A quick internet search on similarities found within the romance languages yields a multitude of lively conversations, informative webpages and a general consensus that knowing one romance language does indeed assist learners in subsequently developing another. Historical linguists have used measures of lexical similarity to measure the distance between languages, often rating distance as a function of the amount of words that share an etymological root, (Goddard, 1975), while psycholinguists have used experimental paradigms to measure the effects that similar words produce within and between languages (Dijkstra et al, 1999; Sánchez-Casas & García-Albea, 2005). However, only a small amount of research has been published with respect to testing these lexical similarity measures against human perception, and even fewer in a population of second language learners.
The present study addresses this issue by comparing Italian and Portuguese against the Spanish lexicon in a group of second language learners (L2) of Spanish. Half of the participants were given a list of words in Italian and the other half in Portuguese, both with their translations in Spanish. Each word list contains cognate and non-cognate translations. After a timed study session, participants completed a double lexical decision task in Italian or Portuguese while being primed with words in Spanish. Preliminary results show that L2 learners of Spanish respond faster to Portuguese than Italian, but are less accurate in the former than the latter. With respect to word type, participants responded faster and with greater accuracy to cognates as opposed to non-cognates. These results speak to historical accounts of lexical similarity in that Spanish and Italian are rated at 82% while Spanish and Portuguese at 89% (Ethnologue, 2015). Implications speak to both language researchers and educators.
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