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Learning a Third Language: An In-Depth Guide


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I know lots of people who speak their second language at a very good level, and yet hesitate to jump into learning a third language.

Why is this? Well, some people are perfectly happy stopping at one foreign language. That was their goal, and they reached it. That’s all good.

On the other hand, too many people would like to start learning a third language, but feel held back. I think there’s one main reason for this:

It’s a hit to your ego.

That’s right. You managed to cross all the painful hurdles and endure the mistakes involved in learning a second language. You’ve forced yourself through the discomfort of learning to speak with real people. You left that “looking stupid” phase behind a long time ago. And now you’ll have to start all over at square one.

Why would anyone do that?

Here’s another way of thinking about it. You know you’re capable of learning a new language. You’ve already done it once. That means you can do it again.

Speaking as someone who’s spent thousands of hours “looking stupid” in at least seventeen languages, I know what it takes. You do have to make mistakes. But the more you do it, the easier it gets.

Don’t let your fear hold you back!

My Experience Learning a Third Language

Spanish was the first new language I learned to speak fluently. After that, I set my sights on Italian.

I worked in a youth hostel in Rome, and spoke Italian with locals while speaking lots of Spanish with guests.

For the first few weeks, I was concerned about how I’d cope. I didn’t know whether using both languages at the same time would help or hinder me in learning Italian.

As it turned out, continuing to use Spanish while learning Italian was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my 13 years of language learning.

Italian is a Romance language with lots of similarities to Spanish. Did that mean that half the work was already done for me before I even started studying Italian? Well, yes and no.

I could often “get by” in Italian by guessing at vocabulary using Spanish as a reference. For example, I would take a Spanish word such as precio (“price”) and take a guess at the correct Italian pronunciation — in this case, prezzo. I wasn’t always correct, but I could often get my point across, and could get the gist of what the other person was saying as well.

I needed to be cautious when doing this, though. Otherwise I might have ended up unwittingly chatting with a very confused Italian about how fun it would be to take a ride on some butter. “Burro” means butter in Italian, but donkey in Spanish.

False cognates – words that you guess should be the same across two languages, but actually have different meanings – are one problem when learning two similar languages. Another is the risk of mixing up both languages.

That’s where my Spanish practice at the hostel came to the rescue. As I’ll explain in a moment, it’s actually better to continue to use both of your languages while learning a new one. You’re less likely to mix up your languages if you force yourself early on to switch back and forth between your fluent language and your new target language.

I’ve learned many more languages since Italian. My experience in Rome taught me early on what to do (and what not to do) when it comes to learning a new foreign language.

Here’s what I learned.

When is the Right Time to Start Learning a Third Language?

Starting a third language before you’ve reached conversational fluency (this means at least upper-intermediate) in your first can have a negative impact on both of your foreign languages.

No matter which language you choose after you’ve already learned one new language, you risk the following problems:

  • Mixing up both languages
  • Forgetting one language while learning the other

Speaking your first foreign language at the same time as you learn your second is a good way to keep from mixing up both languages. But this only holds if you already speak your first foreign language fluently. This holds true no matter how different your second foreign language is from your first. Even if your first new language was Spanish and your second is Khmer, mixing up the two languages can be a problem. If you don’t have a solid foundation in Spanish, then you’ll still be in “learning mode” with this language, rather than “maintenance mode”, when you start Khmer. Then you’ll find unwanted Spanish words unconsciously creeping into your Khmer conversations, and vice versa. This will seriously hinder your progress in both languages. With two similar languages, such as Spanish and Portuguese, the problem is even more pronounced.

You could avoid this problem by taking a break from Spanish while you learned Khmer. But then, chances are, when you go back to Spanish in a couple months, you’ll realise you’ve forgotten most of it. Sure, you’ll be able to regain your skills more quickly the second time, but that requires an unnecessary amount of effort. You can easily avoid that extra effort if you take the time to learn the language fluently in the first place.

Although I speak many languages, I’ve never successfully learned two languages from scratch by studying them at the same time. Instead, I focus on one language until I reach conversational fluency, which is around an upper-intermediate level. Only then do I start learning another language.

I avoid the problem of mixing up languages by continuing to maintain my existing languages while learning the new one. This sounds counterintuitive. After all, if I speak two similar languages in the same day (or the same conversation, as has been the case sometimes), won’t I mix up my existing languages with the new one all the time? Isn’t it better to keep them as separate as possible?

Surprisingly, no. I’ve found that the more I switch back and forth between my languages, including the new one I’m learning, the more I learn to partition them in my brain. Just to say it again: this only works if I’ve reached conversational fluency in a language before I start a new one. This partitioning is the key to learning to speak multiple languages without any of your languages suffering in the process.

How to Choose Your Next Language

How should you choose your next language? Simple: it’s up to you!

The most important thing to consider is your interests and passion. Which languages light your fire? As the folklorist Joseph Campbell once said, “follow your bliss”.

You can go for a language that’s similar to the one you already speak, or completely different.

Even if your second foreign language has absolutely nothing in common with your first, you’ll still have certain advantages that you didn’t have when you learned your first foreign language.

For one, the act of learning a language is itself a skill. You’ve already learned one new language, so you’ve done most of the heavy lifting in developing this skill.

For another, you’re less likely to mix up your languages. If you’re already fluent in French and have decided to learn Mandarin, the odds that you’ll accidentally come out with “我是 étudiant” are pretty low.

On the flip side, if the next language you’re interested in learning is in the same family as your first, don’t let this hold you back. Some people consider it “cheating” to learn two similar languages, since you can use the similarities to your advantage. Well, I can tell you, having learned four languages from the same family, that it’s definitely not cheating. Learning each one of these languages was a huge effort despite the similarities.

If you have a passion for Romance languages or are crazy about the Bantu language family, don’t hesitate to learn another language from the same family. You’ll still face an exciting challenge. Why? Even with languages that are similar, the cultures behind the languages are different. If you doubt me, try heading out for supper around 7 p.m. in France versus Spain, and see the difference in how easy it is to find an open restaurant 😉 .

How Can You be More Efficient in Your Learning This Time Around?

Language learning gets easier with each new language.

You can make it even easier by reflecting on how you’ve done with learning a new language so far. Look at what went well, and what you could have done better, the first time around. Then make a concrete plan that plays to your strengths while avoiding the mistakes you made last time.

As with many first-time language learners – myself included! – your biggest mistake with your first foreign language was probably simply not speaking enough.

Speaking from day one is the way to go. Make it a bigger priority this time around. The emphasis on speaking, combined with the other advantages you get from already knowing one foreign language, will mean you’ll learn more quickly this time around.

Bonus Tips for Learning a Third Language

Focus On Your Weak Points

What aspect of your first new language did you find most difficult? Pronunciation? Listening? The writing system? For your next language, place more emphasis on this hurdle early on.

This will be frustrating. Usually, people want to avoid the most difficult part of an activity, not pay more attention to it! But doing so will help you progress more quickly. You’ll have to cross it eventually to reach fluency, so the sooner the better.

What if your biggest weakness was motivation? Then…

Make Your Language “Mission” Public

I’ve gotten a lot of praise over the years for creating this website and blogging all about my language missions. But it’s actually a really easy thing to do. Anyone can create a public blog (for free) and write about their progress in learning languages.

It’s a really good way of keeping yourself accountable.

Does having your own blog seem like too big a step? Then scale it down. Announce your intention on Facebook, or to your immediate circle of friends and family.

It’s human nature to not want to give up on a task when you know someone’s watching. That’s why accountability works so well.

Be Extra Creative With Mnemonics

Suppose Japanese was your first language mission, and now you’re learning Portuguese. The Portuguese word for “thank you” – obrigado – doesn’t have any immediately apparent connection to English.

Rather than trying to come up with an obscure mnemonic based on English to help you remember obrigado, look to your knowledge of Japanese instead. The Japanese word for “thank you” sounds like “arigato”. This is surprisingly similar to the Portuguese “obrigado”. Coming up with a memorable mnemonic is suddenly a lot easier when you have two languages to draw from.

Don’t Let the Difficulty of Your First New Language Scare You Away From Starting a Second

I can’t help but laugh to myself when I hear people talk about how easy it is to learn Spanish compared to other languages. For me, it was the hardest!

The first foreign language you ever learn is always the most difficult. If you’ve conquered that language, then you’ve already gotten the worst out of the way. Unfortunately, though, it’s not going to be all downhill after that. Learning subsequent languages is still going to be hard. But the hill gets smaller each time. This is because learning how to learn languages is a skill that you improve over time.

The kind of person who has achieved fluency in one foreign language is the kind of person who embraces a challenge. If you reached your goal in one language and are starting to look at the prospect of polyglotism, then ignore your fears of “starting over”, “hard work” and “looking stupid”. Don’t overthink it. Just go for it!

author headshot

Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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