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How the languages you know influence the languages you’re learning

By: Kaitlyn Tagarelli Wed Dec 20 2023

Hallihallo! Welcome back to Adventures in Language! In our last Science Behind Language Learning article, we talked about languages that are harder and easier to learn…for English speakers. But what if your native language is not English? Would you find the same languages to be hard or easy? In this article, we’re exploring one of the reasons why language difficulty is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Specifically, we’ll talk about how the languages you know influence the languages you’re learning.

It probably makes intuitive sense that if the language that you are learning is similar to your first language (L1) — if it has a lot of similar vocabulary and grammatical features, or a lot of overlapping sounds — you’d have an easier time learning that language than you would if the language were very different from your L1. To a certain extent, this is true. But some of the ways that languages influence each other might not be what you expect!

By definition, if you’re learning a second language (L2), you’ve already got at least one language under your belt. So it stands to reason that what you already know about that language would come into play when you start learning a new one.

Graphic showcasing how Portuguese and Spanish vocabulary overlaps for 90% of the cases

Spanish and Portuguese speakers have nearly 90% overlap in vocabulary, and they are spoken in close geographical proximity to each other.

So how does this work? Let’s take an example. Imagine that you’re a native speaker of Spanish, and you’ve decided to learn Portuguese. These languages are incredibly similar — according to Ethnologue, nearly 90% of their vocabulary is overlapping, and they have largely similar grammatical features and sounds. The languages also originate from and persist in similar cultures around the world, such as the Iberian peninsula in Europe and South America. In fact, many Spanish speakers from countries like Uruguay and Argentina are able to converse with the Portuguese-speaking Brazilians they meet without actually speaking each other’s languages. This means that, in some cases, there is a level of mutual intelligibility between the languages.

Studies have shown that native speakers of Spanish can understand about half of spoken Portuguese1 and over 90% of written Portuguese2 without ever taking a lesson. When it comes to learning, Spanish speakers learn Portuguese about twice as fast as English speakers3, whose native language is not nearly as similar. While the numbers are a bit striking, none of this is really surprising. But here’s something interesting — Spanish speakers learning Portuguese tend to get held up on some of the grammatical differences between the two languages. They’re able to understand and communicate meaning so early in their learning process that they tend to overlook the differences in grammar and pronunciation4. In fact, L1 Spanish speakers make more transfer-related errors in Portuguese than L1 English speakers do5.

Let’s pause here for a quick primer on how languages are related. Much like a family tree, ancient languages have evolved into the languages that exist today, often branching off and forming new and different, but related, languages.

A map showcasing how languages in the world are related with Europe and both Americas being deeply connected

Map of the six major language families, spoken most widely by number of speakers and geographical distribution. Adapted from Ethnologue by SIL International. Some areas of overlap are not shown.

Indo-European languages form one of the major language families, and these have branched out into smaller language families, like the Romance languages — which include Spanish and Portuguese. Romance languages have much more in common with each other than they do with languages in the other Indo-European sub-families. And even within language sub-families, language evolution has happened in such a way that Norwegian is more closely related to Icelandic than it is to Dutch. The Indo-European languages overall have more in common with each other than with Sino-Tibetan languages like Mandarin or Afro-Asiatic languages like Arabic. Language typology is the study of similarities and differences in features between the world’s languages. While distantly related languages can have many features in common, the closer two languages are to each other on a language tree, the more typologically similar they are likely to be.

The ways in which languages influence one another are known as cross-linguistic influences, or language transfer. Early research in this area was based on the assumption that L2 learning was mostly a question of adjusting habits developed during L1 learning. Learners might experience positive transfer, where learning is facilitated by similarities between the L1 and L2, or negative transfer, where learners make mistakes because of differences between the L1 and L2.

So how does this work in the wild? Say an English speaker wants to say “He ate five mangoes” in French. A direct, word-for-word translation gets you: “Il a mangé cinq mangues.” And this is a perfectly correct French sentence, if perhaps a questionable dietary choice… This is an example of positive transfer. English and French have very similar word order, so what this learner already knows about English helps when it comes to producing this sentence in French.

But if that learner tried to rely on English word order to say something like “I miss you” in French, he’d get it wrong, because French uses a different sentence structure for this phrase. Both French and English speakers learning the other language often end up saying “You miss me” instead of “I miss you.” This is an example of negative transfer.

An example of how sentence structures in your native language do not always apply in the language you are studying: in English you say I miss you but in French you would say something like You to me are missing

There are clear advantages for learners whose L2 is typologically similar to their L1. Instances of positive transfer are hard to measure — it’s basically an absence of mistakes — but there are noticeable differences in learning rates, as mentioned above for Spanish vs. English learners of Portuguese. Finland is a fantastic place to study cross-linguistic influences because there is a sizable number of Finnish-Swedish bilinguals, many of whom start learning their second language (either Swedish or Finnish) around 3rd grade, and then go on to learn English as a third language. Swedish is a Germanic language that is very similar to English, whereas Finnish is not even in the Indo-European family (it’s a Finno-Urgic language, like Estonian and Hungarian) and is very different from English. Native Swedish speakers have been shown to achieve high English proficiency at a much faster rate than the native Finnish speakers, which has been attributed to the large overlap in vocabulary, grammar, and sound systems. The differences in learning rate are most apparent in the early stages of learning, and level out at higher proficiency levels6.

Finnish is a language that does not belong to the Indo-European language family although Finland is in Europe

In Finland, residents speak Finnish (yellow), a Finno-Urgic language (pink), which is very different from Swedish (blue), spoken in nearby Sweden and by a minority population in Finland.

Some researchers have proposed that the most difficult difference for learners occurs when the native language has a single form for something but the second language has multiple forms. For example, French has two high rounded vowels, as in the words “tu" and “tout.” Initially, English speakers perceive both of these sounds as the English /u/ and struggle to form two separate categories for them7. Spanish has two forms of the verb “to know” —  conocer and saber. English-speaking learners notoriously have a very difficult time learning the appropriate uses of these two verbs. However, both forms exist in other languages like French, Italian, and German, so this doesn’t pose a challenge for speakers of these languages.

Contrary to what you may think, language differences don’t necessarily imply difficulty. In fact, if a language feature is very different between the L1 and L2, it might actually stand out to learners and be relatively easy to learn. This is especially true if it’s a feature that is used very often or very rarely. For example, Arabic doesn’t have a progressive tense (like, “I’m going” or “She’s writing”), but this is a very frequent, salient construction in English that Arabic speakers master quite early8. This is known as a novelty effect.

It should also be noted that a lack of mistakes doesn’t necessarily mean that a learner has mastered a form. Learners might also choose, consciously or not, to avoid using forms that are different from those that exist in their L1. Language contains a lot of redundancy, or different ways to say the same thing. So while English speakers tend to use phrasal verbs like “come in” and “shut off,” L1 Hebrew speakers, whose first language does not have phrasal verbs, tend to prefer the accurate but less common one-word alternatives, like “enter” and “stop”8. While not errors, per se, this kind of production does not reflect native speaker usage, and in this way, it is evidence of L1 transfer.

How a learner perceives the difference between their L1 and L2 also plays a role in cross-linguistic influence. That is, if a learner thinks that their L1 and L2 are typologically similar, they might not notice the differences and therefore won’t even realize that they should be learning something. Grammatical gender — that is, how nouns can be masculine or feminine —  is a tricky concept for English speakers learning a language like German. Italian speakers, whose native language has grammatical gender, are likely to find it easier to learn this feature in German. However, they might be thrown off by the fact that German has three genders instead of two, or that German and Italian can assign different genders to the same noun. For example, the word for key is feminine in Italian (la chiave) and masculine in German (der Schlüssel).

What if you know multiple languages? How does this influence learning your third language (L3)? First of all, there is clear evidence that knowing multiple languages facilitates learning an additional language. Beyond the positive transfer that you might experience from simply having more cognates and similar grammatical features to draw on, it’s also likely that you’ve developed and honed language learning skills and strategies that you can put to use when learning a new language. Interestingly, multilingual learners are more likely to draw on the language that is more typologically similar to their L3, regardless of whether that’s the L1 or L2. So both Finnish-Swedish and Swedish-Finnish bilinguals tend to rely more on Swedish when sussing things out in English9. This phenomenon is referred to as typological primacy. However, the L2 tends to exert more influence on the L3 because they both put the speaker in the mode of speaking a foreign language.

Well, there you have it! How the languages you know influence the languages you’re learning.

To recap:

  • The languages you know influence the languages you’re learning! If your languages are typologically similar — that is, closely related — you’re likely to get a boost. If they’re very different, you’ll probably encounter some more challenges. However, sometimes the opposite is true!

  • Cross-linguistic influences are often categorized into instances of positive transfer — where learning is facilitated by similarities between the L1 and L2 — and negative transfer — where learners make mistakes because of differences between the L1 and L2.

  • How a learner perceives the languages they learn can influence the extent of language transfer.

  • And finally, knowing multiple languages facilitates learning additional languages, and the typology of the languages you know is likely to have more of an impact than the order in which you learn them.

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Wondering what languages were used in today’s article? Hallihallo (HAHleeHAHloh) and Tschüssi (chewsee) mean “Hi!” and “Bye!” in German. Interested in learning German or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers?  Click to check out our courses! 

References cited in this article

References and suggested readings to explore more about this topic:

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How the languages you know influence the languages you’re learning~DeckHow the languages you know influence the languages you’re learning~Worksheet

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