Transparent Language Blog

Bilingualism: Laying the Groundwork for Future Language Learning Posted by on Jun 25, 2014 in Archived Posts

The title of this post may confuse you. How can being bilingual help you learn a foreign language? You’re probably thinking, “I’m still struggling to learn my first foreign language!”

Let me relate a personal anecdote you might find helpful. Many years ago, I moved to France with my parents. We did not live in an English-speaking community but instead became immersed in French culture to the point where I was given no other option than to adapt. And that’s what I did. I attended French school where I learned how to speak, read and write le Français. It was a wonderful experience. Since then, my ability to speak two languages has come in handy on occasion. Fast-forward about 25 years.

A few years ago, I married a wonderful Russian woman. Although my wife speaks perfect English, she occasionally reminds me of a promise I made before we got married to learn to speak her native language. There are times when I regret that promise. It’s not that I don’t want to learn a third language, it’s just that I don’t feel a pressing need to dedicate several years of my life to the task; at least not at this point in my life. We are coming up on our fourth wedding anniversary and I am far from being able to hold a conversation with her in Russian.

However, despite my reluctance to tackle the problem head-on and to devote myself to traditional methods of language learning, I have noticed that over the last few years I have picked up more bits and pieces of Russian just by listening than I had initially thought possible. Was this simply a matter of luck? Do I have a natural aptitude for language-learning that I was unaware of? No and no.

I came to the realization that my ability to speak French had made it easier to pick up the fundamentals of the Russian language. Although French and Russian are quite different, one being a Romance language and the other Slavic, I found myself drawing connections between French and Russian words without thinking. I had drawn rudimentary connections between English and French words when I first moved to France so this was familiar territory. Although I am limited to only a few simple phrases in Russian, my comprehension of the language has improved dramatically, to the point where I am almost able to follow a conversation between native Russians. And all of this without opening a Russian language book or taking a Russian language class. I have little doubt that if my only language were English, I would still be struggling to understand even the most basic of Russian phrases.

So what does this mean for you? If you’re still in the process of learning your first foreign language, you can look forward to becoming trilingual with less effort. Language learning, believe it or not, becomes easier the more languages you know. A study conducted by the University of Haifa in Israel in 2011 concluded that students who were already bilingual were able to gain command of a third language must faster than those who were only fluent in one language. The premise is that languages reinforce one another so the more languages you know, the easier the learning process becomes.

So just remember, by dedicating your time now to learning your first foreign language, you’re laying the groundwork for your future success should you choose to learn a second and even a third.

Have you had a similar experience using your second language to learn a third language, or beyond? What, if anything, has helped you learn a second foreign language?


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  1. Rachael:

    Yes! I’ve experienced this as well, especially with the drawing parallels like you said you have. My native language is English and I can speak Swedish mostly fluently, and I’ve found that it helped me a lot being able to speak both languages when I started on my third, German. It’s a bit easier seeing as they’re all germanic languages. Although sometimes all three languages mix up in my head and I can’t figure out how to say something when I’m stressed and tired!

  2. Michael:

    I find this especially true with languages from the same group, particularly romance languages. I studied Latin and French in High School, French in a total immersion environment. Living in NYC I had a lot of Spanish speaking friends and started picking up a lot of Spanish. Before I knew it subway advertisements in Spanish became more intelligible, as did Spanish language newspaper headline seen on newsstands. TV programs, especially the ubiquitous tele novellas, no longer seemed so foreign. Now many years later having studied Spanish in a more traditional manner I’m beginning to understand Portuguese and Galician much better, and Catalan also makes more sense. Being of partial Italian background the Italian language was somewhat familiar to me from an early age, although my parents didn’t teach it to me since my mother wasn’t Italian. After studying Latin, French and Spanish I now find I can understand most Italian I hear though I don’t possess a readily available vocabulary to be able to converse easily. What strikes me most is that being bilingual seems to make you subconsciously more receptive and attentive to other languages.

  3. Matthhou:

    Although this might be true with “european” languages, I can tell you it’s far from the truth with other foreign tongues that have no common roots.
    I can speak French and English, and I learned German pretty easily thanks for the common latin and germanic roots.
    But now I’m trying to learn Cambodian (Khmer), and there are absolutely no root to hang on to!
    Then again, once I have a good enough level in Khmer, I’m sure I will be able to learn Vietnamese and Thai more easily…

  4. Dr. J:

    I learned my second and third simultaneously. Since French and Spanish are similar in many ways, it was easy to draw parallels between them. But later, when I tried to learn other languages (Japanese, Arabic, Italian), it was easier to accept rules and sounds that I may not have accepted so easily if I had only known English at the time. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  5. Barbara:

    Being bilingual has so many advantages. I enjoyed reading your post and heartily agree that learning a second language helps us to ‘pick up’ a third much more easily without too much effort as opposed to those who aren’t bilingual. According to research the mere fact that your brain understands more than one language has many other benefits regarding brain function and learning in general. Thank you for this post. Barbara

    • mtaulier:

      @Barbara Thank you for your comment, Barbara. Language learning can be fun and challenging and there is no doubt that it enhances brain function and may even prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders. Everyone should take the time to learn a second language!

  6. Maria:

    I’m bilingual, too (English-Spanish), and I agree with you about drawing parallels. At the moment, I’m learning Korean, which is as different as you can get from either language. But, I find that it’s quite easy to find common points between the three languages. I tell most people that Spanish is a hair closer to Korean because they sound very similar and the omission of pronouns is common in both. Even though, English and Korean don’t share many (or maybe any) common points, the simple fact that I accept the craziness of the grammar and spelling allows me to be just as open-minded about learning new grammar points in Korean.
    On another note, quite recently I’ve noticed that I’ve started having an emotional response to Korean. It’s like I’m understanding the feelings behind the spoken language and not just the words. I started looking at my other two languages and realized that the same is true for them. I connect with them emotionally because I learned them while I watched other people’s conversations just like you with Russian.
    It leads me to believe that many language learners are missing that visceral connection with the language(s) they are learning. They just focus on the word, the **written** word, and forget about the emotions that are present in the spoken language.
    Thank you so much for sharing your experience!

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