If you’ve learned to speak one foreign language, you know that learning a language is not a quick, easy feat.
It requires time, perseverance and lots of work.
But you also know that learning a language is rewarding, useful and fun.
What you may not know is that learning a second foreign language is not as hard as learning the first foreign language.
Here are six reasons why.
6 Reasons Learning to Speak Another Foreign Language Is Easier Than the First
1. You have the confidence to do it.
Remember how scary it was to speak a foreign language for the first time? Your voice probably shook, and you felt like climbing into a hole and never coming out.
But you did it anyway! With practice, you learned it was okay to make mistakes, and you gained confidence in your abilities.
When you study a second foreign language, you can put this confidence to use. You know it’s not the end of the world if you make a mistake. You know it’s okay to make a fool of yourself sometimes. And you know that the more you practice speaking, the better you will become.
Being confident enough to start speaking right away—even when you only know a handful of words in a new language—is a huge advantage and will lead to fast progress in your second foreign language. The more you speak, the better you will become at speaking, and this is the only way to achieve true communicative ability.
But you already know this from your first language, which is why the second will be easier.
2. Your mind is wired for the flexibility to speak multiple languages.
Because you already know one foreign language, you are better prepared to learn another.
Research shows that learning a new language changes the networks in your brain. This has many advantages, including improved brain health.
It also means that you pre-developed some of the networks necessary to learn a second foreign language. This may be why many learners reference a foreign language—not their native language—when studying a second (or third!) language. Instead of translating new words to your native language, you can use your knowledge of another foreign language and build on existing brain networks in a way you weren’t able to do in the past.
Just think about the many ways you’ve grown accustomed to using your brain when you speak a foreign language:
- Formulating sentences using a different grammar structure. No matter what languages you speak, you’ve undoubtedly learned to use a different grammar structure. This familiarity and flexibility with structure will help you as you learn a new language, even if its grammar structure is unrelated to any other language you know.
- Thinking of ways to express yourself when you don’t know a particular word. Anyone who has studied a foreign language has learned to “talk around” an idea when they don’t know the vocabulary words to express it directly. For example, you might call a “wallet” a “thing you keep your money in.” It takes flexibility to be comfortable using language like this, and you undoubtedly already have this skill.
- Listening to and processing rapid speech. You have grown accustomed to listening to native speakers talk very quickly and have learned to pick out words you know, as well as identify words you may not be familiar with so that you can ask about or look them up later.
As you can see, your brain is already programmed to use important skills. Transferring them to a new language will not be as difficult as learning them from scratch.
3. You’ve developed a study method that works.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Save time and speed up your learning by using the study methods that worked best when you learned your first foreign language.
Take a moment to think about the study methods you’ve used. Do some brainstorming on the topics below to help you identify the best methods to use as you study a new language:
Think about the schedules and methods that worked best for you in the past.
Did you study every day or once every week? Did you study during your coffee breaks or daily commute? Did you learn through entertainment like movies and music? Did you take an online language course?
Write down whatever worked best for you and plan to use these methods as you learn a new foreign language.
Identify methods that did not work well.
Did you try to look up entire sentences during real-time conversations, only to find that it was easier without a pocket dictionary? Did you cram the day before a test?
It’s okay if a method that works for someone else doesn’t work for you. What’s important is that you identify which methods aren’t worth wasting your time on.
Look for new ways of learning.
Are there study methods you wanted to try but didn’t have a chance to? Are there new opportunities that did not exist when you were learning your first foreign language? Consider giving new methods a try. These might include making use of technology, immersing yourself without leaving home or using sentence mining.
One awesome new technology that wasn’t around before is FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store.
4. You know your grammar.
When you studied your first foreign language, perhaps your eyes glazed over at the mention of dative case or matching articles to noun genders.
Grammar is difficult, and people who haven’t studied a foreign language may not be familiar with grammar concepts in their own language.
You’ve already done the heavy lifting to learn many grammar terms and concepts. When you study a second foreign language, you can skip ahead to learning how to use new grammar structures, rather than learning what those structures are in the first place.
As you start to learn a new language, take a moment to think about grammar. Review the grammar concepts you’ve already learned. Look at grammar books and familiarize yourself with common grammar structures in your native and first foreign language. Understanding grammar can help a lot as you begin to study a new language, even if the grammar rules are entirely different from what you have known before.
5. You’re connected to the polyglot world.
You’ve probably made a lot of friends who speak foreign languages. Polyglots seem to come together, even when they don’t speak the same language.
Knowing other polyglots can be helpful as you begin learning a second foreign language. Talk with your friends, and see if they can help you in your pursuit. Things to discuss include:
- Do they know anyone who speaks the language you want to learn? Perhaps you can find a conversation partner to practice with.
- Techniques or study methods they’ve used to learn different languages.
- Study resources they have used. Your friends might be able to recommend new dictionaries, courses or textbooks.
- Ways to stay motivated. Your friends know how hard it is to learn a new language. Ask them to encourage you and check on your progress regularly.
6. You can learn fast if you study a language that is closely related to your first foreign language.
Learning Italian will be easier if you speak Spanish, just as learning Czech will be easier if you already know Russian. These languages are in the same branches of the same language families, which means they share many characteristics.
The closer two languages are related, the more vocabulary and grammar they share. Naturally, this means that you can learn a closely related language faster than an unrelated language. This is because:
- Some words may be identical in closely related languages. The word “book” is libro in both Spanish and Italian.
- Other words may be very similar. It’s easier to recognize and memorize words that are similar to words you already know. For example, the word “book” in Russian is kniga and in Czech, kniha.
- Grammar structures are likely to be similar in related languages. Although there may be different rules, the underlying structure will probably be similar. This means you don’t need to learn new grammatical concepts, just new formulas.
- Your comprehension of a related language is likely to be very high, even if you have trouble speaking it. You will be able to understand the written word and comprehend the spoken word relatively quickly. You may also be able to make yourself understood to native speakers, even if you don’t use exactly the right words. This can speed up your progress and give you the motivation to keep studying.
In some cases, even unrelated languages may share many features. Languages that are spoken in the same region or share a long history of interconnection may share vocabulary words, even if the grammar and structure of the languages is extremely different.
Turkish and Arabic are a prime example of this. These language are in different language families, but share a related history due to the influence of Islam. If you know one of these languages, you will discover that some words (mostly derived from Arabic) are the same or similar in both languages.
It’s possible that even if a particular word is no longer commonly used, a native speaker who is familiar with literary or historical versions of the language may understand you—think “looking glass” instead of “mirror” or “bequeath” instead of “give.”
Whether you are studying related or unrelated languages, you will likely find that learning a second foreign language is much easier than learning the first.
It may be frustrating at times, but if you make use of the skills you have already developed, it can be easier than you might anticipate—not to mention lots of fun!
Katherine Kostiuk is a freelance writer with professional experience in international education and English teaching. She has lived in four foreign countries and studied five different foreign languages.