Bilingualism: Laying the Groundwork for Future Language Learning Posted by mtaulier 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?