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Learning a new language, even one that’s completely different from your mother tongue, you can be happily surprised to find words familiar to you. A French person who wants to go to a hairdresser in Turkey will look for a kuaför, pronounced exactly as the one in France: coiffeur. A Portuguese travelling to Sri Lanka will find that, on the island, wheat is called tiringu by the Sinhalese-speaking people, a word very similar to the Portuguese trigo.

And an Italian will not have problems ordering a pizza in almost any part of the world, even if they don’t speak the local language. All of this happens because of loanwords.

What is a loanword?

A loanword is a word borrowed from another language. Since languages often take over words (and entire phrases) from one another, this is common in every corner of the world. Loanwords differ from cognates – words with a common origin. So, cognates are words in different languages which share a common ancestor, while loanwords are simply taken over from another contemporary language. You can read more about the differences of loanwords and cognates in our article.

Loanwords are everywhere

In recent times, many languages are using loanwords from English, which has become an international lingua franca. The reasons a language borrows some of its vocabulary can be varied. For example, loanwords can be adopted because a specific word doesn’t exist in the local language. Or it can be used together with a local word, sometimes becoming even more popular than the native word. This is the case with many of the loanwords coming from English. This has opened discussions in some countries where they are said to threaten the local language. It has also spurred the adoption of terms such as Dinglish (Deutsch+English) and Spanglish (Spanish+English) to refer to the ubiquitous moving of words from English into other languages.

But loanwords are not a new characteristic of languages. Many words have been assimilated for different reasons even in the past. Due to centuries of contact, colonised countries started using loanwords from the language of the coloniser. International trade spread not only new goods but also new words. Many languages also adopted loanwords because of religious influence. You can see that with Arabic and many countries with a Muslim majority.

Loanwords can help you learn a language

The benefit is easy to understand: you find words that are familiar to you and you can understand them easily without translating them. You might be surprised about how much of your target language you can understand thanks to shared vocabulary. However, some aspects need to be considered: not all the words that look similar are loanwords. Instead, they can be false friends. To make matter even more difficult, not all loanwords are pronounced or spelled exactly in the same way (remember the example of the French coiffeur) and so you may not recognise them right away.

How to discover loanwords

Taking some time to look for loanwords when you approach a new language can help you a lot in the long term. You can search the web for loanwords from your mother tongue in your target language or vice versa. And if you already speak another language, you have even more possibilities of increasing your vocabulary. It’s easy to find long lists of these words on Wikipedia, for example. There are also some specific websites designed for the purpose of finding loanwords and cognates.

Looking up loanwords can help you get a jumpstart on your target language because you’ll get a lot of vocabulary “for free”.

Learning loanwords can be fun

Researching loanwords can increase your vocabulary in a funny way since many words have a second meaning in the original language. An example: Many English speakers know the dessert “affogato”, which is a loan from Italian. In Italian, too, the word refers to the dessert but has another meaning – it is the past participle of the verb to drown. So the Italian dessert affogato is called this because is “drowned in coffee”. But using this tricks, you got to know two Italian words: a dessert and a verb!

Conclusion – Loanwords are a fun way of increasing your vocabulary

Finding loanwords in your target language will help you discover that you already know some vocabulary. This is not only a boost in morale but will also help you learn the target language quicker. So, when you start learning a new language, spend some time looking for familiar loanwords. They are fun to learn and help you increase your vocabulary, so you can start speaking with confidence.

This article was written by Davide M – our Italian teacher in Istanbul. Sign up for lessons with him below.


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