Is It Easier for Bilinguals to Learn Another Language? 6 Takeaways for Aspiring Polyglots
If you’ve learned to speak one foreign language, you may find yourself in awe of people who can speak two, three or even more of them.
You may be wondering: Is it worth it to go through that again? Do you have any leg up? Is it any easier for bilinguals to learn another language?
As a matter of fact, it is! Bilinguals tend to have an easier time learning their third language—because they understand the language learning process better, as well as languages in general, even if they don’t realize it.
Let’s go over six reasons why it’s easier for bilinguals to learn another language, so all you hopeful polyglots out there can get your study on again.
- 1. You Have Greater Language Confidence
- 2. Your Brain is Better Programmed for Language Learning
- 3. You Know How to Study Language
- 4. You Understand Grammar Better
- 5. You’re Already Connected to the Language Learning World
- 6. You Can Learn Faster by Picking the “Right” Language
- And One More Thing...
1. You Have Greater Language Confidence
Remember how scary it was to speak a foreign language for the first time?
Your voice probably shook, and if you’re like me, 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, perhaps most importantly, 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. Speaking often is, as you already know, the only way to achieve true communicative ability.
And because you already know this from your first foreign language, the second will be that much easier.
2. Your Brain is Better Programmed for Language Learning
Because you already know one foreign language, you are better prepared to learn another—and there are studies to prove it.
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!) tongue. Instead of translating new words to your native language, you can use your knowledge of your first 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 different grammar structures for each. This will help you learn another new language, even if its grammar structures are unrelated to those you know already (more on this below!).
- 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—a “wallet” might be a “thing you keep your money in,” for instance. Using language like this requires flexibility, and you 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 these important skills. Transferring them to a new language will not be as difficult as learning them from scratch.
3. You Know How to Study Language
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 methods and techniques you’ve used. Do some brainstorming on the following topics to help you identify the best methods to use as you study a new language:
- Things that worked well. 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? Plan to use the methods that you enjoyed and that worked well for you as you learn another foreign language.
- Things that didn’t work well. Did you try to look up entire sentences during real-time conversations? Did you cram the day before a test? It’s okay if a method that works for someone else doesn’t work for you, by the way—what’s important is that you identify which methods aren’t worth wasting your time on.
- New ways of learning. Are there study methods you wanted to try but didn’t have a chance to? Are there programs or opportunities that didn’t exist when you were learning your first foreign language? These might include making use of technology, at-home immersion or using sentence mining.
For instance, have you heard of the language learning program FluentU?
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You can use a combination of new methods and tried-and-true ones to make learning your second foreign language more efficient and interesting.
4. You Understand Grammar Better
When you studied your first foreign language, perhaps your eyes glazed over at the mention of the dative case, the subjunctive or the whole “matching articles to noun genders” thing.
That’s because grammar is difficult. And people who haven’t studied a foreign language may not even be familiar with grammar concepts in their own language.
You’ve already done the heavy lifting to learn many grammar terms and concepts. So when you study your next foreign language, you can skip straight to learning how to use new grammar structures, rather than learning what those structures are in the first place.
This is particularly helpful if you’ll be learning another language that’s similar to one of the ones you already know, but even if it’s not, there are bound to be similarities.
So, as you start to learn another new language, take a moment to think about grammar. Review the concepts you’ve already learned. Look at grammar books and familiarize yourself with common grammar structures in your native and first foreign language. It will give you that much more of a step up going forward.
5. You’re Already Connected to the Language Learning World
Because you’ve already learned one foreign language, you’ve probably met a lot of other people who speak multiple languages. Polyglots seem to come together, even when they don’t speak the same tongues.
Knowing other polyglots can be helpful as you begin learning a second foreign language. Talk with them and see if they can help you in your pursuit.
Things to discuss include:
- People who speak your new target language. Do they speak the language you want to learn, or do they know anyone who speaks it? Perhaps you can find a conversation partner to practice with.
- Additional study techniques. Perhaps they found new methods that worked especially well for learning a second foreign language, or for learning your target language in particular.
- Study resources they’ve used. Your friends might be able to recommend new dictionaries, courses or textbooks that you hadn’t heard of prior.
- Ways to stay motivated. Other polyglots know how hard it can be to learn languages, whether that’s foreign language number two or number ten. Ask them for encouragement and if they’d be willing to check in on your progress regularly.
6. You Can Learn Faster by Picking the “Right” Language
This means that a new foreign language that is closely related to your first foreign language will be easier and quicker to pick up.
So, 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.
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 entirely unrelated language. Consider the following points:
- Some words may be identical. The word “book” is libro in both Spanish and Italian, which are closely related languages, for example.
- Other words may be very similar. It’s easier to recognize and memorize words that are similar to ones you already know. For instance, the word “book” in Russian is kniga, and in Czech it’s kniha.
- Grammar structures are likely to be similar. Although there may be different rules, the underlying structure will probably be familiar to you, meaning you won’t need to learn new grammatical concepts, just new formulas.
- Your comprehension is likely to be very high. Even if you have trouble speaking the second language, you will likely be able to understand both the written word and 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, phrases or structures. This can speed up your progress significantly 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.”
Note that, even if you choose to study a second foreign language that is unrelated to your first two languages, it is still absolutely possible for you to pick it up quickly!
So, is it easier for bilinguals to learn another language?
I think it’s safe to say yes, based on the advantages we’ve just gone over! You’re very likely to find that learning a second foreign tongue is much easier than learning the first was.
It may still be frustrating at times, but if you make use of the skills you’ve already developed, it can be easier than you might anticipate—and lots of fun!
And One More Thing...
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