Do Languages with Cognate Relationships have Advantages in Second Language Acquisition?

| January 9, 2014

November 2006. Volume 1 Issue 3

Do Languages with Cognate Relationships have Advantages in
Second Language Acquisition?

Raphiq Ibrahim
Haifa University and Rambam Medical Center, Haifa, Israel

Bio Data:
Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim is cognitive and neuropsychologist interested in visual and auditory word perception, language and bilingualism and hemispheric specialization for higher cognitive function. He lives in the Galilee region in Israel and works in research and teaching. He is a lecturer at the Learning Disabilities Department of Haifa University and, in addition, works as a Neuropsychologist in the Cognitive Neurology Unit at Ramba Medical Center in Haifa. Among the courses he teachers are: Integrative Introduction to Language Acquisition, Spoken Language, an Introduction to Developmental Neuropsychology, Psychological and Neuropsychological Assessment, and Verbal Information processing in Arabic: Processes and Disabilities.

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Second-language students usually use various strategies in learning second language (Bialystock, 1991). This article is concerned with cognitive evidence bearing on the nature of the units stored in the mental lexicons of speakers of Semitic languages, Arabic and Hebrew. On the basis of lexical connections between translation equivalents represented in the cognitive system of Arabic Hebrew bilingual, I suggest that cognate words that have phonological overlap can influence the recognition of translation equivalents. I review documented language literature and that lead to the same conclusion and discuss evidence for the morphemic status of templates from repetition priming effects (reaction times (RTs) and accuracy measures) were compared between translation equivalents in forms of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Hebrew. MSA targets were preceded by cognate and non-cognate translation equivalents in Hebrew immediately in a lexical decision task. The participants were requested to make a word/nonword decision regardless of language. The larger priming effects between Hebrew-MSA cognate words than non-cognate suggests that cognate’s relationship affects acquisition of second language regardless of the mother tongue. The conclusion was that, the strength of the lexical associations between translation equivalents is influenced not only by the frequency of concomitant use but rather by their cognate status.

Key words: Modern Standard Arabic, Bilingualism, Cognate, Non-cognate, Repetition priming, Translation equivalents, Lexical organization, Lexical decision,.

“Learning a second language” can be usefully divided up into two parts: learning rules and learning words. It is very common to hear people say that learning the words of a language is the hardest part, or that they can’t communicate well because they don’t have enough words. In this study I try to explore the lexical factors that influence second language acquisition from cognitive perspective. Specifically, this study is concerned with cognitive evidence bearing on the nature of the units stored in the mental lexicons of speakers. To achieve this goal, I examine how level of form overlap (phonological overlap) influences translation priming by comparing priming from within language cognate translation primes and cross language related forms with unrelated forms. The languages used are Arabic and Hebrew where both belong to Semitic languages which are unique and interesting.

Research suggests that native language use is advantageous in second language acquisition (August & Hakuta, 1997; Cuevas, 1997). Academic skills, literacy development, concept formation, and strategy development learned in the first language transfer to the second language (Bialystok, 1991). However, the development of cognitive representation of words in the lexicon has been found to have the most important effect on second-language learning (Thomas & Collier, 1997). A well known phenomenon is that students use the vocabulary of the second language as a primary determinant of reading comprehension and students whose first language has many cognates with second language have an advantage (Garcia & Nagy, 1993). Clearly, it is important for educators to find a potential for reciprocity between the two languages.

The literate Arabic speaker uses two forms of Arabic in everyday life. The first language is the Spoken Arabic (SA), which is a local dialect used for mundane verbal communication. The second is Literary Arabic (fusha) labeled as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), is the language in which speakers of Arabic read and write. In its classical form it is the language of the Koran and used for religious purposes across the entire Islamic world. In its modern form, MSA is also used daily for formal oral communication in the media. Obviously, all reading materials (textbooks, newspapers etc.) are written in MSA. In education (first grade), MSA is formally learned in school along with reading acquisition and both forms (SA and MSA) are intertwined. By the end of high school, native Arab speakers are experienced in speaking and listening to all Arabic forms. Hence, from the ecological point of view, SA and MSA could be considered as an instance of ‘diglossia’, that is, a social environment in which a community uses two forms of the same language concomitantly (Ferguson, 1959). Starting in the second grade in Israel, Arabic speaking children start to learn Hebrew as a second language. Because Hebrew is the primary official language of the country, by the end of high school, most students are as proficient in Hebrew. In a former study we examined the validity of this claim using lexical decision performance for both printed and spoken Hebrew and Arabic words (Ibrahim & Aharon-Perez, 2005).

We compared semantic priming effects within Spoken Arabic, with the effects found across languages with written Arabic or in Hebrew being the other language. The findings showed that the semantic priming effect was twice as large within spoken Arabic than between languages. In addition, the cross-languages semantic priming effect was larger when the primes were in spoken Arabic and the targets in written Arabic or Hebrew than when the order was inverse. These data suggested similar lexical performance for written Arabic and Hebrew in native spoken Arabic speakers. This pattern of results is similar to previously reported results for second languages in bilinguals from different languages (Altarriba, 1990; Keatley, Spinks, & de Gelder, 1992; Kroll, Sholl, Altarriba, Luppino, Moynihan, & Sandres, 1992; Chen & Ng, 1989).

Studies in other languages
Previous investigations identified several factors influencing the lexical organization of non-native languages and the manner in which words in non-native languages (L2, L3, etc) are linked to their translation-equivalents in the native language (L1) (e.g., de Groot, 1995; Dijkstra, Grainger & Van Jeuven, 1999). These factors can be globally categorized as language-determined and user-determined (for review, see de Groot & Kroll, 1997).

One of the major language-determined factors affecting the nature of cross-lingual lexical links is the morpho-phonological similarity between translation equivalents (Grainger & Frenk-Mestre, 1998; van Hell & de Groot, 1998). Two words in different languages are said to be “cognates”1 when they resemble each other because of a historical relationship. Cognate words are termed morpho-phonologically similar words having a common proto-linguistic origin called morpheme. Accordingly, as opposed to cognates, non-cognates are not morpho-phonologically similar. For instance, words derived from the same stem, such as “apartheid” and “particle”, are morpho-phonemically similar. In contrast, words like “divine” and “division” are not considered morpho-phonologically similar, although they share the first four letters. Morpho-phonological similarity may or may not be found between translation equivalents. For example, “father” in English and “vader” in Dutch are morpho-phonologically similar translation equivalents, whereas “uncle” in English and “oom” in Dutch are dissimilar translation equivalents (de Groot, 1992b).

Previous studies reported that the cognate words are consequential to their processing. For example, cognate more often than non-cognate translation equivalents elicit associates that are also translations of each other (Taylor, 1976), and are translated faster and more accurately from one language to the other (de Groot, 1992b, Sánchez-Casas, Davis, & Gracia-Albea, 1992). Particularly relevant for the present study is the finding that cross-lingual immediate repetition priming effect was larger between cognate than non-cognate translation equivalents (e.g., Cristoffanini, Kirsner, & Milech, 1986). This effect was found even if visual masking of the prime minimized strategic or conscious episodic factors (de Groot and Nas, 1991) and using semantic categorization rather than lexical decision tasks (Sanchez-Casas et al., 1992). The use of the masked priming technique in cross lingual repetition priming is important because it helps in locating the effect at the lexical level: On the one hand, several studies suggested that masked priming is very little (Sereno, 1991), or insensitive to semantic priming (Forster & Tafts, 1994). On the other hand, as mentioned above, masked priming reduces the effect of possible episodic and/or strategic factors. Finally, the primary lexical origin of masked repetition priming is also suggested by the absence of masked repetition effects when the targets are non-words even if morphemes (or pseudo-morphemes) are repeated from the prime to the target (Forster, & Davis, 1984; Frost, Forster, & Deutsch, 1997; but see evidence for the existence of form priming in Forster, 1987).

Among the user-determined factors influencing the bilingual or multi-lingual lexicon are, for example, the user’s competence in the non-native languages, and the order of their acquisition (Kroll & Stewart, 1990). Another user-determined factor that has been relatively less explored is the influence of ecological factors such as the role the non-native language in the user’s linguistic environment, and its subjective perception as a second (or first) language. A particularly interesting linguistic environment for investigating the importance of ecological factors and their interaction with pure linguistic factors is Arabic. Yet, the similarity among languages should influence linguistic bilingual performance. For example, a longitudinal research of literacy acquisition in Moroccan children investigated whether preschool experience with a spoken Moroccan Arabic dialect facilitates literacy acquisition differently than preschool experience with Berber, which is a member of the Hamitic family of languages and has no semantic or syntactic similarity to Arabic (Wranger, Spratt & Ezzaki, 1989).

This study compared the performance of monolingual and bilingual Arabic and Berber speaking children in learning to read MSA and French. The results showed an advantage for the children whose mother tongue was the Arabic dialect over Berber-speaking children in MSA. In contrast, the preschool experience of the two languages groups had little effect in learning to read French. The researchers concluded that the superiority of the Arabic speaking children in the in the early stages of MSA literacy acquisition is due primarily to the substantial similarity and transfer from spoken Moroccan Arabic to MSA, but not to French

Arabic and Hebrew
Linguistically, however, SA and MSA are sufficiently different to be considered more like two (related) languages rather than two forms of the same language. For example, although most words are similar (but not identical – see below), many concepts are represented by different words in SA and MSA. Furthermore, because SA uses fewer words than MSA (e.g., Ferguson, 1959) the same phonological unit in SA may represent related meanings which are represented by different words in MSA (e.g., the word “chin” is also used for “beard’ and “goat” for “stupid”). Considerable phonetic, phonologic, morpho-syntactic differences are also evident. For example, the vowels ‘e’ and ‘o’ in SA are pronounced in MSA, depending on phonetic context, either as ‘ז’ or ‘i’ and ‘au’ or ‘u’, respectively; whereas words in MSA may not begin with two consecutive consonants (or with a consonant and a ‘schwa’) many words in SA do so; different inflections are used in each language (such as is the suffix which marks the plural in each language); Hence, from the linguistic (rather than social) perspective, literate Arabic speakers could be considered, de facto, bilinguals. Indeed, a debate exists as to whether the two forms of Arabic represent different languages, or whether this is a diglossic situation (Eid, 1990).

Hebrew is a Semitic language like Arabic and shares with it a similar morphological structure based on consonantal roots and word patterns (for a description of Hebrew morphology see Bentin & Frost, 1995). Moreover, although there are phonetic and phonological differences between Hebrew and Arabic many roots are shared by Hebrew and MSA words. Hence, it is not difficult to find cognate translation equivalents in these two languages which rely on the same principle (shared root) as cognate translation equivalents in SA and MSA.

As Semitic languages, Arabic and Hebrew are characterized by a highly productive derivational morphology (Berman, 1985). Most words are derived by embedding a root into a morpho-phonological word pattern. In both languages, words are based on a trilateral root and various derivatives which are formed by the addition of affixes and vowels. The roots and phonological patterns are abstract entities (structures) and only the joint combination from specific words. As a result of this structure, the core meaning is conveyed by the root and the phonological pattern conveys the word class information. For example, in Arabic the word (TAKREEM) consists of the root (KRM) and the phonological pattern TA—I-. In Hebrew, the word (SIFRA) consists of the root (SFR) and the phonological pattern –I—A in which every line represents a consonant. Unlike the Latin orthography in which vowels are represented by letters, in Arabic and Hebrew vowels are not part of the alphabet letters.

The reported studies in Arabic did not address the question of lexical organization and links between translation-equivalents directly. Moreover, in those studies different groups of participants were compared, leaving open the possibility that the groups differed along other relevant dimensions. To address this question, morpho-phonological similarity (cognate/noncognate) was manipulated while repeating translation equivalents between MSA, SA, and Hebrew in a within-subject lexical decision paradigm.


The participants were 30 native Arabic speakers (SA), students in the 11th and 12th grade from high schools in the Western Galilee. They are members of the Druze minority2 who studied MSA and Hebrew in school and, as documented in the introduction, were equally proficient in these two languages.

The task was an auditory lexical decision3. Participants were presented with a mixed list of SA, MSA and Hebrew spoken words and pseudo-wrods, and were instructed to decide whether each stimulus was a word or not, in the language to which it belonged. Pairs of translation equivalents were inserted in this list. In all cases, the first word of the pair (the prime) was presented in either Hebrew or SA, and the second word (the target) was presented in MSA. All targets followed the primes immediately, half of the translation equivalents were cognates and the other half were not cognates.

Linguistic considerations:
In Semitic languages (Hebrew and Arabic alike) words are constructed by combining a consonantal root (that carries most of the semantic information) and a word pattern that includes vowels as well as consonants, and provides information about the word class and its morphological status, as well as the complete unequivocal structure of the word. Hence, each word in Hebrew or Arabic is, at the very least bi-morphemic, but none of the composing morphemes are words by themselves. In the present experiment, morpho-phonological similarity was based on a shared root. There is ample evidence that, within language (Hebrew) two words derived from the same root (hence sharing it) can prime each other at short and at long lags regardless of whether they are or are not semantically related (Bentin, 1989; Bentin & Feldman, 1990). Similar results were also found using the masked priming paradigm, suggesting that this morphological priming is not entirely based on strategic processing factors (Frost, et al., 1997). As for the phonological level, Jared and Kroll (2001) studied English/French and French/English bilinguals engaged in a word naming task and found that individuals who learn a second language that uses the same alphabet as their first language do not impair their L1 word-recognition speed, unless they have previously named words (activating spelling-sound correspondences) in L2.

Cognate translation equivalents between SA and MSA are fairly abundant. In addition, thanks to their common Semitic origin, there are many examples in which the same root is combined with different word patterns to form translation equivalents between Hebrew and MSA. Such translation equivalents are cognates (by definition) but not identical (due to the different word patterns).

Cognate translation equivalents between Hebrew and SA are less frequent, and translation equivalents across all three languages are very few. Therefore, different pairs of cognate and non-cognate translation equivalents were used as priming MSA words with Hebrew translation equivalents and with SA translation equivalents. However, given the similar nature of morpho-phonological similarity across all pairs and the matched frequency and concreteness of the words (see below) repetition priming effects and their interaction with the cognate/non-cognate factor were comparable across languages.

Present stimuli and design:
The stimuli used in the present study were: 384 legal phonological structures, used in immediate repetition conditions; 192 of the stimuli were words and 192 pseudo-words; 96 were primes and 96 targets. The rated word frequency of all targets was average (3.95, 3.89, and 4.06 on a scale between 1 (lowest frequency) and 7 (highest frequency) for the non-cognate targets, cognates to SA words and cognates to Hebrew words, respectively) (See appendix).

Half of the primes (48) appeared in Hebrew, and the other half (48) in SA. Within each of the priming language conditions, 16 targets were unrelated to their primes, and 32 targets were the translation words of the primes. Of the translation words, 16 of the pairs were cognates and 16 of the pairs were non-cognates (table 1a). Across subjects stimuli were rotated so that each target-prime pair appeared in each translation condition.

The pseudo-words were constructed to mimic the words. The 192 “targets” were based on MSA. Among the “primes”, 96 were based on Hebrew and 96 on SA. Within each language group 32 primes shared a pseudo-morpheme with their paired target, 64 did not. Of course, for pseudo-words there could be no further division of the non-cognate primes. Sixteen cognate pseudo-words pairs were repeated (table 1b).

The stimuli were recorded in a male voice, native speaker of the local SA dialect, and were presented to the participants aurally, through earphones. The words underwent computer processing, designed to equalize their volume, and their length, as much as possible (700 ms duration time, on the average). A computer was used to present the stimuli.


Stimuli were presented at a steady rate, and participants were requested to perform a lexical decision on each one. The SOA was 2000 ms, and the order of presentation was pseudo-randomized (keeping pairing intact), for each subject. Experimental instructions were given in SA at the beginning of the session. It was explained to the participants that they were about to hear words and pseudo-words in different languages, and they were to indicate, by pressing a button, whether the phonological string presented was a word, regardless of the language of presentation. The dominant hand was used for the affirmative (detection of a word) and the other hand for the negative (detection of a pseudoword). Accuracy and speed were equally stressed. Since half of the stimuli were words, and the other half pseudo-words, and since both words and pseudo-words at both lags were similarly structured and randomly presented, the participants were not able to predict the lexical status of any stimulus based on the preceding stimulus. As far as the participants were concerned, the stimuli on the list were not related in any way, and the paired structure existed in the eyes of the experimenter alone. A training session of 16 words and 16 pseudo-words preceded the experimental session which lasted about 20 minutes.

Outlying RTs, more than two standard deviations from the mean of each participant in each condition, were excluded from the calculations (less than 5%). Mean RTs and error rates were calculated in each of the conditions across participants and are presented in Table 2.

Table 2: Reaction times in milliseconds (SEm*) and percentage of errors in lexical decision for word targets in MS Arabic, primed by cognate and non-cognate translation equivalents in Spoken Arabic and Hebrew.

  Priming in Spoken Arabic Priming in Hebrew
1022 (23) 6.7%
1093 (19) 7.6%
Repeated Non-cognate
938 (16) 1.0%
1010 (17) 2.9%
Priming effect
84     5.7%
83     4.7%
Repeated                Cognate
890 (14) 0.8%
906 (14) 0.8%
Priming effect
132   5.9%
187   6.8%

* SEm = Standard Error of the mean

The statistical reliability of the observed differences was established across subjects and across stimuli by a two-way within-subjects ANOVA and a two-way between-stimuli ANOVA. The factors were Priming Language (SA, Hebrew) and Relatedness (unrelated, non-cognate translations, cognate translation). These analyses showed that 1) The RTs to MSA targets following SA primes (991.5 ms) were faster than the RTs to MSA targets following Hebrew primes (1035.2 ms) [F1(1,29) = 99.9, MSe = 1742, p < 0.001; F2(1,180) = 9.45, MSe = 1742, p < 0.001] and a significant main effect of Relatedness [F1(1,290) = 99.7, MSe = 5063, p < 0.001; F2(2,180) = 37.0, MSe = 8343, p < 0.001]. Post-hoc comparisons of the relatedness effect revealed that RTs to targets succeeding unrelated primes were the slowest (1075.5 ms), significantly slower than those appearing after non-cognate translations (1018.5 ms) [F1(1,29) = 68.0, MSe = 22842, p < 0.001] and RTs to targets following cognate translation words were faster still (946 ms) [(F1(1,29) = 60.6, MSe = 41589, p < 0.001].

The repetition priming was significant [F1(2,58) = 66.9, MSe = 5702, p < 0.001, F2(2,92) = 26.0, MSe = 8321, p< 0.001. Relatedness also interacted with the priming language, showing un important result when the repetition effect was slightly larger when the translation was from Hebrew to MSA (135 ms) than when the translation was from SA to MSA (108 ms). Also, the repetition effects for non-cognate translations were equally large in the SA or Hebrew priming language conditions (Table 1). Indeed, separate Relatedness for each priming language condition revealed that, whereas the Relatedness effect was significant for both priming language conditions [F1(1,29) = 32.2 MSe = 2966, p < 0.001; and F1(1,29) = 69.0 MSe = 3406, p < 0.001, for SA and Hebrew, respectively] The RTs and percentage of errors in response to pseudo-words are presented in Table 3.

Table 3: Reaction times in milliseconds (SEm*) and percentage of errors in lexical decision for pseudo-word targets in MS Arabic, primed by cognate pseudo-words in Spoken Arabic and Hebrew.

  Priming in Spoken Arabic Priming in Hebrew
Unrelated 1198 (17) 8.0% 1247 (15) 8.9%
Cognates 1169 (19) 6.5% 1183 (20) 9.0%
Priming effect 29     1.5% 64     0.1%

* SEm = Standard Error of the mean

As for word targets, the reliability of the experimental condition effects on pseudo-word targets was assessed by a Language x Relatedness ANOVA. For pseudo-words, however, the relatedness factor had obviously only two levels, unrelated primes and (pseudo) cognate primes. In contrast to words, separate ANOVAs showed that morpho-phonological similarity between pseudo-words significantly facilitated lexical decisions for targets [F1(1,29) = 45.1, MSe = 3408, p < 0.001, F2(1,90) = 5.0, MSe = 9434, p < 0.05]. As for words, priming was larger when MSA pseudo-words were primed by Hebrew cognate pseudo-words than by SA cognate pseudo-words. This interaction between the priming language and the relatedness effect was significant within subjects [F1(1,29) = 10.0, MSe = 5411, p < 0.005], but not between item groups [F2(1,90) < 1.00].

Less errors were made to primed (5.2%) than to unprimed (6.4%) word targets [F1(1,29) = 52.6, MSe = 20.87, p < 0.0001, F2(1,179) = 2.4, MSe = 143.3, p = 0.12]. The priming language, however, had no influence on the percentage of errors made to word targets. Post hoc univariate analysis revealed that more errors were made to word targets primed by non-cognate primes (1.5%) than to those primed by cognate primes (0.8%) [F1(1,29) = 7.5, MSe = 158.2, p < 0.01], and even more errors were made to targets that followed unrelated primes (7.2%) [F1(1,29) = 88.2, MSe = 190.4, p < 0.0001]. As revealed by a significant relatedness x priming language interaction [F1(2,58) = 23.1, MSe = 24.8, p < 0.001, F2(2,179) = 3.5, MSe = 143.3, p < 0.05], priming did not affect the percentage of errors when the translation was from SA to MSA (5.8%) than when it was from Hebrew to MSA (5.7%). Hebrew primes were effective regardless of whether they were cognates or non-cognates with the MSA targets. This pattern is compatible with the pattern founded in the analysis of RTs and suggest that cognate factor between Hebrew and Arabic is influential as between the two forms of Arabic.

The present study was designed to examine whether cognates in first language give advantage to second language students in learning situation. To achieve this goal, I compared the performance of native Arabic speakers in lexical decision task and translation priming. My choice to the relations between the two forms of Arabic (SA and MSA) with to the relations existing between MSA, was determined by the morphophonological similarity of these two Semitic languages.

Presenting translation-equivalents in SA as primes led to speeded and more accurate performance of lexical decisions to targets in LA. This facilitation was greater when the two translation equivalents were cognates than when was the prime and targets were not cognates. Cognate pairs maintained a similar level of priming at both language conditions. Namely, Hebrew translation equivalents presented as primes also improved the performance of lexical decisions to targets in MSA, as measured by both RT and accuracy. However, the priming effect between cognate translations was larger when the prime was in Hebrew than when the prime was in SA. In addition, the significant repetition effects between cognate pseudo-words suggest that form repetition might have partly accounted for the overall larger repetition effects for words. However, the significant repetition effects for non-cognate translation equivalents demonstrate that form or other type of shallow analysis cannot be the single account. This interpretation is consistent with studies in the visual modality, in which the translation occurred between languages with different orthographies such as Korean and English (Jin & Fischler, 1987), or Chinese and English (Chen & Ng, 1989). Further, the semantic factors might explain the repetition effects across non-cognate words. This pattern indicates that, in addition to being indirectly connected via the semantic system, translation equivalents are also linked at the lexical level.

The most important outcome of the present study however, is that in the cognate condition, there is no significant difference between the characteristics and the magnitude of the priming relations the two forms of Arabic have with each other and those found between Hebrew and MSA. The interpretation of this pattern of priming by translation equivalents across Hebrew and MSA and across SA and MSA might shed on the lexical organization of the languages in the cognitive system of the native Arabic speaker. Two accounts might explain this difference. One is that it reflects the difference between priming across the first (SA) and MSA, and priming across Hebrew and MSA. This account, however, is challenged by the fact that in the present experiment the primes were in L1 and the targets in L2. Comparing the speed of word-translation and picture naming, previous studies found that the strength of the lexical links between translation equivalents in L1 and L2 is asymmetrical, stronger when the translation is from L2 to L1 than vice-versa (Kroll & Stewart, 1990).

Moreover, because our participants learned Hebrew on the basis of MSA (at school), the translation of Hebrew words into MSA words, should have been more “natural” than the translation of SA words (L1) into MSA words. This directs us with a second account, which is that whereas priming between translation equivalents in Hebrew and MSA reflected primarily semantic relationship and cognate relationship, priming between the two forms of Arabic reflected, in addition, the consequence of episodic lexical associations based on mundane use. Indeed, the larger priming effects between Hebrew-MSA than between SA-MSA cognate words suggests that cognate relationship was more conspicuous when two formally studied languages were involved than when one of the languages was the mother tongue particularly because, in this case, the mother tongue has no written form. Additional support for the latter hypothesis is provided by the larger priming effect induced by Hebrew than by SA cognate pseudo-words, where neither semantic factors nor lexical associations could have an influence.

A native speaker requires the integration of the present results with additional findings, as reported by Ibrahim and Aharon-Perez (2005). As reviewed in the introduction, cross-lingual semantic priming effects on SA targets were practically identical for MSA and Hebrew and were significantly lower than the intra-lingual semantic priming in SA. For both language pairings, the semantic priming was larger when the primes were presented in SA (and the targets in either Hebrew or MSA) than when the primes were presented in one of the second languages and the targets in SA. These findings align nicely with the previously reported asymmetry in cross-lingual semantic priming (Altarriba, 1990; Keatly & deGelder, 1992; Keatly, Spinks & deGelder, 1994). The observed asymmetry of priming efficiency is usually attributed to the fact that words in a second language have closer connections with their meanings than do words in the first language. The above interpretation was further supported by the absence of long-lag repetition priming by translation equivalents in either Hebrew or MSA on lexical decisions to target words presented in SA, while regular within-SA repetition effects were found at similar lags (Ibrahim & Aharon-Perez, in press). This pattern also corresponds with similar findings, reported from studies investigating long-lag repetition effects upon translation from a second language to a first language (e.g., Cristoffanini et al., 1986; Gerard & Scarborough). Also, the influence of cognate’s relationship on priming between translation equivalents is well established in cross-lingual semantic priming (de Groot & Nas, 1991).

In summary, the outcome of the present study supports the existence of active lexical links between translation equivalents. Such links may exist in parallel to conceptual semantic overlap, and be sensitive to the morpho-phonemic structure of the words. Previous partial-repetition studies in Hebrew showed reliable priming between words that share a root but have no obvious semantic relationship (Bentin & Feldman, 1990). Similar results were reported in a masked-priming study suggesting that sharing a common root affects the processing of the target during bottom-up processing (Frost et al., 1997). The currently observed pattern of differences between priming MSA words by SA or Hebrew translation equivalence suggests that the lexical connections are not only influenced by linguistic factors but also by the manner in which L2 is used, and subjectively perceived. Specifically, since the structural similarity between Hebrew-MSA and SA-MSA cognate words was equivalent, the magnitude of the priming effect induced by cognate’s relationship should have been the same. Hence the larger priming effects for cognate Hebrew – MSA than SA – MSA pairs suggest that non-linguistic factors qualified the influence of the linguistic factors in determining the magnitude of the cognate’s relationship effects. Support to this hypothesis came from the cognate’s relationship factor, which is reflected, primarily in the larger priming effects for Hebrew – MSA than for SA – MSA cognate pseudo-words.

In conclusion, in concert with previous findings (Wranger, Spratt & Ezzaki, 1989), the present study indicates that similarity among languages reflected by cognate’s relationship, should influence linguistic bilingual performance. The question, if the superiority of the Arabic speaking children in the early stages of Hebrew literacy acquisition is due primarily to the substantial similarity between the two languages, and not to ecological and social factors, fall beyond the goals of this study and further investigation should be done to answer this question. However, the data gained in this study concerning the structural relationship between languages should be taken into consideration when we using pedagogical methods in teaching second language (L2). Cognate or “sister” words that share common origins and meanings across languages could be a valuable resource in giving explicit instruction and practice in word analysis that could be taught to students.

This instruction method and intervention actually based on transferring vocabulary knowledge for words that have cognate status in the two languages. Recent studies on this topic in other languages (Spanish-English bilinguals) have already described how students benefit from cognate recognition training (Nagy, García, Durgunoglu & Hancin-Bhatt, 1993) and transfer of phonological awareness (Durgunoglu, Nagy & Hancin-Bhatt, 1993). Based on the data collected in the current cross-language study a similar line of intervention is suggested in which word roots and the meanings of common prefixes and suffixes should be learned in order to help children at early grades to acquire and understand new words. Specifically, the intervention suggested focused on increasing Arabic student’s awareness of Arabic/Hebrew cognate words and ability to use cognate recognition as a legitimate and productive comprehension strategy. For example, Arab students have a great advantage when they read words like zevel and katav (in Hebrew) and are able to understand them because of their Arabic cognates, zibel and kataba. This method of instruction suggests that the Arabic-instructed children could be able to access knowledge of the cognates in Arabic to identify the meaning of the words on Hebrew.


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