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!
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?”
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 Affe, Pfeffer 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.