Knowledge of One Language
Sometimes Helps When Learning Another

By Eddie Osborne

You’d think that knowing one language would make learning another relatively easy, right?

Well, it depends.

If the target language has nothing in common — either grammatically or in terms of vocabulary — with the language you already know, then you’d be starting from scratch, and practically none of what you already know would be transferable to the new language. Take, for example, Arabic and Russian. If you spoke one and wanted to learn the other, your knowledge likely wouldn’t serve as a particularly reliable springboard. Arabic is a member of the Semitic language family, while Russian is a Slavic language. As such, they have different grammatical structures and vocabularies. Besides, the languages use radically different writing systems that you’d also have to learn. On the other hand, things would be a lot smoother if the target language is related to the one you already know.

Let’s assume, for example, that the language you speak is English. In that case, learning, say, Dutch, German, or Swedish shouldn’t be too difficult because these languages, along with English, are members of the Germanic family of the Indo-European branch of languages, and all share somewhat similar grammatical structures and vocabularies.

When linguistic bridges don’t quite span the divide

So, then, is it always the case that learning a language that’s similar to one you already know will be easy?

Here, I find that my own language-learning experiences are illustrative. One of the first languages that I had intimate contact with was Spanish — I was in Miami during the early-1960s, a time when the city was experiencing the beginning of what was to become an influx of Cuban refugees fleeing Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The sounds of rapid-fire Cuban-accented Spanish soon were everywhere, and I began picking up bits of the language from interactions with the newcomers, by studying grammar books in the library, reading Spanish-language publications, and tuning in to radio broadcasts aimed at the Cuban community. Eventually, my grasp of Spanish was firm enough that I could engage in sustained, fairly detailed conversations.

It was this early exposure to Spanish that served as a point of departure for my later informal investigation of one of its sister languages, Portuguese. Because the two languages have similar grammatical structures and similar vocabularies, I assumed that my knowledge of Spanish would make learning Portuguese a cinch.

Not so.

For one thing, Spanish is a phonetic language par excellence. That is, what you see written is what you end up pronouncing, so to speak. Portuguese, on the other hand, is much less so. Words may be be pronounced quite differently from the way they’re written, making the language difficult for speakers of Spanish to understand, much less learn. For example, a number of letters in Portuguese aren’t pronounced as one would think. Consider the following:

  • The cedilla, a hook or tail added under c (ç), which also occurs in French and Catalan, gives Portuguese words an s sound: serviço (seh-vee-soo), “service.”
  • The letter j is pronounced like zh; as in Jorge (zhoh-zhee), George.
  • When the letter r comes at the beginning or end of a word, the sound is like that of an h: recibo (heh-see-boo), “receipt;” reco-reco (heh-koo heh-koo), a bamboo or metal rasp or scraper tool.
  • The letter x tends to have a sh sound: lixo (lee-shoo), “garbage.”

Just how different Spanish is from Portuguese became apparent to me in the early 1970s during my tour of duty at Torrejón Air Base, then a joint Spanish-US installation located northeast of Madrid and some nine miles from the town of Alcalá de Henares (the birthplace of Don Quijote author Miguel de Cervantes). When not on duty, I would often tune in to radio broadcasts from nearby Portugal.

Although I could make out a handful of words, I couldn’t understand much of what was being said because the pronunciation of words differed so vastly from those in Spanish. Since then, I’ve met and befriended a number of Brazilian speakers of Portuguese, from whom I’ve learned a bit of conversational Portuguese. Based on this exposure to the language, I believe I could attain a degree of competence in the language if I were to apply myself.

But before Spanish or Portuguese, for me, there was French. I first encountered that language in elementary school back in the 1950s in Atlanta, where an itinerant teacher would come each week to drill my class on the basics of the language. I later studied French in junior high school after moving to Miami in the early 1960s.

While living in Miami, I was also exposed to Haitian Creole. Like many, I once considered Haitian Creole to be little more than a dialect of French. As I soon learned, though, Haitian Creole is not a debased form of French, but rather a full-fledged language in its own right, and French is only one of the components of the language. Really, Haitian Creole is a linguistic potpourri. In addition to French, it consists of a mix of syntactical and lexical items from African languages such as Ewe, Fongbe, Kikongo, Igbo, and Wolof, as well as some Spanish, the language of the pre-Columbian Indigenous people, and even bits of English.

Soon after moving to Miami, I took a job teaching English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classes to the newcomers at one of the city’s two Haitian Refugee Centers, which served a huge community of newly arrived Haitian folks. During downtimes, the center’s Haiti-born director would instruct other staffers and me in the language, instruction that I supplemented by engaging in conversations with Haitian friends and acquaintances.

Prior to my exposure to Haitian Creole, I had assumed that, because of my previous study of French, I’d be able to learn the language without much effort. But it soon became clear that a knowledge of French would take me only so far along the road to learning the language. Granted, the two languages have certain surface similarities, and Haitian Creole’s vocabulary is about 90% French-derived. Even so, a number of the words in Haitian Creole that derive from French can differ radically in spelling and meaning from their French counterparts, which can be an impediment, rather than a bonus, in learning Haitian Creole. Consider here what linguists call “false friends.” These are cognates — words that derive from French, and which appear to have the same meanings because of similar spellings — that actually refer to different things in Haitian Creole. One example is the French word machine, “machine.” In Haitian Creole it is spelled machinn and means “car,” whereas the French word with the same meaning is voiture. Then, there’s moun, derived from French monde, “world.” In Haitian Creole the word is used to mean “person,” as in ki moun, “which person” (or “who”), and ti moun, “little person” (or “child”).

Haitian Creole also differs from French in its grammatical structure. In studying French it’s important to learn how to conjugate verbs. This typically involves removing the ending of the infinitive form of regular verbs to get the stem or root, then adding the ending that corresponds to the subject pronoun. Take, for example, the verb parler, “to speak:”

Unlike French, Haitian Creole is a straightforward language, unencumbered by the complicated grammatical rules of French. As is the case with other creole languages like Saramaccan and Ndjuka, verbs in Haitian Creole aren’t inflected to indicate whether an action takes place in the past, the present, or the future. In other words, verbs don’t change forms. One form serves to represent completed, present, progressive, habitual, or future action. Thus, mwen travay can mean “I work,” “I’m working,” “I usually work,” or “I will work.”

Its relative simplicity notwithstanding, Haitian Creole’s sentence structure takes some getting used to. Take, for example, the statement, Ki koté ti moun yo? “Where are the children?” (lit. What-side-little person-plural). In French it would be Où sont les enfants? Similarly, the statement Mwen vlé liv sa a (“I want this book”) would be rendered in French as Je veux ce livre. Equally divergent from French is Ki jan w rele? This would be rendered in French as Comment vous appelez-vous? (“What’s your name?”). All in all, though, Haitian Creole’s relative simplicity, coupled with my facility in French, eventually enabled me to attain a relatively high degree of competency.

Language learning in the shadow of India and China

Thai, the national language of the Southeast Asian nation of Thailand, is another language whose grammar is relatively simple and straightforward. As in Haitian Creole, Thai verbs do not change to indicate tense. One form is used to show whether an action took place in the past, present, or future regardless of the subject pronoun. Likewise, Thai uses no articles, such as the or a, and there are no plural forms of words. However, although the writing proceeds horizontally from left to right as in English, there are no spaces between words, and this can prove problematic for learners at first.

The Thai writing system is derived in part from the old Khmer script (used in present-day Cambodia), which itself was derived from an ancient Dravidian script of southern India. An abugida — a system in which consonants are modified by tone markers, which can appear in the front, below, or above the consonants — the Thai script’s use of tone markers enables one to distinguish between words that have the same form but which can have different meanings. Standard Thai has five tones — mid, low, falling, high, and rising — and every word has a particular tone assigned to it. In the following example, notice how the meaning of the word mai changes depending on the tone used when spoken:

My introduction to Thai came during an 18-month tour of duty with the US Air Force’s 20th Special Operations Squadron in the Isan region of northeastern Thailand — an area comprising 20 provinces. Our unit, at the time one of the Air Force’s two combat helicopter outfits, was headquartered at the Royal Thai Air Force Base, near the city of Udon.

From there, we conducted counterinsurgency missions primarily in Laos — whose border lay some 31 miles to the north — but also in Vietnam. When not on duty, much of my time I spent living in close quarters with the locals. In that way, I was able to attune myself to the sounds and rhythms of the language; over time, I came to understand its mechanics intuitively — through osmosis if you will — eventually acquiring a degree of conversational proficiency. I eventually reached a point where I could write and read simple sentences.

Although virtually all of the people in the region speak and understand Standard Thai, the language I encountered most often was a form of Lao, also called Isan. The area once had been part of neighboring Laos but was incorporated into Thailand, and its people — ethnic Lao referred to as Thai Isan, Lao Isan, Isan Lao, Thai Lao, or Khon Isan — are closer to the Lao of Laos than to the ethnic Thai in terms of language and culture. In fact, although the Thai government classifies Isan as a dialect of Thai, native speakers of the language refer to it as Paasăa Lao (Lao language) or Paasăa Isan (Isan language).

Whether a language or dialect, the sentence structure of Lao and 70% to 80% of its vocabulary are virtually the same as in Thai. As would be expected, the speech of Isan is mutually intelligible with the Lao spoken in Laos and with Thai; that is, a speaker of one of these languages can understand the speaker of one of the others with relatively little difficulty. Indeed, the relationship between Lao and Thai is somewhat analogous to the relationship between the English of Great Britain and the English of the United States. As in the case with respect to British English and United States English, some differences exist in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary, with some words that are the same in Thai and Lao being used for different purposes or not being used at all in one or the other. An example of the latter is the word heuan. In Lao, it means “house,” whereas the word in Thai is bâan. The following are other examples of how the languages differ: 

Unlike my experience in acquiring Thai and Lao, the situation was vastly different when I undertook the study of Mandarin. Back in the mid-1970s, I enrolled in a class taught by a native of Taiwan at a Miami-area college. Prior to that, I had assumed that, because of my facility in Thai and Lao, learning the language wouldn’t pose that much of a challenge. I couldn’t have been more mistaken!

For one thing, Mandarin has little in common with the aforementioned languages other than the fact that they all employ tones to distinguish between words with the same form and that they have a few words in common. This is because Thai and Lao are members of the Tai-Kadai family of languages, which, in addition to Thailand and Laos, have speakers of related languages in southern China and in the neighboring Southeast Asian nations of Myanmar and Vietnam and even in parts of India. Mandarin, on the other hand, is a member of the Sino-Tibetan language family of several hundred languages, which includes the various dialects of Chinese, as well as Tibetan and Burmese.

The takeaway here is that at the conclusion of several months of study, my knowledge of Thai and Lao had helped me to understand the grammatical structure of Mandarin and to be able to grasp the meanings of some of the words that the languages shared in common. However, I had attained practically no conversational ability in Mandarin. The most that I could do was formulate a few simple utterances, such as Nín hǎo ma? (“How are you?”) and Xiè xiè (“Thank you”), which I sometimes have occasion to use when I order food in Chinese-owned restaurants.

Yet another linguistic bridge that failed to span the gap

Another language that I’ve studied formally is Kiswahili. In the mid-1970s, I enrolled in a two-part course in Kiswahili, a Bantu language spoken in a number of countries in East and Central Africa, including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. An African American who had done a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in East Africa taught the first part, and a Tanzanian whose family hailed from the Indian state of Gujarat taught the second part.

Unlike when I studied Mandarin, I came away from the class with a measure of conversational ability in Kiswahili. The class also gave me insights into the origin and development of the Kiswahili language. I learned, for example, that a significant portion of the language’s lexicon consists of loanwords from Indian languages such as Hindi and Gujarati, Farsi, Portuguese, and even English.

But it is from Arabic that Kiswahili has drawn the overwhelming number of its vocabulary items. Take, for example, the cardinal numbers. Although moja (“one”), mbili (“two”), tatu (“three”), nne (“four”), tano (“five”), nane (“eight”), and kumi (“10”) are Bantu, sita (“six”), saba (“seven”), and tisa (“nine”) are derived from Arabic. Among the other borrowings from Arabic are the words simba, meaning “lion,” and safari, meaning “trip” or “journey.” Even part of Kiswahili’s name comes from Arabic. The ki– particle in the name is Bantu, and the root word is from Arabic sāhil, “coast;” thus, by extension meaning the language of the coastal people.

With Arabic’s lexical contribution to Kiswahili in mind, I later decided to enroll in an Arabic class at a Miami college taught by a native speaker from Syria. It was not that I was altogether unfamiliar with the language. My introduction to the language had come in the early 1960s, when, as a 12-year-old, I worked as a stock boy in a grocery store owned by a Lebanese family in Jacksonville, Florida. There I picked up bits of the Levantine Arabic from overheard conversations between the store owner and his wife.

Years later, I learned a few works in the Maghrebi dialect of Arabic — first from a member of the Moroccan air force who had come to Warner Robins Air Force base in Georgia for training, and, later, in interactions with Moroccans that I met in Madrid, Spain. Granted, my study of Kiswahili, coupled with my prior exposure to Arabic, did enable me to recognize, and understand, numerous words in Arabic; however, again as had been the case when I studied Chinese, I came away from the Arabic class with little conversational ability beyond being able to form basic utterances such as greetings and questions and virtually no ability to read or write the language.

In a real sense, whether a language that one already knows will be of help in learning another related, or unrelated, language will be determined by whether one has the time and patience to devote to diligent study. As the Haitian proverb reminds us, Piti, piti, zwazo fè nich li: “Little by little, the bird builds its nest.”

Eddie Osborne is a freelance writer and a former adjunct lecturer in English at the University of Miami and a one-time ESL teacher.



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