Learning Languages
November 24, 2004 5:34 PM   Subscribe

Is it more difficult to learn two or more foreign languages at once than it is to learn one? Can the experience gained learning one foreign language be used to benefit the learning of the other? And on the subject of accents, those of you who can turn accents on and off at will, how did you achieve this talent?
posted by arimathea to Education (15 answers total)
I took French and German at the same time, and had no problems confusing them. One of my classmates, however, kept writing French sentences in German word order. Had I not had a couple years of French under my belt before starting German, it might not have been so simple.

I found the first language (French) the most difficult, since I had to learn about grammar and such. The languages I studied afterwards were much easier, with two exceptions. Written Mandarin I just couldn't get, and ASL is so different that I had to temporarily forget all the grammar and linguistics I'd picked up learning other languages.
posted by QIbHom at 5:50 PM on November 24, 2004

I ran into a lot of problems taking Czech and Russian at the same time. I was new to both languages, and I was always mixing up the vocabularies because of their similarities. A friend who took the classes with me fared better because he was already nearly fluent in Slovak and being really familiar with one Slavic language made it easier for him to differentiate the others. If I could do it over, I'd stagger them.

(All said, I don't remember much of one or the other anymore.)
posted by sophie at 6:15 PM on November 24, 2004

You probably don't want to start learning two languages at once. I think that taking the time to really learn one foreign language gives you a better understanding of language in general, which can be helpful in learning a third language.

Switching accents is easy if you know the sounds. Just imaging someone with an accent saying what you want to say and talk like that.

What languages and accents are you thinking of?
posted by mexican at 6:20 PM on November 24, 2004

It depends on your age and whether the languages are very similar, but if your goal is fluency in new languages, than I believe it would be more difficult to learn multiple languages at once. Fluency in a language amounts to instantaneous recognition of speech patterns, vocabulary, and idioms. As the volume of information to assimilate increases, either the speed or accuracy with which information is processed will be reduced.

Ask yourself: Would it be easier to master ballet at the same time as kick-boxing, or master them separately? If you are doing one, you can't practice the other, so that alone indicates advantages to learning them separately.

The first language you learn as an adult definitely provides building blocks for the next language. While I can't do too many accents, I do know how most people learn such tricks... practice, practice, practice.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 6:28 PM on November 24, 2004

Many people can do a passable imitation of other accents, one that sounds good to people who only natively speak their own dialect. Very very few people can actually imitate an accent in a way that sounds right to native speakers of that dialect/language.
posted by advil at 7:03 PM on November 24, 2004

I've studied both French and Japanese, consecutively. After a couple of months of concentrated study of Japanese, I discovered that I could not remember any French. Even simple words, like the days of the week, were completely beyond me. It was almost as if there were a big translate switch inside my head, and the switch was stuck in Japanese.

After completing my Japanese course, I found that the French started to return, a little at a time.
posted by SPrintF at 7:12 PM on November 24, 2004

SprintF: me too! About the translate switch. When Swahili is written in Roman characters, it uses "continental vowels", and the stress is often on the penultimate syllable, so it reminded me of Spanish. After a few months in Kenya, I COULD NOT remember anything in Spanish. To this day (about 4 years later), I'm just as likely to thank a Spanish speaker by saying "asante" as "gracias." Of course, I don't practice Spanish frequently; I'm sure it would help if I did.
posted by rkent at 9:18 PM on November 24, 2004

After speaking Spanish for a few hours I have trouble switching into Japanese, and vice versa.

But I don't have that trouble between Mandarin and Japanese, or Mandarin & Spanish. I think it's because Japanese sounds like Spanish....lots of consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel words. (Is goma Spanish or Japanese for rubber? And who can forget the famous Tocadisco shogunate?).

Also...there's a switch in your head between native and foreign language. Once you switch it to foreign you have to adjust a dial to find the language you want. It tends to stay stuck on wherever it was the last time you switched over.
posted by mono blanco at 9:31 PM on November 24, 2004

Do Italian and Spanish have much in common? Will learning one help in learning the other?
posted by madman at 10:33 PM on November 24, 2004

Italian and Spanish have a lot in common in their grammar and vocabulary. With languages like these, it is not a good idea to start learning them at the same time. However, when one has a strong enough grasp of either, it definitely helps in learning the other.

I have just spent 3 weeks on an intensive Portuguese course where my Spanish helped enormously. But had I studied Spanish and Portuguese at the same time, it would have been a terrible mess.
posted by keijo at 1:22 AM on November 25, 2004

I was studying French and German at the same time at school, and never had problems mixing them up. Started Russian later and the knowledge I gained from the other two languages was very helpful.

As for accents: well, I'm sometimes told that my French accent is very good, and I put this down to having learnt phonetics at university - once I had an idea of what sounds are possible across all languages, and a systematic way of classifying them, it helped me in my understanding and production of French. German had been easier in the pronunciation, as its spelling actually reflects the way things are said, but even there, I picked up a few tricks from phonetics classes. I have also always had a good musical ear, and I guess this helps.

I'm helping my boyfriend with his French accent by teaching him a little phonetics. Now he doesn't say 'tu' and 'vous' like they rhyhme...
posted by altolinguistic at 2:59 AM on November 25, 2004

I worked in a University language lab center, and I know of very few people who ever tried learning two languages at the same time. I was studying Yoruba for six years, and in the meantime I had to learn Spanish (monolingual roomates arrived) , so it can be done.

Here in Europe I often have to switch between languages frequently, and I find the languages I am fluent in edge out the ones I am trying to use to communicate on a basic level. Romanian completely contaminates my attempts at Italian or French, and I have given up trying to make my Yiddish conform to German grammer.
posted by zaelic at 4:10 AM on November 25, 2004

Getting an accent right in a foreign language is the same process as trying to imitate that foreign accent in your native language. If your good at imitating the way people speak, you'll be good at foreign languages.

My French accent started to improve a lot when I started to imitate Maurice Chevalier singing "Zank 'evean, for leetle girrrlzeu", or Peter Sellers doing Clouseau. The more exaggerated and ridiculous I felt, the more people complimented me on my accent. Lately I've been trying to speak Spanish like Ricardo Montalban speaks English.
posted by fuzz at 5:21 AM on November 25, 2004

I studied French in highschool and took a refresher course last year, after I had taken a couple of years of German. I found that I would think of the German word first and be at a loss for the correct French word.

I spent a lot of time in Germany speaking German and was told that my accent was very good. Now, back in Canada, I listen to German radio to keep my ear tuned to accent.
posted by KathyK at 6:33 AM on November 25, 2004

In my experience, if you've learned another language well at an early age, you won't have much problem with adding more, and two at a time shouldn't cause trouble unless they're very similar (like Czech and Russian).
posted by languagehat at 6:08 PM on November 25, 2004

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