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Why is it easier to learn a third language than a second: how the brains of polyglots work


Alina Prikhodko

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Most people in the world speak two or more languages. For our brain, learning a third foreign language is very different from mastering the first and second, and for good reason. Duolingo told what happens and what to expect when learning a third language.

There are many types of bilinguals (those who speak two languages) and trilinguals (people who speak more than two languages). They have different backgrounds and proficiency levels, as well as different ways of using the languages ​​they learn. However, what they all have in common is that our brains have more to work with when it comes to learning a new language - we already have at least two language systems at the ready. Bilinguals have some advantages when learning a new language over monolinguals (those who speak only one language).

Your brain already knows how to control several languages

Knowing multiple languages ​​means that you have trained your brain to use neural resources in specific ways to maintain balance and control multiple languages. Bilinguals process language more efficiently than monolinguals, and the more proficient you are in multiple languages, the better your brain controls attention and how and when it responds—skills needed to juggle multiple languages.

Linguistic Detective Skills

The more experience you gain in learning languages, the better you become aware of clues or patterns in the languages ​​you encounter.

Whether your knowledge of these patterns is explicit (conscious knowledge that you can describe) or tacit (knowledge acquired incidentally without conscious awareness), both types of knowledge will increase your ability to learn patterns when learning another language. You don't need to have a high level of language proficiency to take advantage of the benefits.

On the subject: Italian, French, Spanish: where to learn foreign languages ​​in New York

It's normal for multilinguals (multilingual people) to have different skills and abilities in their languages, and even limited proficiency in a second language will greatly speed up your efforts to learn the next one. Moreover, sometimes a language that you speak less well can have a greater impact on a third one than one that you speak better, especially if it is similar to it.

How the brain begins to learn a third language

Your brain is capable of using different strategies to learn a third language. We can “copy and paste” one of our existing languages ​​entirely and apply it at the beginning of learning a third foreign language, or we can copy and paste gradually over time. The study says both are possible.

We know that the similarity of languages ​​is of great importance. The brain is more likely to draw information and patterns from a language that is similar to the third language being learned. For example, an Italian who learned English and now decides to learn Spanish will likely rely heavily on Italian, since Italian and Spanish have so many similarities.

What to expect from a third language

Your brain is trying to do you a favor by applying the rules of one language to the third one you're learning, but that doesn't mean your already learned languages ​​will always work well together.

Many of the updates you'll have to make to your new third language system will be quick ones, such as learning (or correcting) new words. But learning new sounds and grammar rules may take longer, especially if your brain extracted a sound or structure from one of your learned languages ​​that doesn't match each other.

It's impossible to get everything right on the first try, and if it were, we'd all be hyperpolyglots. Learning a third language can even affect how you speak your previous two.

Languages ​​can influence each other

This is most likely to happen if your third language is similar to one of the foreign languages ​​you have already learned, or if there is a noticeable difference in the relative strength of each. You'll notice that learning a new language affects your vocabulary, grammar, and even accent in the language you already speak.

Such changes in your learned languages ​​can be frustrating, but they are reversible if you start using them more often. When you learn grammatical structure in a third language that you didn't master in a second, it can result in new knowledge being passed on to you.

Three is not much. Your bilingual brain is ready to take on a new language, and your previous language experience will give you a head start. You'll encounter some challenges along the way, but the natural interaction between your languages ​​is a cool demonstration of how dynamic the human brain is.

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