This blog post is taken from a guest post I wrote for the Linguistadores' website. Linguistadores is a free online learning resource tailored to your level while presenting you with articles, music and videos in your target language.
The Brit Who Won't Quit...
As a native English-speaker, people are often surprised to hear that I can speak another language fluently. English speakers have a reputation for being lazy at learning other languages, but this isn’t exactly true. Living in our English speaking environment we see no need to learn another language. We’re not lazy at language learning, we just don’t see the need.
Of course, there are lots of arguments for learning other languages all of which have been much talked about already. And yes, I get it! I love the challenge of learning a language and the fact that it opens a door into another culture. It gives you a deeper understanding of other people that translation or subtitles just can’t give. It’s also an excellent way of building bridges culturally, socially and commercially. This is why I learnt or rather am learning yet another language.
If at first you don’t succeed…your next language could be easier! I was surprised to find it a lot easier than the first time around. Certainly the two languages I learnt are from different families: French is of course a Romance language while Dutch is a West Germanic tongue. I found that along with my North Eastern English accent and a knowledge of some German, Dutch came a lot quicker but I would venture further to say I think the more languages you learn, the easier the process. I base this assumption not on natural facilities that your own language gives you but rather shortcuts that you have acquired in the first learning process.
Make use of shortcuts I hear a lot of people say they simply are too scared to speak to others in the language they are learning because they can’t remember the formulas. For example, “I would like a coffee please.” can be made simpler by saying, “A coffee, please.” Seems obvious? Believe me, I spent years worrying about finding the right formula before realising that in my own language we make these shortcuts and that they can be applied to other languages.
Of course I’m not advocating that you need to forget the grammar, not at all! In fact the same sort of shortcutting can be used when learning new grammar. The more languages you learn, the easier it is to recognise concepts of grammar and grasp why we need things such as cases, conjugations, declensions and so on.
The brain streamlines language learning and implements these shortcuts more naturally. It can give you a feeling for how the blocks of a language fit together. To give a concrete example, think of the pronoun ‘this’. This idea, this tram. In English, the demonstrative pronoun ‘this’ doesn’t change depending on the noun it precedes, since our words aren’t gender-specific. In French we learn that nouns do have a gender and therefore the word ‘idée’ in French is a ‘la’ word and so ‘this idea’ becomes, ‘cette idée’. The tram is a ‘le’ word and so ‘this tram’ becomes ‘ce tram’ (not cette tram). When we move to another language we have already grasped this concept and so can accept this grammar point quicker. In Dutch the ‘Het’ word becomes ‘Dit idee’ (this idea), while the ‘De’ word’s demonstrative pronoun turns into ‘Deze tram’.
I’m not the only one to find the idea of streamlining useful throughout the whole learning process: Boffins at the University of Haifa set out to see what benefits bilinguals had in gaining a third language. Professor Abu-Rabia explains, “Our study has…shown that applying language skills from one language to another is a critical cognitive function that makes it easier for an individual to go through the learning process successfully” (ScienceDaily). There you have it.
Bonus benefits Being bilingual and learning a third language has also had a further and unexpected effect on me. It has helped me appreciate my own mother tongue much more in terms of grammar and syntax but also in the cultural heritage we find therein.
Learning languages for me is a lifelong process and I don’t think will ever stop. We can always learn more about languages, even our own mother tongue, so if you embark on a voyage of language learning be prepared to work hard. But it pays off and the more you learn the better and easier it gets. I’m not saying it’s a walk in the park. It does require dedication and courage but the simple conclusion I present to you from this short article is: don’t stop because it is worth it.