Use a language you already know to learn multiple languages
In this article, I’m going to show you exactly how you can make the most of any language you already know to learn another language, or to learn several languages!
Think you don’t know any languages already? You do – you know your native language. And yes – you can use your native language to learn many other languages.
Are you with me? Let’s look into the details of what that means.
1. Look for similarities in vocabulary
More often than not, your native language (or any other language you already know) will share some vocabulary with another language.
What I mean by ‘share’ is not that the words will be exactly the same (although they may be) but that they will have a common origin. The easiest way to illustrate this is using English as an example of a native language that many of you speak.
English uses a lot of words that derive from Latin, just like French, Spanish and Italian (but also less obvious languages such as Russian and Polish).
Look at the word ‘information’, for example.
In French, the word for ‘information’ is actually exactly the same.
In Polish, it’s very similar – ‘informacja’.
Words that share a common root are called ‘cognates’. A good place to start could be to simply google a list of cognates that a language you know and the language you’re learning share. For example, ‘English – Japanese cognates’.
Even Japanese shares a lot with English (as well as with many other languages!). ‘Tepu’ is ‘tape’, ‘jinsu’ is ‘jeans’, ‘hoteru’ is ‘hotel’.
Memorising cognates makes it so much more efficient to learn another language (and even to learn multiple languages at the same time!).
2. Understand your native language
I always say to people that if you’re lucky to come from a country where the education system includes the teaching of grammar in your native language, you will find it easier to learn a foreign language.
Why is that?
It’s because learning grammar involves understanding some rather complex concepts. Imagine you don’t know what a verb is at all (and believe me – many people don’t!). It will be pretty tricky to understand anything about verbs in a foreign language if you don’t know what a verb in your native language is.
Similarly, when you know the grammar of your own language, you will understand the functions that different words have in sentences. You will know, for example, that in English a verb is almost always preceded by a subject (for example: ‘I go to school.’). This will make it easier for you to understand grammar rules such as ‘In Polish, the subject is often skipped in the first person – ‘Chodzę do szkoły’ (‘ [ I ] go to school’).
If you haven’t learnt a foreign language before, or if you’re struggling with the language you’re learning, I really recommend that you learn at leasts the basic concepts of grammar in your own native language first. This will make things so much easier!
3. Look for similarities in grammar structures
Once you understand the basic concepts in the grammar of your own language and any other languages you know, it’s going to be much easier for you to spot the similarities it shares with the new language you’re learning.
How do you talk about the future in the language you’re learning, and how do you do it in your native language? Some people will find it useful to compare and contrast grammar structures in this way. It can help you remember that, for example, to talk about the future in the language learning, you use the same configuration of words as you do in your native language. Or, that it’s completely the opposite.
In some languages, the similarities will be striking. For example, in English, modal verbs are followed by infinitives (such as ‘I must go’). The same is true in Polish (‘Muszę iść’) and in French (‘Je dois aller’).
Looking for such similarities is also helpful when learning several languages at the same time.
4. Deconstruct your own language
What is it in your native language that enables you to have conversations? The answer to this is not easy but you can get to it if you deconstruct the language you use in your day-to-day life.
Here’s what you should do.
Think of an example of a conversation that you often have in your native language or in another language you already know. Let’s use this as an example: a conversation about what you did at the weekend. This is something many people do when they go back to work on a Monday.
What kind of things are you likely to say? Here are some examples:
‘How was your weekend?’
‘I had a nice weekend, thank you.’ (In response to somebody asking you how your weekend was.)
‘I went swimming on Saturday and had dinner with friends on Sunday.’
What language structures do you need to say these things? These may be:
- The past tense (to talk about things I did last weekend)
- Asking questions in the past tense (to ask what somebody else got up to)
Looking at the language you frequently use when speaking your native language allows you to build up a list of language points that will be useful when speaking the foreign language you’re learning.
Deconstructing your own language in this way is a good starting point because it allows you to focus on things that you do frequently rather than starting with a random language point that you may not need to use in practice for a long time.
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