Making Latin More Comprehensible: Cognates

Teacher’s Materials for Rūfus et arma ātra are just days away from being published, featuring 28 additional stories that expand the unique word count, and increase sentence lengths. This will provide the novice+ student with 3000 more total words to read in Latin, and is the first of my Latin texts written with deliberate attention to super clear cognates—45 of them!

When it comes to a student-centered acquisition-rich classroom, the main responsibility of a teacher is providing input. Given time constraints, as well as what we know about general anxiety over learning languages, the input (I) should be as comprehensible (C) as possible. Therefore, the teacher would benefit from spending most of their time making the target language more comprehensible, but doing so requires training in particular strategies and techniques.

An oft neglect technique for Latin teachers is the liberal use of cognates.

My latest efforts to make Latin more comprehensible have included increasing the amount of super clear cognates I use in class and in writing. Here, “super clear” refers to Latin words not just related to English words, but in particular those with a high to very high likelihood of being recognized by the student.

I’m not so naive as to expect students to recognize each cognate effortlessly, which is why I still employ Mike Peto’s “béisbol routine” daily, but I’ve already seen positive effects if using cognates more deliberately this year. The most obvious observation is that cognates provide familiarity that lowers cognitive demand, the affective filter, and boosts confidence. I now use cognates for many “shadows” (i.e. non-option in an either/or question), as well as discussing the general before introducing the specific. For example, instead of using canis right away, I would say:

  • ecce, animal!
  • est animal in classe!
  • animal, quod est in classe, est canis!
  • canis in classe est!

This might not seem impressive up front, but consider how much more Latin the student is exposed to! First, the super clear cognate, and in fact transparent, animal, provides the student with the understanding that the topic of discussion is not human. This is quite a bit of useful information considering that we mostly discuss 3 broad categories of topics (i.e. people, animals, inanimate objects), and somethings a 4th (i.e. ideas). This cognate, then, provides a particular context of general meaning, prompting the student to anticipate the more specific word that follows. The recycled use of animal, also in a context of a familiar super clear cognate phrase, in classe, allows the teacher to provide a few more exposures of est—arguably the most important word to be familiar with—as well as a relative clause (ooooo, grammar!), before arriving at the more specific, but what could’ve been the only utterance, est canis, or ecce, canis! 

The series of statements above is an example of sheltering (i.e. limiting) vocabulary, providing frequent exposure of familiar words in order to build mental representation of the language. Let’s face it, we don’t need research to know that the opposite practice of restricting grammar and unleashing vocab can easily overwhelm any student without the best memory in the class. It’s time to start sheltering! 

So, liberal use of cognates is one technique to make Latin more comprehensible, and I hope you find success with this, just as I have already! Here’s a current list of 20 cognates not only super clear, but in fact transparent, to get ideas flowing, and please contribute to that growing list of super clear cognates if you can:

actor
animal
ārea
color
error
gladiātor
honor
horror
insomnia
labor
narrātor
nausea
odor
ōmen
possessor
rūmor
spectātor
stadium
toga
victor

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One thought on “Making Latin More Comprehensible: Cognates

  1. You have some fun cognates to play with; “Insomnia” and “odor” have such potential. In Spanish I like to offer an “espátula” (Spatula) for flipping random things (which is communicated with a hand gesture). Once they get the cognate, anything can be flipped for comic effect.

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