Learning a language isn’t always easy, but it can become easier if you keep in mind these tricks on how to learn. Knowing that different languages require different approaches is a good place to start. For an English native speaker, for example, learning German and learning Japanese will be two completely different experiences. Because of its closeness and common origins with English, learning German should, in theory, be easier.
Here are a few tips for those of you who want to learn a language similar to your mother tongue. Like most things, there are pros and cons to learning a similar language, but even the difficulties can be used to your advantage.
1. Take advantage of the similar stems
Many important words will have similar stems in languages close to each other. The stem is the part of the word to which prefixes and suffixes are attached – with one stem, is possible to build several different words. In English, for example, “friend” is the stem for “friendship”, “friendly”, and “to befriend”, among many other words.
The German word “Freund” is pretty similar to its English counterpart, but the words derived from it may be a bit harder to catch: “Freundschaft” (friendship), “freundlich” (friendly), and “sich anfreunden” (to befriend).
For an English native speaker learning German, it’ll be much easier to understand how the words are built and to memorize the German affixes than to simply learn every word by heart.
2. Know who your friends are (and separate the true from the false)
The fact that similar languages have many words in common is possibly the greatest advantage of learning a language close to your own. Continuing with the example of English and German, let’s compare a few basic words: mother/Mutter, father/Vater, water/Wasser, three/drei, beer/Bier, fish/Fisch, butter/Butter, warm/warm… the list of the so-called true friends is huge.
With Portuguese and Spanish, the lexical similarity is even bigger. A few examples: cerveja/cerveza (beer), dois/dos (two), comer/comer (to eat), pronunciar/pronunciar (to pronounce). There are so many similarities that many people in Brazil think they can speak Spanish without ever having studied it, though this isn’t exactly true.
When it comes to languages, however, not every friend is a true friend. You have to learn to separate the true friends (words that look alike and have similar meanings) from the false friends (words that look alike or even have identical spellings but have completely different meanings depending on the language).
A classic example of a German/English false friend is the word “gift”. If you receive a “gift” from an English speaker, you’ll most definitely be happy about it. But if it comes from a German, it’s better not to take it, since “das Gift” means “poison” in Goethe’s language.
This can cause a lot of confusion,but only if you let that happen. The fact that a seemingly familiar word can mean something completely different in another language may be so funny and absurd that it will be easy to remember it.
The first thing I learned about Spanish is one of the most famous false friends that it has with Brazilian Portuguese: “sobrenome” (PT-BR: last name), is equivalent to “apellido” (ES: last name), whereas “apelido” (PT-BR: nickname) can be translated in Spanish as “sobrenombre” (ES: nickname, other possible translations are “mote” and “apodo”). This is so strange (and amazing) that I never forgot it after learning it for the first time.
3. Take advantage of similar grammar structures
Grammar varies according to the language, but there are still a few structures that will make some foreign languages sound much more familiar to you than others.
Let’s look at word order in composite nouns, for example. In English and German, the order is the same.
In Portuguese and Spanish, the order of nouns is flipped so that “toothpaste” is literally “paste of teeth.”
Portuguese: pasta de dente
Spanish: pasta de dientes
Something similar occurs with the position of adjectives: in English and German, they come before the noun. In Spanish and Portuguese, they generally come after.
English: the blue sky
German: der blaue Himmel
Portuguese: o céu azul
Spanish: el cielo azul
English phrasal verbs and German separable verbs are another example of similar grammatical structures. They are not exactly the same thing, but both work in a similar way: a particle is used to modify the verb, giving it a whole new meaning.
In English, for example, “blow” can mean “explode” when you add an “up” after it. In German, “to say” (sagen) becomes “to cancel” by adding an “ab” to the beginning. It is not necessary to be a native speaker of these languages to understand these structures, but it’ll certainly help.
4. Take advantage of similar sounds
Part of speaking a language is knowing how to pronounce it. The sounds used in a language — or, “phonemes” — vary, but, just like some vocabulary and grammar, they will be more similar in closer languages.
For an English native speaker, German phonemes will be easier to understand — and replicate — than those in Chinese. For a Portuguese native speaker, trying to repeat something in Spanish will be easier than repeating something in German.
Of course there are going to be exceptions, since even languages close to each other may have very different sounds. Just as Spanish native speakers find it hard to pronounce the nasal sounds characteristic of Portuguese, it is not especially easy for Brits and Americans to pronounce words like Streichholzschächtelchen (check out other German words that are tricky to pronounce and tips to say them correctly here).
But, generally speaking, linguistic closeness does make pronunciation much easier.
5. Train your brain to deduce things from context
So you’ve completed your first lessons, you already understand the language reasonably well (after all, it is similar to your own) and it’s finally time to watch a movie without subtitles (or with subtitles in the original language). Everything is going very well until a few words come up that you haven’t learned yet. Don’t panic!
Several things can help you understand what these words mean, such as the context, facial expressions and, of course, thinking whether is sounds similar to something in your own language. Deducing the meaning of an unknown word will be easier when the context is familiar. You can often get the main idea of what someone is saying, even without understanding every single word.
6. Push yourself
By choosing to learn a language similar to yours, you should be able to see progress more quickly than if you had chosen something more different. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to practice less! On the contrary: take advantage of this fact to achieve your language-learning goals faster.
Keep setting new challenges for yourself, but make sure that they are realistic. Smaller goals usually work better: it is better to learn how to order in a restaurant in one week than trying to become conversational in one month, for example. Overly ambitious objectives are usually too vague and unrealistic, and you’ll just end up frustrated.
Try using these tips and you’ll soon realize that the complicated-looking cousins of your mother tongue can be much easier to learn than you expected.