When I was preparing for a trip to the eLex conference in Slovenia last year, I thought I’d take it upon myself to learn a bit of Slovene. It wasn’t my ambition to become completely fluent but I did want to learn enough to be able to hold a half-decent conversation. I thought it would be pretty easy, given that I already speak Czech fluently and that the languages are quite similar.
Another language I’ve had a brush with recently is Scottish Gaelic. I was looking for an excuse to go to one of my favourite places in the world, Gleann Cholm Cille. So I signed up for a weekend course in Scottish Gaelic for Irish speakers which they offer every year at the Oideas Gael language school, thinking it would be a walkover and I’d be speaking passable Scottish Gaelic in no time – surely I already know Irish, don’t I?
Needless to say, it didn’t work out as intended in either case. It seems that if you’re learning a new language, knowing another similar language does not help as much as you might think. It does help to some extent, of course, but it can also fool you into a false sense of security – and in extreme cases it can even deceive you completely.
To begin analysing this curious situation, let’s establish some terminology first. You have two languages: a Language A you already speak very well and a Language B you are only beginning to learn. The degree of similarity between A and B determines whether you actually need to learn anything at all: some languages are so similar that their speakers can understand each other. Sadly that is not the case with Slovene (in relation to Czech) nor with Scottish Gaelic (in relation to Irish). So the only option is to sign up for a class, get the books out and start learning Language B from lesson one, like any other language learner, working your way through all the “my name is…” and “where is the train station” and so on. The question is, does that fact that you already know Language A make it easier or faster?
Well, it does make it faster. In my Scottish Gaelic class, we were able to cover material in a weekend that, according to the teacher, takes a week to teach to a class of monolingual anglophones. Every time you come across a new word or a new grammatical structure, even if you don’t understand it at first, you will see the parallels to Language A once they are pointed out to you, and those parallels will help you commit the new material into memory more quickly and with less effort than someone who has no parallels to lean on. We humans always find it easier to remember new stuff if it’s similar to something we already know, and this holds for language learning too. The catch is that you still have to learn and memorize everything: all the vocabulary, all the grammar, all the irregular verbs, all the idioms. You may be able to do it faster, but you still have to do it, from beginning to end, every single detail.
The second important point is that, when your Language A and Language B are similar, the similarity is helpful for comprehension (hearing and reading) but not for production (speaking and writing). When you see or hear a sentence in Language B, such as dè an t-ainm a th’ ort in Scottish Gaelic, you can figure out that this means ‘what is your name’ because it looks and sounds somewhat similar to its equivalent cad é an t-ainm atá ort in Irish. You can go from Language B to Language A by simply trying to locate the closest-looking (or closest-sounding) equivalent. But – and this is crucial – it does not work in the opposite direction. If you want to say ‘what is your name’ in Scottish Gaelic and you don’t already know how, then you don’t know. The fact that you know how to say it in Irish is no help. The best you can do is say it in Irish (your Language A) and hope for the best – where “best” means that people will understand you even though you sound funny to them, while “worst” means they won’t understand at all. In my experience, “worst” occurs more often than “best”.
And finally, it is worth remembering that similarities between Language A and Language B can be superficial, purely formal but without a corresponding similarity in meaning or effect. A classical example are so-called false friends, words and expressions that are identical or similar in two languages but mean something catastrophically different. False friends are fun, so let’s have a few. The Slovene word otrok means ‘child’ but the same word in Czech means ‘slave’ – I have no idea why but it reminds me of one witticism my grandfather used to say, “your children are your cheapest labourers”. In Irish the phrase tá mé go breá means ‘I am fine’ but its cognate in Scottish Gaelic, tha mi brèagha, means ‘I am pretty’ – probably not the answer you want to give to ‘how are you’. False friends can exist at the level of grammatical structures too, where they can be less comical but more sneaky. The forms of the verb ‘to be’ that are used in Slovene for the future tense are quite similar to the forms used in Czech for the present habitual, which means that a Slovene-speaking Czech could be misunderstood as saying what he will do when in fact he’s saying what he usually does.
So it is no surprise that, in the face of all this adversity, I have not become a fluent speaker of Slovene or Scottish Gaelic – not yet, anyway. But it has been an eye-opening experience that has yielded some valuable insights into the implications of language similarity for language learning. My advice to anyone wanting to learn a language that’s similar to another one they already know, would be this: yes, you will be able to progress faster but no, it will not be easier – and watch out for the false friends.