I recently received an email from a student named Will who asked about methods in learning multiple languages. Will observed:
Perhaps a bit more background before I continue: through personal experience (learning French and then Spanish) I’ve come to the conclusion that third and subsequent languages are very often learned in an entirely different way than second languages, and I couldn’t help but notice the lack of high-quality educational material geared specifically towards students who are already bilingual. This has led me to take a very serious interest in third language acquisition, in particular the development of better teaching methodologies and educational resources for third- and subsequent-language learners.
His email got me thinking about my experience in learning multiple languages and if there is an actual “method” that should be incorporated. I know from my own experience, as a fairly proficient speaker of Spanish and Portuguese, it is impossible to not draw from that knowledge when studying Italian, Catalan, and French. There is no way to avoid the mental comparisons among the various romance languages. However, in my study of Japanese and Chinese, how much do I draw from my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese? Are their strategies in my learning of Chinese, for example, from which I draw on my experience in learning some German? And if so, is there a “methodology” to this?
What I can say is that my experience in learning multiple languages has helped me not worry about things that are beyond my current level. That is to say, for example, although I use the subjunctive in Spanish and Portuguese, my overall proficiency in Italian is still not at the level where I worry too much about the subjunctive in Italian. I am confident that as my proficiency increases in Italian, at some point I’ll be incorporating more and more of these higher level concepts. Until then, I can put those items on the shelf. Second example, I know that agreement is important in German, but until my proficiency is higher, I know that I will continue to make mistakes in case and gender. I do my best, but I don’t sweat it too much for now. Third example, I know that tones are important in Chinese, but I also recognize that mistakes are going to continue for a while, so I keep on plugging away, doing my best, but not sweating it too much at this time. This is actually a very important part of language learning. Without the experience of multiple languages, it would be more difficult to assess what is absolutely essential now and what can be put on the “advanced-level shelf” for later. I often see university students of Spanish who struggle with clitic placement in Spanish, and my thought is, “Don’t worry, it will come later, when the rest of your proficiency catches up to this grammar point.”
Second, a learner who already speaks multiple languages knows that foreign language communication is actually possible. In my own case, I have had the experience of communicating with people in other languages. I have traveled where I needed to go, interacted with people I wanted to meet, eaten foods that I wanted to try, and experienced places where I wanted to visit. Those who are monolingual have never really experienced living, interacting, and communicating with people in another language. In their case, the learning of a second language is undertaken without the knowledge of what it is like to really talk to others in a foreign language. It is a different mindset to take on a task when you can envision the final outcome. This is the case of learners who already speak multiple languages.
And finally, learners of multiple languages end up creating their own methodology, rather than passively waiting for a teacher or a program to lead the way. In my own case, when I want to take on a new language, first, I find a textbook to serve as my foundation resource. Second, I listen to recordings, podcasts, and tons of samples of that language. Third, I find a tutor to practice with, giving me one-on-one time for questions and conversations.
So I thank Will for giving me this chance to think about the “methodology” of learning multiple languages. And I wish him well on his new acquisition of Portuguese.
The photo: I was recently with a group of Korean executives who told me that they think that I look like Harrison Ford. So, we took this picture of my imitation of Indiana Jones. Pretty cool, isn’t it? Maybe I should study Korean!