A forest of trees - a good analogy for the trees and branches of closely related languages

Studying closely related languages can be a help, not a hindrance

Studying two or more languages can be a challenging undertaking. But when they are closely related languages, instinct suggests that the similarity could be a source of confusion. “Don’t you ever get mixed up?” people ask. And, truthfully, from personal experience, you do. Particularly in the early stages.

But then again, so do bilingual children, as a completely normal part of learning two languages at home. And they go on to develop perfectly separate, fully-functioning bubbles of language as adults. Human beings are well-equipped to learn similar – but different – skills without one collapsing into the other. The mixed-up myth has long been burst for bilinguals.

In fact, a focus on close language pairs can be a blessing in many ways, rather than a curse. Whether it’s Polish and Russian, French and Spanish, Norwegian and Icelandic, or some other mix, there are plenty of reasons not to worry!

Highlighting gaps

One language can support the other by throwing light on gaps in your vocabulary. For instance, if you’re constantly saying a word in language X when you try to speak language Y, it’s quite likely that it’s missing in the second language for you. If it’s not missing, at the very least, it needs a bit of reinforcing.

This happened constantly in Polish for me – I’d reach for ‘unfortunately’, and only the Russian к сожалению would come out. It didn’t take long to reach for an online dictionary and learn the Polish (niestety) instead.

It’s helpful to test yourself on these gaps when you review vocabulary in one language. Interrogate yourself when you look up words or recall items. – So, Spanish for goat is la cabra… Do I know what that is in French, too? Perhaps even keep a bilingual vocabulary list in Excel, or your best Moleskine. This way, your stronger language can become the yardstick for the weaker one. “I can say this in language X – but can I say it in language Y too?”

Familiar grammar

Closely related languages usually share a great overlap in grammar principles. As a most basic example, knowing that French has masculine and feminine nouns also sets you up nicely for Spanish.

Similarities continue as the level gets more complex. For example, there is a fair stretch of common ground when it comes to using the subjunctive in French and Spanish. Learn one, and you have a head start on the other. At the very least, there will be fewer nasty surprises.

Deep understanding – a historical perspective

Knowing how related languages changed in different ways from a ‘parent’ language can also be an invaluable crutch for learning. Through an understanding of how particular sounds developed across different languages, you can often guess at the meaning of new words.

The Germanic sound shifts are a good example. If you can see that /p/ in English and Dutch often developed as /f/ in German, then you can make a better guess at what AffePfeffer and tief mean*.

This kind of cross-history view helps foster a really deep understanding of a language. Rather than just answering what and how, it starts to provide answers for why languages are a certain way. That’s certainly a step beyond basic holiday French / German / Spanish!

More than just language

This naturally leads to the notion that language is so much more than just words. The language you are learning is embedded in a social context, which has similarly developed on the historical axis. If you explore backwards far enough in your related languages, you can follow their twists and turns along important cultural and political shifts. Getting to know these ‘pivot points’ in the shared history of two languages can be a wonderful source of insight into the context behind the language.

For example, one ‘standard’ variety of written Norwegian – bokmål – is extremely similar to Danish. The other ‘official’ variety of Norwegian, nynorsk, preserves a more archaic feel, its vocabulary just a little reminiscent of highly conservative Icelandic. Understanding why, and delving deeper into the conflicts between Norway’s standard languages, rewards the learner with a much richer understanding of geopolitical history.

Whatever your reasons, don’t worry too much about taking on related languages. Laugh at the mix-ups and brush off the bumps in the road – the pay-off in extra learning is more that worth it in the end.

*They are monkey (ape), pepper and deep.

Exploring language family tree connections can be one of the most useful polyglot learning tools

Polyglot perfect recall: connecting your languages with Wiktionary

One of the nicest things about the polyglot journey is the interconnectedness you see along the way. And finding connections is a brilliant way to make words stick. Sometimes, those connections are staring you right in the face, like the German Flasche (bottle), a relative of the English word flask. But more often than not, it’s the less obvious connections that can be the most rewarding (and memorable).

Polyglot pants

Sometimes, you see connections in the most unlikely of places. Take Lowland Scots and Romanian, for example. Both Indo-European, but pretty far removed from each other. I happen to hear a lot of Scottish English, being based in Edinburgh. So when I came across the Romanian verb îmbrăca (to dress), I thought I spotted something familiar.

That -brăc- part of the word is, in fact, from an old Latin word for ‘trousers’, braca. So in Romanian, you literally ‘trouser yourself’ when you get dressed. Now, with these clues, some will instantly spot the connection. The Scots for ‘trousers’ is breeks, also related to the slightly more archaic breeches in Standard English or britches in Yosemite Sam country. That’s a handy hook between two unlikely language pairs to help remember a word!

Mining for connections

Unless you are a walking etymology dictionary, it can be hard to spot these connections. To this end, it’s much handier to look up new words on the open source dictionary site, Wiktionary. For a community-driven site, it’s absolutely packed with detail, including word origin.

Take the German word Zaun (fence), for example. At first glance, it looks pretty removed from anything familiar in English. However, check out the Wiktionary listing; it turns out that the word is a relative of the English town. With a bit of historical imagination, you can think up reasons why the meanings have slightly diverged. The town, or settlement, is an enclosed living space; the fence is a means for enclosing a space.

Word hangover

Languages derived from the same proto-family, like Indo-European, are bound to display these similarities. But often, you can find them in neighbouring languages from totally different trees, too.

If you’re learning Finnish and Russian, for example, you’ll find a few crossover words to help you. One of my favourites is the word kohmelo, meaning ‘hangover’. Check Wiktionary, and you’ll see that it’s a borrowing from the Russian похме́лье, meaning the very same. However, as a bonus, Wiktionary informs you that the Finnish word was further changed by ‘contamination’ with the word kohme, meaning numbness. So that’s three words you’ve learnt for the price of one, thanks to some canny connection-spotting!

Cultivate a bird’s eye view of language

If you travel back far enough, you’ll find all sorts of links between your languages. It’s one more reason why studying several languages at once can be a help, and not a burden. The polyglot approach is a fantastic way to get a bird’s eye view of language relationships and development; in my experience that has provided a great scaffold for making those words stick.

Which are your favourite word connections between languages?
Share them in the comments!