About this time last month I wrote a short post about Jorge Fernandez Gates, a young Peruvian who has studied or mastered eleven languages. Since then I’ve heard him criticized for something that I don’t think is entirely worthy of reproach: most of his languages are from the same language family as his own native language. His language list includes Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Portuguese, Romanian, French, Italian, German, Swedish, English, Dutch and Mandarin. The first six are Romance languages and are closely related. The next three are Germanic and not so closely related; then there’s Mandarin. This brings up some interesting questions: Is it easy or unimpressive for someone to learn several languages that are all from the same language family? Are you a true polyglot if you speak four or more languages that are all related or are you simply guilty of language incest?
Learning Related Languages
Learning Spanish and Portuguese, when neither is your native language, is a lot like learning to play the piano and the organ. Once you can play one of them well learning to play basic tunes on the other is very easy, however, learning to play both of them at an advanced level is actually more difficult than you would think. A pianist who can play Rachmaninov (very difficult piano music) usually cannot play an organ piece by Vierne (very difficult organ music) even after a month or two of study.
Learning related languages is similar. Going from Spanish’s gracias to Italian’s grazie is not too difficult but even simple phrases like Quiero comer en el auto and Voglio mangiare nella macchina (I want to eat in the car) sound and look very different. Differences like these make mastering both languages anything but easy. Interestingly enough, the more informally similar languages are expressed the more they usually diverge. An educated Spanish speaker and an educated Portuguese speaker can have a fairly good conversation if each speaks slowly and is patient with the other. It’s in those types of situations where Spanish and Portuguese seem like diverse dialects of the same language. Conversely, I think that it would be the funniest thing in the world to watch two sixteen-year-old street punks, one from Portugal and the other from Colombia, try to communicate at even a very basic level. It is in those types of situations where Spanish and Portuguese are clearly two different languages.
Stuart Jay Raj moved from Australia to Thailand without learning the language beforehand. He has been there for about a decade now and knows Thai very well. When asked how long it took him to learn the language he responded that it didn’t take long at all; he taught himself to read in an afternoon. Since this doesn’t sound very plausible Stuart then proceeded to explain the similarities between Thai and other languages that he had studied like Cantonese, Mandarin, Ancient Chinese and Sanskrit. Using these similarities, he was able to learn the language quickly.
Knowing several different related languages has a synergistic effect that allows you to understand each language much better than you would have had you only learned one of them. If you learn one then learning the second is easier but learning the third becomes even easier and so on and so forth. Your linguistic confidence will almost certainly be boosted and that’s a good thing. Some people need to learn three languages that are closely related before they have the confidence necessary to master a totally different and exotic one.
Time to Diversify
It is stupid to say that learning many related languages is easy or unimpressive. However, it is undeniably true that learning three unrelated languages is harder and more impressive than learning six related ones. I don’t think it is right for us to really consider ourselves true polyglots unless we have a fairly good knowledge of a language that has very little to do with our own. The ability to function in a language that comes from a culture so radically different from one’s own cultural and linguistic background is a mind opening experience that learning Belorussian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Russian, etc. cannot offer.
Filed under: Language Learning