Be Fearless on Your Way
to Multilingual Mastery

By Marina Pantcheva

In the May issue of MultiLingual earlier this year, writer Eddie Osborne took us on an impressive journey through his language-learning experiences that span more than ten languages from five different language families. In his piece, he discusses the effect that prior knowledge of one language can have on the acquisition of another language, concluding that the decisive factor for the success of language learning is the time and patience a learner devotes to its study.

Though I’m a polyglot myself, I couldn’t fully identify with Osborne’s language-learning experiences and implicit expectations. I found myself wondering what the best advice would be to readers who are learning a foreign language and wish to speed up or improve the outcome. In this article, I’ll do just that, taking a more comprehensive, research-backed examination of the factors behind language learning and acquisition.

Language acquistion vs. learning

As a first step, we must distinguish between language acquisition and language learning. Language acquisition is the spontaneous and unconscious process of absorbing new vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar rules, such as word order, verbal tenses, and more.

This is something that babies and young children do with an amazing speed — after just a few months of exposure, kids can understand and use a new language while at the same time remaining blissfully unaware of the exact rules behind its negation patterns, case declensions, plural formation, possessive marking, regressive assimilation, tense, mood, and voice, to mention a few. A language that is acquired by babies and young children as a result of being submerged in an environment where this language is prevalent is called first language or “native language.”

Language learning, on the contrary, is the conscious process of internalizing the language rules, vocabulary, and phonology through formal study and instruction. A student of a new language may be perfectly well aware of all case declensions, tense, mood, voice, devoicing, progressive voicing, and other rules the language has, but still remain unable to apply them in conversations outside the classroom. A language learned this way is called a second language, or “foreign language.”

Whether you learn a language as a first or second language clearly affects the time and effort needed to master it. If you are learning a second language, many additional factors come into play. They can be divided into linguistic and non-linguistic, and I introduce them in turn.

Factors for language-learning success

Linguistic complexity

“Our language is so difficult! How did you manage to learn it?”

This is a question I hear every so often in the country in which I currently live. It always makes me smile because I’ve heard it in every country I’ve been to, provided I spoke its language. While speakers tend to overestimate the complexity of their native language, there is certainly a lot of truth in the hidden assumption. There are “simple” languages, such as pidgin and creole languages, and there are languages with an objectively complex grammar (Finnish), phonology (Xhosa), prosody (Swahili), writing system (Mandarin).

The complexity of a language directly influences the time needed to achieve proficiency. The problem is that it is hard to measure the overall complexity of a language, as a language may be easy to learn in one domain, but difficult in another. For instance, Mandarin Chinese has a difficult pictographic script and a tonal system unfamiliar to most speakers of an Indo-European language, but its grammar is fairly simple. Georgian, on the contrary, has a very complex grammar, but its script is relatively easy to learn.

Linguistic distance and language transfer

Linguistic distance is the degree of similarity between two languages. It is most frequently measured based on the lexical similarity between two languages using Levenshtein distance, that is, the overall number of additions, deletions, or substitutions of letters that are necessary to change a word in one language into the corresponding word in another language (for instance, how many operations does one need to change English “water” into German “Wasser” or Hebrew “mayim”).


A Map of Lexical Distances Between Europe’s Languages. Source: Big Think

Linguistic distance is not only about vocabulary convergence, though. It is also determined by the semantic, phonetic and morphosyntactic differences between languages.

Linguistic distance is a reliable indicator of the difficulties a learner will face when mastering a new language. The larger the linguistic distance is between the learner’s native language and the foreign language, the more effort and time the learner needs to learn it.

This correlation is not accidental. It is caused by a phenomenon called language transfer. Language transfer happens when the learner uses skills acquired in one language to facilitate the learning of a new language. Typically, learners apply rules from their native language to the foreign language they study. If the foreign language is linguistically close to the native language, chances are that the language transfer will have a positive impact. When this happens, the language transfer often remains unnoticed. The closer two languages are, the more positive transfer we can expect.

Language transfer is more famous, though, for causing errors. This happens when learners transfer rules from their native language onto the foreign language where those rules do not apply.

An example of negative transfer is when learners apply the word order of their native language to the new language. Such counterproductive influence of a native language on the acquisition of a foreign language is called negative transfer.


Table 1: How advanced will an English speaker be after studying a given language X for 480 hours?


Table 1 above highlights the level of proficiency an English native speaker will reach after investing 480 hours in learning different foreign languages. The more linguistically complex and distant the language is, the less advanced knowledge the learner will possess. The observant reader will notice that the table features another key factor — linguistic aptitude. Linguistic aptitude will be discussed when we reach the non-linguistic factors influencing language learning.

After studying for 480 hours, learners with minimal linguistic aptitude will reach an intermediate high level in Dutch, an intermediate low level in Greek, and will remain only at the beginner level in Finnish and Japanese. The reason for this is the linguistic distance between English, on the one hand, and Dutch, Greek, Finnish, and Japanese, on the other.

Non-linguistic factors for language learning success

There are many general factors that influence the outcome of a language learning effort. Here’s a list of some of the most frequently discussed:


It is fairly obvious that learners who have a strong desire to learn a language will achieve better results compared to speakers who do not want to do so. There are different types of motivation to master a language depending on the goal:

  • Integrative: The learner learns the language because they want to be able to communicate with people who speak it. Such learners are often also interested in the culture and history behind that language.
  • Instrumental: The learner studies a language not for communication per se, but in order to pass a test, get a better job, etc.

Some scholars draw a distinction based on the source for the learner’s motivation:

  • Intrinsic: The learner studies the language for the pleasure that this activity provides on its own.
  • Extrinsic: The learner studies the language in order to obtain a reward, a praise, a good grade at an exam.

The best outcome is achieved by learners with integrative and intrinsic motivation, that is, those who learn a language in order to use it for communication and expect no reward for their effort beyond the fact that they can speak the new language while also experiencing the pleasure of the learning about some wonderful new grammatical phenomenon. Yes, there are those nerds whose heart starts pounding when they contemplate the beauty of the Finnish locative case system. I know a few and belong to this category myself.


It is widely believed that the younger a learner is, the faster the learning process goes.

Many scholars have argued for the existence of a “critical period” for language acquisition spanning the period from birth to end of puberty, during which a language can be learned quickly and to full proficiency. After that period, the language learning faculty is assumed to get “fossilized,” which supposedly explains why adults have much harder time to learn a new language compared to children and adolescents.

However, the impact of the age factor differs depending on the way the language is mastered. For subconscious language acquisition, being young is clearly an advantage. But in the case of classroom learning, adults are more successful than children, and the champions are adolescents.

Additionally, there is the compounding factor of motivation: Children usually learn to communicate with peers (integrative motivation) while adults often learn to achieve some non-communicative goal — a better job or passing a test (instrumental motivation). Also, adults typically have less time than children to get exposed to the new language, be it in classes or via spontaneous communication with its speakers, and — as we shall see — the time factor plays an important role, too.

Linguistic aptitude

Aptitude refers to the natural ability of a learner for mastering a foreign language. Linguistic aptitude is a combination of multiple skills, such as the ability to distinguish sound patterns, identify syntactic structures, recognize grammatical forms, and more. High linguistic aptitude enables a learner to master a foreign language faster and with less effort.

The bad news is that aptitude is a stable factor. It cannot be increased through practice and training; nor can it be changed by the learner’s will (unlike motivation, for instance). Linguistic aptitude remains a new field of research, where scholars are yet to conclude to what extent it is related to general intelligence, cognitive abilities, and communication skills, and how to measure it accurately.

Learning style

  • Learning style refers to the specific way in which a person attempts to learn something. Scholars distinguish between four learning styles:
  • Visual: Visual learners learn through seeing diagrams, pictures, tables and organized notes.
  • Auditory: Auditory learners prefer to listen and practice through dialogues, games, rhymes, etc.
  • Kinesthetic: Kinesthetic learners learn best when moving, typically by walking (though I personally find that biking works quite well too!).
  • Tactile: Tactile learners are a subcategory of kinesthetic learnings. They need to touch or try something in order to learn it.

In the area of language learning, some learners may need to write down new words to remember them (tactile learners); others prefer to hear them (audio learners); a third group feels the need to see them (visual learners). The success of language learning often depends on whether your teacher’s teaching style matches your own learning style.


Personality affects only the speed at which one starts to communicate in a new language. It does not predict other language learning outcomes such as comprehension, acquisition of grammar, vocabulary, etc.

As complex as a personality can be, here’s a list of traits that influence students’ oral performance skills:


Self-esteem is an important variable in second language learning. There is a positive correlation between self-esteem and academic performance. Still, this could be because they are mutually reinforced: The better grades you have, the more self-confident you are, which helps you get better grades. In any case, language teachers must strive to create a classroom atmosphere that helps students build their confidence and reduces their anxiety.

Language anxiety

Language anxiety manifests itself in three areas: communication apprehension, fear of negative social evaluation, and test anxiety. Times and time again, studies have demonstrated that there is a clear correlation between the level of anxiety and the student’s language performance, highlighting the need for a relaxed and friendly learning environment.


Risk-taking is an essential element in the process of mastering a new language, where we risk at any moment to produce an utterance that invokes a negative social evaluation because it violates a language rule, contains the wrong word, or simply sounds naive and silly. Learners who are afraid to take the risk of making a mistake are significantly delayed in the development of speaking skills. In this respect, children have a big advantage as they are less inhibited and error-conscious than adults.

Extroversion vs. introversion

The effect of extroversion and introversion is a no-brainer. Clearly, extroverted learners have it easier compared to introverts since the former take advantage of more language-usage opportunities — extroverts are more likely to engage in conversations and practice their speaking skills both inside and outside the classroom.

The time factor

It goes without saying: The success of mastering a new language depends on how much time learners are willing to invest in learning and practicing the language. The more hours learners devote to the study of a new language, the higher level of proficiency they will attain.

Table 2 shows how time investment relates to the level of proficiency expected from students of Finnish with different linguistic aptitudes.


Table 2: How the duration of study influences the proficiency level attained in Finnish


In addition to the mere count of hours, the regularity and the intensity of the study play a role, too. The more consistent and balanced the time allocation is, the better the outcome will be. This is why the effect of that one-week intensive German course you took last summer probably lasted no longer than the summer itself.

Generally, it is best to study at regular intervals. Put simply, if you decide to devote 50 minutes per week to study a language, it’s better to do 10 minutes Monday to Friday than 50 minutes on Saturday.

Be fearless on your way to achieving multilingual mastery

The ease or difficulty we encounter when learning a foreign language is influenced by various factors, ranging from specific linguistic characteristics to the learner’s personal traits. Sometimes, these factors align fortuitously, accelerating the learning process. Sometimes, they do not.

Drawing from my experience as a second language teacher and an avid language learner, I have found that the most effective approach in such situations is to try to overcome the fear of making mistakes. When I confront my own foreign language anxiety, I always come to think of my father, whose life brought him in contact with six languages. He fearlessly combined all six into one universal foreign language which he boldly uses to this day to successfully communicate with speakers of any language in the world.

So, language learner: Go forth and master that language!

Marina Pantcheva  is a polyglot with a passion for languages, data, and structure. She combined all three in her PhD research on nanosyntax. She currently works at RWS leading a multidisciplinary team that focuses on crowd localization solutions.



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