How to learn languages – Review

Every Friday this year, I have run through how to learn the major Western European languages.


It is important to emphasise that, in terms of learning, the story starts with this general vocabulary list and overall introduction. Without it, the other introductions to each individual language and language group make sense, but have limited value.


Then we need to note that all the languages referred to – the entirely of  both the Romance/Latinate and the Germanic language family (as well as many others) – derive from a single language known by modern linguists as Proto-Indo-European.


Anyone embarking on learning several languages – particularly if these are Romance/Latinate, Germanic and/or Slavic – may consider first learning the constructed language Esperanto. This is relatively simple, but offers some introduction to the principles and complexities/challenges/fun of language learning (from tricky phonology to the subjunctive mood, alongside some unintentional irregularities). It can also be useful for vocabulary, drawn as it is largely from Latin or Latin-based languages but also in significant part from Germanic and Slavic.


What are usually referred to as “Romance” languages are those derived from Latin – among national languages, this means (from west to east in Europe) Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian. They all carry over complex verb systems (with three tenses and a range of moods, and full verbal agreement) and two noun genders (with full adjectival agreement). In fact, almost half the linguistic change between Classical Latin and each of those languages had occurred by the time they split apart; thus they are not only derived from the Classical Latin of Cicero and Caesar but in fact from the Late Latin still in some use at the time of Charlemagne – having some comprehension of that late version (also known as “Vulgar Latin”) is a huge advantage to anyone wishing to learn any Romance language, and particularly to anyone wishing to learn more than one.

All other things being equal, perhaps the best Romance language to start with is Italian. It is the most conservative of the main national Romance languages, and therefore includes most of the features found in the others.

On the basis that it is easier to learn a relatively complex language before a structurally more straightforward one, next may be Portuguese. From a purely European point of view, this one seems marginal, but the growing role of Brazil as a regional power perhaps gives it as much significance as any other in the modern world.

Structurally more straightforward (comparatively) is arguably the most useful foreign language for English speakers to learn, Spanish. The main complication is that the phonology of Spanish has changed markedly since the Golden Age, although spelling has (broadly at least) kept up. With almost half a billion native speakers worldwide, and a significant role also within the United States, this is rapidly becoming the first language in schools in the English-speaking world with good reason. Its only drawback is that learning other languages having learned Spanish generally takes longer than the other way around.

For all that, in the British Isles French generally remains the first foreign language, with its remarkable cultural power and astonishing phonological development. This is not particularly linguistically helpful, however, as its distinct phonology (a product, at least in part, of notable early Germanic influence) means French is further from the other three modern Romance languages looked at here than any of the other three is from any of the others.


Germanic languages derive from what is referred to by linguists as “Proto-Germanic”, spoken at the same time as Classical Latin. They display simpler verb forms (with only two tenses, rare use of subjunctive mood and even in some cases elimination or near elimination of verbal and some adjectival agreement) but a broadly more complex noun (albeit simplified in some modern standards), with the neuter case maintained at least in some form across the board. The first major written text in Germanic is in fact in the now extinct East Germanic language of Gothic, contemporaneous with the Roman emperor Constantine.

The first written version of any Germanic language still in existence was in fact the West Germanic language of Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, from which modern English (and also Scots) is derived. Old English bears almost no more relation to modern English than Gothic does, but the intermediate period gave us the language of the first great English literary figure, Chaucer. This is known as Middle English, but is markedly further removed from the modern language that the Early Modern English of Shakespeare as the speed of language change slowed down after the invention of the printing press.

Modern English is, of course, something of a hybrid given the influence on it of Latin, Norman French and other languages; like French, it is complicated by the fact it is written to reflect medieval rather than modern pronunciation, and there has been a sound shift since. The most widely spoken West Germanic language other than English, and the most conservative and obviously Germanic language still widely used, is German, with the remarkable ongoing complexity of its noun system; it is grammatically complex, but at least its written form reflects its sound shifts.

Another less complex West Germanic language is Dutch, interesting in its own right but also because of its even more grammatically reduced daughter language spoken in Southern Africa, Afrikaans. This is the nearest national language in existence to English (but the reverse does not apply).

There is also a group of North Germanic languages, split between the Western or Insular ones (Icelandic, Faroese and arguably one standard of Norwegian) and the Eastern or Scandinavian ones (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish). To some degree each group of these is mutually intelligible (they are significantly more conservative as you move northwest), but Danish is outstanding for its remarkably reduced/progressed phonology.


It has been my contention throughout that tying the knowledge of the basic vocabulary at the outset to an overall historical overview and then a fundamental grammatical outline gives us a much faster route to becoming at least proficient in several foreign languages without having to learn each from scratch. This way, language learning need not be such a chore, and in fact takes on a much more interesting route.

Nevertheless, as ever, I am open to any corrections, queries or contrary views!



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