Does learning foreign languages get easier with experience? In today’s post, I’ll draw on my own experience learning Welsh, Russian, German and French to a fairly advanced level, Basque to intermediate and several other languages to lower levels, particularly (most recently) Japanese. It’s a nuanced picture, of course. let’s look together at different aspects of the language learning process.
Honing your “ear” for languages: different sound systems
Tuning your ear to a new language should get easier when you’re familiar with the sound systems of more than one language already.
For one thing, you’ll already have learned new sounds that don’t exist in your own language. I’ve had to learn the Welsh “ll”, the German “ü” and the Russian “ы”, for example.
It’s not just completely new sounds that you may have to tune into when you learn a new language. With what feel sound familiar sounds, you may have to pay attention to what feel like fine distinctions because they don’t “matter” for the meaning in your own language.
For example, standard British English (and many other varieties) has two “l” sounds, the so-called “clear” or “light” L (before a vowel)(a palatalised l) as in “left” and the dark L (velarised) used elsewhere (as in “ball”). In “little” the first L is light, the second is dark.
If you get them wrong, it won’t change the meaning as the two Ls are seen as variations of the same building block sound. Indeed, the sound distinction isn’t made in some accents of English. In standard American or Scottish English, they only use the dark L. In Irish English, all the Ls are light).
In Russian, though, get the L wrong and you could change the meaning of a word: “luk” (люк) with a clear “l” means “skylight” or “hatch way” which “luk” (лук) with a dark “l” means both “onion” and “bow” (as in bow and arrow) In Russian: Spaniards have this problem with v and b. Germans with English th and s.
When you’ve struggled with this in other languages, you’ll have a wider range of “building block” sounds at your disposal and you should be more open to tuning in to more.
Coming at Japanese, I found another distinction we don’t have in English: “long consonants” versus “short consonants” . ようか “yōka” (short k) means 8th day of the month andよっか (long k) means “4th day of the month”.
In effect, to create the “long consonant” effect, you pause slightly before saying the k. Here’s the thing: I’d already come across this in Finnish. Kyllä – with a “long l” means “yes” and kylä (short l) means village, for example.
While many languages add endings (noun declension, verb conjugation) Welsh and other Celtic languages often have “beginnings”. In other words the words initially mutate. I’ve not studied a second Celtic language yet, but I’ve seen the same consonant behaviour in other languages. So, in Welsh for the soft mutation “c” become “g”. You see this in Finnish stem changes: kaupunki (the city) > kaupungissa (in the city).
It’s not just at the level of the pronunciation of individual sounds and syllables, of course, where you can build up transferable skills and layers of experience. The more languages you learn, the more you’ll also be used to different stress and intonation patterns across phrases as well. You won’t assume that you can just form a question by raising your voice at the end of a sentence but you’ll be happy if you find that in your target language you can.
Recognising words with the same roots
If you are learning a language which is a close relative to one that you already know, you’ll see many words that are the same or that are almost the same (German and English are good examples of this). This is because the languages have developed from a common parent. If you take some time to discover regularities in how the two languages have evolved over time, this can really help in recognition. Even at a superficial level, I could see that and initial “g” in Russian was often an equivalent “h” in an equivalent or closely relate Slovak word.
Sometimes the meaning may have shifted but still be sufficiently related and so help you remember. The centre of old Warsaw is Rynek Starego Miasta or “Old Town Square”. To me, as a Russian speaker, that smells very like “Rynok Starogo Mesta” which would be, literally, “The Market of the Old Place”. See how similar the genitive case endings are (see Italics) in both Polish and Russian too. When I went to Bratislava (Slovak) and Novy Sad (Serbian), I found many similar examples.
Of course, this cuts both ways as you may be enticed by more “false friends” (words which you think are the same but actually aren’t) than if everything was completely alien to you (this problem classically dogs native speakers or one Slavic or Romance language when they try to learn another).
Spotting more loan words
One of the great surprises to me in learning Japanese is just how many loan words there are from English. I have the advantage that I can also spot loan words from other languages: いくら (ikura) – salted salmon eggs – reminds me of икра (ikra) – caviar – in Russian! かぼちゃ (kabochya) – a pumpkin – reminds me of the Russian кабачок (kabachok) – squash (marrow).
Now I don’t actually know whether these are borrowings from Russian into Japanese or the other way or into both form a third language. It doesn’t really matter. What helps is that it’s going to be easier for me to recognise and remember the words.
When I started learning Welsh, I recognised ffenstr (window), mur (wall) and môr (sea) from French fenêtre, mur and mer. All borrowings into the two languages from Latin.
Back to Japanese: アルバイト (arubaito) is a part-time job (from the German die Arbeit – work, a job).
Japanese has many loan words from Chinese as well, which doesn’t help me, but could help you. I found that Finnish has loan words from Russian and Russian from German and French (as well as many from English and – especially in the maritime vocab – Dutch).
One thing you quickly see is that globalisation has spread a large number of words that have really become so ubiquitous that we might call them international, like “restaurant” which turn up all over the place as in, erm, Finnish (ravintola), Hungarian (étterem) or Basque (jatetxea).* 🙂
*(Actually, these exceptions that prove the rule aren’t as frightening as they might seem: in Hungarian and Basque, the first element is “eat” – Basque is literally eathouse).
Understanding that words don’t always have direct equivalents from one language to another
Individual words do not always a direct one-word translation from one language to another. Or the “range” of a word can be different: Russian друг (drug) is usually translated as friend, though “close friend” might be better. Приятель (priiatel’) is “acquaintance” but used very often by Russians when we would already be saying “friend”.
As you come across these “imperfect equivalences” in your first foreign language, you’ll be on the alert for them second, third or fourth time round.
Sometimes, the very concepts you first discovered in your second language may pop up in later ones. Russian, Finnish and Italian, for example, all have separate words for light blue and dark blue.
“Word association” memory tricks get easier
A good trick to help in the first stages of remembering a word is to use word association: “haus” is Indonesian for thirty and it’s pronounced rather like English “house”. So, you could imagine your house sticking its tongue out to drink the rain because it’s thirsty. If you know more than one language, you’ll have a large stock of words with which you can build memorable associations. For example, the Japanese for a key is かぎ (kagi). To me this sounded like “car” and “gi” which is the Welsh word for “dog” (dictionary form “ci”). So, I imagined a long, stiff sausage dog being turned like a key to open the door of a car.
This advantage even kicked in when I was learning the Japanese hiragana syllabary. The character “ru” – る – looks like a number three. To me it is hiru (Basque for three).
A greater openness to different grammar
As with vocab, languages that share a common ancestor will often still today have retained similar grammatical features.
When I learned some basic Icelandic, I discovered the same, already doubly familiar pattern of inverting the verb and subject to form a question. That’s because Icelandic was my third Germanic language.
The ancestral Germanic pattern is to switch the oder of the verb and subject to form a question. Modern English usually just uses “do” in this way as an auxiliary: She likes bread > Does she like bread. The simple old pattern is still used with some verbs though: He can sing > Can he sing? We have time > Have you time? In German this simple inversion is still the standard with all verbs, just like Icelandic.
Both Italian and Portuguese have highly complex, inflected verb tense systems. These were not such a big deal for me when I started both languages. That was because I already knew quite good French and the system in that language very closely parallels Italian and Portuguese.
So, if you already know one of the Latin or “Romance” languages what you’ll need to do is see the “regular” patterns of difference and focus right in on the key peculiarities in structure and usage (such as the unique Portuguese future subjunctive and personal infinitives or the unusual Catalan compound past tense with “anar” to go).
In the same way, if you’re a native Polish speaker – or have already learned Polish or another Slavic language – the verbal aspect system of Russian won’t phase you.
Indeed “aspect” (where the emphasis is on whether or not a action is a one off completed whole or not) also overlaps with the English simple/continuous tense pattern (I eat/I am eating). The overlap is far from perfect, but, I’ve you’re a native speaker of a language that doesn’t make these distinctions at all (such as French or German) then knowing English will help you some when you move on to Russian.
Japanese uses a system of particles which often behave rather like case endings in other languages that I’ve learned or like the Russian particle -же and -то which can add (respectively) emphasis or precision. The “subject” of the sentence in Japanese is flagged with は which to me seems rather like the “ergative” ending -k that you add the subject in Basque. Yep, the differences are no-doubt greater. The point is just that such distant echoes can help in the early stages.
So it goes on: I started Welsh and found that they put their adjectives after nouns. I was already used to this from French….
Different sentence structure doesn’t surprise you
One of the biggest breakthroughs for newbie language learners is grasping that it’s not just the meaning of individual words that’s different from one language to another, but also how words are strung together.
To start at the default word order: most European languages are “subject – verb – object”: The dog bit the man.
I’d already departed from this when I learned Welsh as Celtic languages are, unusually, verb – subject – object: Brathodd y ci y dyn (Bit the dog the man). When I started learning Japanese, my Welsh experience left much much less phased to depart again from the (to me) “natural” S-V-O pattern. Japanese, you see is a subject – object – verb language or, more usefully (as the subject is often just implied by context): the verb in Japanese always comes at the end of the sentence:犬が男を噛んだ (Inu ga otoko o kanda: dog the man bit).
In German, in compound tenses, the main verb is placed at the end of the sentence: Er hat die Zeitung gekauft – he has the newspaper bought. That took quite a bit of practice to get used to, as did moving both verbs to the end in subordinate clauses: Er sagte, dass er die Zeitung gekauft hat – He said that he the newspaper bought had). Yet Dutch has the same system, which will really help when I learn that language (I have the book already) 😉
Sprachbund anyone? The view from linguistic crossroads
When very different languages have lived cheek by jowl for a long time it’s sometimes just individual words that are borrowed but grammar structures that become intertwined even if languages are “genetically” unrelated (i.e. that hasn’t developed from the same ancestor). This can happen at “linguistic crossroads” where different groups which may speak languages which are quite unrelated (in that they don’t share a common ancestor). Linguists speak of Sprachbünde or “linguistic federations” So, if you know one of Greek, Albanian or a Southern Slavic language like Macedonian or Serbian you’ll have an advantage when you come to learn another (and of course the South Slavic languages are in any case very closely genetically related).
Chinese, meanwhile, has had a strong influence on other languages in east Asia. My friend Professor Tim Keeley, an amazingly accomplished polyglot based at Kyushuu Sangyo University put it so:
I always advocate learning Chinese (Standard 普通話/國語, Cantonese 廣東話, Minnan 閩南語, etc.) Vietnamese Tiếng Việt 㗂越, Japanese 日本語, and Korean 한국어/韓國語.
Some people underestimate the prevalence and importance of the sino-based vocabulary shared with the non-Chinese languages in this group (JA, KO, VI), the grammatical similarities between Japanese and Korean, and the important aspect of constructing complex sentences (multiple clauses) without the use of relative pronouns which is similar in Chinese languages/dialects, Japanese and Korean.
Some people point out that we are dealing with different language groups/families/isolates, or however you want to classify them, so knowing one does not help with the others. That is based on a lack of actual direct knowledge. You see grammatical similarities in Sparchbund around the globe, and this is a very special case.
You know that fluency is achievable
Just as important, though are the changes in mindset that come with experience in learning several languages.
If you’ve got fluent, you won’t have the problems of self-belief that can defeat adult learners who’ve maybe only had experience of failing at language learning at school. If you’ve done it once, you can do it again.
You’ll have developed your language learning skills and have experience of good methods
You’ll have developed some good language learning skills and have some some experience of methods that have worked for you. You can use these again, confident in the knowledge that they’ll work again. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try out new things, of course. Just because something is works, doesn’t mean that it’s optimal.
You’ll be realistic about the time it takes
You’ll be realistic about the amount of time that it takes to learn a language.
One the one hand, this could mean you’ll realise that some things are quicker than the uninitiated may expect. As I found with Russian, you can learn a new alphabet a few weeks, so I’m not going to be put off other languages with similar systems (such as the alphabets of Korean, Greek or Georgian).
One the other hand, you’ll appreciate that it takes hundreds of hours of input and output practice to get good at a language. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be on the look out for ways to learn more speedily and efficiently. It does mean your expectations of yourself will be more realistic. You’ll have a healthy dose of scepticism about claims to be able to buck the system.
You’ll make what you can do go further
As you gain in experience, you’ll be more ready to focus on getting the most out of what you can understand, ready to rely on context or just an educated guess to fill in the gaps. You’ll be more able to make a few spoken words go a long way. In short, you can carry comprehension and speaking “strategies” from one language to the next.
You’ll get better at taking the rough with the smooth
You’ll also know that learning a language involves a lot of subjective ups and down, highs and lows as you move from beginner to intermediate and beyond.
Even if you know it’s a long process and often a fun and rewarding one, you’ll accept that it can involves frustrations and sometimes a bit of awkwardness.
In search of the right analogy
As you can see from my own experience as an enthusiastic learner and attentive learner of a number of languages you can develop a very helpful linguistic sensitivity as you go. It may be more rough and ready than the analysis that would come naturally to a professionally trained linguist, but it sure is still a big help.
Just as important are the “can do” mindset that will come with already having got fluent in one foreign language. You know it can be done, you know some methods that work, you’re realistic about the time it takes and the ups and downs involved.
So, does learning new languages get easier with experience?
Yes, language learning does get easier. It never, though, really gets easy.
Learning your fifth, sixth or tenth language is not like rattling off what once seemed like a difficult mathematical proof for the umpteenth time, no sweat.
Language fifteen may “cost” you less than languages two, three or four… Experience helps in so many ways, as I’ve tried to set out and this is especially the case if your language is closely related to one you know well.
But each new language requires a lot of commitment….over the long term.
When thinking about whether learning new languages gets easier maybe the best analogy is that of bringing up one child or several. You’ll know a lot of what to expect but offspring two, three and four will still demand a huge amount of time. Each one will put you through the mill in ways you’d expected and cause you new exasperation and heartache.
Each one will thrill and delight you in old and new ways too.
This, I guess, is why some of us like to devote ourselves to a big, rowdy linguistic brood.
Note: for some research on how learning languages get easier check out: this article.