Why your native language determines how you learn a foreign language

Babbel discusses language families and how new languages can relate to your own.
April 3, 2014
Why your native language determines how you learn a foreign language

Why do most English native speakers find it easier to learn German than Polish? Why is Spanish not so hard if you can already speak French? And why are Turkish and Indonesian even more tricky for us?

linguistic-families

The answer is obvious if you’ve ever heard of language families. These are groups of related languages ​​that descend from a common base language. Six of the languages we ​​offer are Germanic languages​​, namely English, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, whereby the Scandinavian languages ​​are more similar still to each other. The second major language family on offer at Babbel are the Romance languages: Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian, for example. The languages ​​within a language family have much in common. For example, time expressions sound similar in related languages. Moreover, close linguistic relationships are often also reflected in grammatical rules and concepts.

What implications does this have for learning a foreign language and the courses offered by Babbel?

We generally create new courses for target languages in German and then adapt them for the other six languages ​​in which we offer courses. We ensure that translations and adaptations remain as close as possible to the target language. This means that as many related words and similar sentence structures as possible are used. It is commonly true that the more similar the language you already speak is to the language you are learning, the faster you will understand the rules and relationships. If you are learning a language that belongs to the same language family as your native tongue, you will often require fewer additional explanations than someone whose mother tongue belongs to a different language family.

How we tailor the Babbel courses to your native language

Here is an example: the distinction between the verbs “pouvoir ” and “savoir” is not as obvious to a German speaker learning French as to an Italian. This is because in Italian there is a correlation with “potere” and “sapere”, whereas both verbs translate to the same word in German, namely “können” (can / may). The explanations of when to use “pouvoir” (when something is allowed or possible) and when to use “savoir” (more “know, be acquainted with, be able”) are simply omitted in the French courses for Italian speakers. However, the individual verb forms “savoir ” and “pouvoir” must of course be practiced by all French learners alike.

savoir vs pouvoir

Conversely, we sometimes need to add explanations to the translations of the version for German speakers for other languages. For example, German speakers are accustomed to inflecting verbs: “ich bin, du bist, er/sie/es ist…” (“I am, you are, he/she/it is…”). Thus we do not specifically point out that there is a separate verb form for each personal pronoun when introducing “être” (to be) in the French course for German speakers. Swedish speakers, who use the same verb form for all personal pronouns – “jag är, du är, han/hon/den/det är…”, are given an additional explanation as follows:

 Swedish localization

Can you see the difference? Although German and French do not belong to the same language family, they are very similar in this respect. If you want to make learning easy, try some of our “true friends” courses! There you will find words and phrases in your target language that are probably already familiar to you from your native language. You want to avoid pitfalls? Then take a look at the latest “false friends” courses for Polish. They will help you to avoid mixing up terms that sound similar to words in your native language but mean something completely different.

Have fun learning languages!

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Babbel
We are a team of more than 750 people from over 50 nations with a shared passion for languages. From our offices in Berlin and New York, we help people discover the joys of self-directed language learning. We currently offer 14 different languages — from Spanish to Indonesian — that millions of active subscribers choose to learn.
We are a team of more than 750 people from over 50 nations with a shared passion for languages. From our offices in Berlin and New York, we help people discover the joys of self-directed language learning. We currently offer 14 different languages — from Spanish to Indonesian — that millions of active subscribers choose to learn.

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