You learned a language. Congrats! That’s huge.
Take a moment and applaud all of your hard work.
Now, let’s talk about why you’re really here.
That one language wasn’t enough, was it? You feel the call of yet another, but you’re worried about language interference, or mixing. You don’t want to ruin all of that work you just invested into learning the first language by confusing it with another.
What do you do?
As I shared in my #clearthelist posts, I’m currently working on Russian, Croatian (psst… click here), and Japanese, and I’ve made sure to implement this specific tactic to be as efficient in learning three languages simultaneously as possible.
When I decided that I wanted to reinitiate both my Russian and Croatian studies in particular, I knew that I would need to be careful. The risk of not getting very far with either was high in studying both simultaneously. While they are on different branches of the Slavic language family tree, they are still quite comparable, so the risk of interference runs high.
My time for language study is often limited enough as it is, so I didn’t want to waste it with unproductive study sessions.
Language Interference: How to Avoid Mixing Your Languages
One of the biggest struggles those learning multiple languages face is language interference – when you start mixing your languages. This is especially common when learning similar languages (like Russian and Croatian), but it can happen with distant languages too.
The most common way to limit language interference is to deliberately practice switching between your two new languages. Look at the word for “el perro” in Spanish, then the word for “il cane” in Italian. Form sentences in each language using the words, moving back and forth between the two.
It’s great practice and it forces your brain to draw a line between the two languages.
But there’s one more thing you can do, especially when English (or whatever your native language is) insists on coming along as a third wheel.
What is this tactic?
What is Laddering in Language Learning?
Laddering is a technique where you learn a third (or fourth or fifth or twelfth) language through your second language.
For example, I study Russian and Croatian through French, and more recently, I started using Chinese to study Japanese. I also study Croatian through Russian even though the first is my stronger language. It seems kind of backwards, but the method reinforces both for me.
Why should you use laddering?
Laddering is an effective method for learning languages because it:
1. Keeps your other languages fresh in your mind because you’re still using them
2. Offers you the opportunity to work with native materials – course books in French are typically written for French speakers so you get “authentic” material to work with in your second language
3. Helps you learn a new language
4. Shows you where the gaps are in your second language (if you don’t understand a passage or realize you can’t figure out how to say something, you know what you need to work on)
5. It gives you access to resources that aren’t available in your native language (for example, using French as a laddering language gives you access to a nice selection of books published by Assimil)
The biggest benefit of using laddering, in my opinion, is for time management reasons. One of the arguments against learning multiple languages is that you have to stop studying one in order to learn the other. With laddering, this isn’t the case because you’re actively using and learning both. You don’t have to reallocate study time from the first language to the second. It’s a win-win.
Another big benefit as I mentioned above briefly, is that you quickly learn where the gaps are in your second language. If you can’t understand something in the third language, or struggle with your notes, you can quickly identify what you need to improve in your stronger foreign language. It’s a great way to identify your weak points and sort them out.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Language Interference is only one side of the coin that is Language Transfer. The other is where your knowledge of another language actually boosts your ability in the next language. This is where trick like using cognates or loan words comes in handy. You use your base in one language to support your ability to communicate in the next.
This is a huge reason as to why I decided to use laddering and side-by-side learning for Russian and Croatian. It allows me to immediately see all of the similarities and differences and work through them deliberately.
Many language learners wouldn’t advise learning more than one language at a time, but if I’m totally honest with you – which I always aim to be, I just can’t do this. There are too many languages that I want to learn and maintain, so I always have more than one on my plate.
In all honestly, though, I wouldn’t recommend this strategy to a new language learner. I definitely wouldn’t have advised me five years ago to take on more than one language (even though I did and it didn’t turn out so well for me).
Now that I have a few more languages under my belt and a little more experience than before, I feel like it’s something I can reasonably manage. I understand that my progress will be slower, but I don’t have any demanding deadlines, so this doesn’t bother me.
Learning more than one language also gives me some breathing room. If I get frustrated with Japanese particles, I can take a break and go study Russian. If Russian cases start to wear me down, I can go work on Croatian. And in the mean time, whichever of the three I’m working on, I’m reinforcing my ability in other languages (namely Chinese and French) because I’m laddering.
What about you?
Are you learning more than one language? If you are, what techniques are you using to keep them separate in your head?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.