Learning a language can be daunting at first. Language learners often go through many stumbling blocks before they start to get a grasp on the process and gain some confidence in being able to tackle what lies ahead.
So, when the question of starting to learn a third language comes up, it might provoke a sense of dread. You remember how much effort it took to get here, and you know you still have further to go. Won’t starting a third split your attention, cause you to stagnate in the second, and potentially take a frustratingly long time before yielding results?
Polyglots have suggested the answer is no! On the contrary, they often speak about how much easier the third language is than the second. Rather than starting from scratch, you’re leveraging a wealth of experience, strategies, and insights from your previous efforts.
Let’s dive deeper into exactly why learning a third language tends to be easier than the second.
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Less Embarrassment, More Confidence
One of the ingredients of learning a new language is embarrassment.
No matter how much you study up-front, the first few experiences of being exposed to real-life conversations with native speakers are bound to push you out of your comfort zone. You might encounter a much faster rate of speech than you were expecting, a strong accent, or slang terms totally unknown to you.
But after you’ve been through this process once, you’ve developed a thick skin. You go into these initial encounters knowing you’ll make mistakes, knowing you’ll have to ask people to repeat themselves, knowing there will be awkward moments. And you’re OK with that, because this time you know it doesn’t represent a failure and you don’t look ridiculous.
Moreover, there’s a form of confidence rooted in knowing that these “uncomfortable” experiences are actually effective lessons.
To put it another way: you start to see the social role of the language learner as a highly respectable one. You might ask questions like a linguist, getting your interlocutors to repeat a certain word many times, so you can hone in on the exact phonetics. Or you might find yourself imitating and experimenting in real time, testing each new subconscious micro-theory about the rules of your target language the moment it appears in your mind.
In any case, you tend to approach your third language from a position of strength. Language learning can’t intimidate you anymore!
Knowledge of the Building Blocks of Language
When we acquire our native languages as children, we don’t have to learn a thing about how language works. It all goes into our implicit system, pretty similarly to how we learn how to walk, without knowing which muscle groups we’re using.
You might learn a little grammar or do some literary analysis in school, but from a linguistic point of view this barely scratches the surface. The real building blocks of language are incredibly complex, and that’s revealed the moment you start comparing two different languages.
When you learn your second language, there tend to be a number of unexpected obstacles, like discovering that having an accent makes it harder for native speakers to understand you!
But embarking on the third language feels different. You know when going in that there are going to be surprises, and you already have the mental models to categorize different challenges and integrate them into your learning journey. New alphabet? We’ll have to memorize it. Complex system of cases and declensions? That’s just some more content to master. For the third language learner, these are not sources of confusion, but items on the to-do list.
Clearer Expectations about Progress
You often hear new language learners say stuff like, “Some days I think I speak this language pretty well, but today it feels like I know nothing.”
What’s going on here is probably not just that learned structures slip the learner’s memory on bad days. It’s also that their expectations get higher as they improve. Or to look at it from a different perspective, their goals become more and more social.
First-time language learners tend to make the implicit assumption that languages consist of factual information, and learning them is fundamentally similar to learning science or history. When their theoretical knowledge doesn’t immediately convert into effective language performance in the real world, that can sting.
In contrast, experienced learners know what they’re signing up for. They’ll know that it’s a social journey and that in the early stages their interface with the language will have the role of the outsider. As a result, they’re no longer susceptible to the shocks in morale that come with seeing the goalposts constantly moving further and further away.
Third language learners can enjoy each step of the journey and feel some pride about their progress, no longer haunted by the notion of fluency and one’s relative proximity or distance from it, but comfortable knowing there will always be more to learn.
Already Knowing How Good it Feels
Going from fully monolingual to picking up a second language certainly has its low points. But, of course, it also has its highs, and these are what catapult learners into ever-deeper levels of application and persistence.
The joys of language learning are somewhat unique, in that they are simultaneously social and intellectual in nature. It’s the experience of becoming more intimate, not just with an individual but with an entire culture. At the same moment, there’s the surprising sensation of mastery, of being able to express yourself on the fly, creating and inventing language structures that are valid, or at least semi-valid.
And while the low points of language learning are often mitigated for the third language, these moments of pleasure are not.
For the third language learner, there is a hunger and a sense of anticipation. They know the social and emotional rewards that await them and that propels them forward, without them really noticing just how hard they’re working.
You’re no longer under the spell of your native language
A big part of the second language learning journey is giving up one’s assumptions about what’s “normal” – in terms of grammar, semantics, and even good manners. There’s a stage of believing you can simply translate thoughts from your native language, and thereby be effectively speaking the target language. As that cognitive safety net dissolves, you learn to fly.
Going home after living abroad and immersing yourself in another language can produce an uncanny feeling. For the first time, you see the linguistic patterns you grew up with as having their own subtleties and eccentricities. You might even feel as though conforming to those patterns is not as effortless as it used to be!
The upshot is that you now experience languages as total ways of being and communicating, not clearly determined sets of rules. With exposure to multiple languages, you learn to switch between different modes of thinking. You learn your third language with much reduced reference to the functioning of your native language, and you’re less inhibited for it.
Accelerate Your Language Mastery with Lingvist
Whether you’re an experienced polyglot or brand new to the world of languages, Lingvist can take a lot of pressure off of your learning journey.
Lingvist’s algorithm continuously introduces you to vocabulary at the edge of your current understanding and knows how to remind you of words just as you were about to forget them. This makes the memorization component of language a breeze.
With just 10 minutes of focused study a day, you’ll quickly acquire an impressive command of the building blocks of your target language. If it’s your second language, you’ll be reassured by that sturdy foundation of vocabulary as you step out of your comfort zone. If you’ve been through all that before, you’ll come to see Lingvist as a high-powered tool that can take care of the more laborious aspects of learning a language in record time.