language learning. The comparative might be helpful at that, anyway.

But it's trivially not recommendable, because now you have to learn many more languages, just to learn one--except if you go for entertainment value instead of scientific rigor, or if you are actually trying to teach all the languages.

  • I was talking about comparing 2 languages, the one you talk fluently and another one, you are supposed to learn. But learning 2 languages at once is also possible. I'm talking about method, and what would be this method, but not about the usability of it.
    – Quidam
    Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 11:08
  • I'm aware you'd rather prefer a scholarly reference or any other positive answer. I'm rather pessimistic about it.
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 15:16
  • It doesn't seem linguists here are interested by the teaching methods based on linguistic theories. You're probably right. It's hard to understand why though.
    – Quidam
    Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 22:00

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