How Knowing A Second Language Helped Me Learn A Third

Here’s how learning a second language in my twenties is helping me master a third language now. While I chose to learn French and then Mandarin, here’s how you can apply these learnings to any other languages.
How A Second Language Helped Me Learn A Third Language

Illustration by Olivia Holden.

“So I guess we’re moving to Beijing!” In one sentence, our lives turned upside-down. Within the space of a few weeks, my husband and I went from being happily settled in Paris, our home for many years, to vaguely discussing a job opening in China, to totally committing to the move. Although we’re both keen travelers, neither of us had ever imagined actually living in the land of the Great Wall, panda bears, and dim sum — let alone learning a third language.

Transplanting yourself into a completely foreign culture and environment is never easy, but having a little bit of the local language can go a long way in easing the transition. Within days of reaching our decision, we hired a tutor and got to work studying Mandarin Chinese.

I expected that learning Mandarin would be a challenge, but I had no idea that the fact that I already spoke a second language — French — would help. After all, why would it? French and Mandarin are probably as different as any two languages could be, having developed from entirely different linguistic families on opposite sides of the world. They have practically no pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar or writing system in common. And yet, speaking French has helped me to learn Mandarin. Here’s how:

1. I’m Used To Feeling Foolish

I didn’t start learning French until I was almost 24 and already living in Paris. It was, at times, a nightmare. After years of expressing myself with perfect ease (and if I may say, some skill), I was suddenly stuck with the communication abilities of a two-year-old. The hardest part of learning French wasn’t the subjunctive or the elusive extra vowels, but learning to overcome my frustration and ego, and getting comfortable with failing.

As any language learner knows, you can’t get any good until you’re ready to be humble. I made many, many mistakes while learning French and although I speak fluently now, it’s still not perfect. The language acquisition part of my brain is always on and humming away in the background, including the part that makes sure I don’t take myself too seriously.

2. I Can Accept Things Being ‘Just Like That’

All languages have peculiarities that confound learners at the outset — and which can’t really be explained in any satisfactory way. It took me a long time to accept that I had to learn not only the word for something, but also its gender, something that seemed completely arbitrary and illogical. Why is the word for “table” feminine, but the word for “couch” masculine? Why is un tour not the same as une tour? Yet by the time it came time to pick up a third language, I had already come to terms with this aspect of languages.

When my Mandarin tutor first introduced me to the measure words that are used alongside numerals to denote the number of a particular noun (like , and ), I asked why there were so many different options, and how they were determined. She replied, “It’s just like that.” After a moment, I shrugged and said, “Okay!” Having already overcome this just-accept-it mental hurdle when learning French, I’m accepting the quirks of Mandarin with much more ease. 

3. I Know How To Learn A Language

Like many others, I’m terrible at doing homework. I hate grammar exercises. Copying out vocabulary lists in neat black ink makes me want to cry. Conversely, I learn best by watching videos, talking, listening to podcasts and drawing mind-map style revision notes with brightly-colored felt pens. This process may be slow and unstructured, but it works for me.

When I learned French, I spent months feeling idiotic and frustrated as I fought with dry exercise books and the aforementioned vocabulary lists. I believed that because I wasn’t able to learn in this traditional rigid style, I would never learn at all. Thankfully, I eventually overcame this misconception — and my confidence and ability in French grew as a result.

Now I can use this knowledge about my own learning style to my advantage. Within days of studying Mandarin, out came the felt pens, ridiculous sketches and weird rhymes. The result? Less stress, more learning.

4. I Know I Can Do It

I don’t consider myself particularly gifted with languages, yet I learned French from scratch in my early twenties, after having only been monolingual. French is now a huge part of my life. I think, speak, dream and argue — all in French. It took me a long time to get there, but being at ease in this language brings me great joy and it’s a skill I enjoy practicing every day. Ten years ago, I would have never imagined it was possible, so now I know that no matter how impenetrable Mandarin might seem now, acquiring it is a more question of when, not if.

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