Francophones’ cognate avoidance: How deep is it?

CALS July 2004
Tom Cobb, UQAM

In languages that share a large proportion of their lexical resources, as French and English do, it might be expected that paying attention to shared lexical items (or cognates) would be a main strategy for learners of the other language. It might even be expected that, for example, francophones would mainly build their English lexicons out of cognate materials and end up with rather French-sounding English ("Are you capable of transmitting my message?"). Against expectation, however, the typical English production of francophone learners, as found in Learner Corpus studies on both sides of the Atlantic, seems if anything more reliant than native speakers’ production on "Anglo-Saxon" or non-cognate items. In fact, cognate items seem to be systematically avoided in both the spoken and written production of Francophone learners. Still, avoidance in production does not preclude the effective use of cognates in receptive tasks like listening and reading comprehension. If cognates are being used receptively, then we might expect good comprehension for English texts bearing cognate vocabulary, or fast reaction times for written cognate items. The present study compares the reaction times of advanced Francophone learners’ for frequent cognate and non-cognate English words. If these learners are making receptive use of cognates, then the reaction times for these two groups of words should not be significantly different.