Third Language Learning

I recently read an article that said people who are bilingual “find it easier to learn a third language.” (Science Daily, Feb. 2011: The idea is that they are already more adept at learning a language, which is probably true.

But what about people like me who grew up monolingual but became bilingual later (while still relatively young–before hitting their late teens) and try to learn a third and/or fourth language later?

For people who grow up monolingual, I personally think that learning a second language is the easiest. Sure, it’s difficult and annoying at times, and when you start your third language, you are prepared for the frustrations better as a result of having already learned a second… And it’s also true that you know that despite the frustrations, with a lot of studying and effort, it is possible to learn a third language… You might even find some similarities among the three languages you’re working with which make learning the third language easier.


Maybe this is just my brain, but there is a BUT.

When I started learning Slovenian, it felt so alien on my tongue. Sure, I was used to hearing my mother and grandmother speak it, so the sounds weren’t alien, but when I put the words together on my own, I tripped over words with too many consonants and dreaded the process of stringing together a sentence due to case endings. Sometimes I came home from my class (4 hours a day) misty eyed, angry, or with a headache due to frustration. Then it was back to my workbook for another hour or so, vocabulary lists, etc.

Somewhere in the beginning of 2011, I realized that I could string sentences together. Quickly. They might have errors, but all of a sudden, I could understand words and phrases around me and I could reply back. It was just with simple things at first, but the shift was so dramatic it left me both shocked and joyful. One day, there was just a mess of words around me, no matter how hard I studied. Nothing seemed to make a difference. Then the next day, I woke up and could have a basic conversation. It made me immediately interested in neuroscience. How on earth does that happen? How? How? How?

Then, I got a bit better at Slovenian. I’m not the most stellar speaker on the planet, but my progress since October–when I couldn’t understand anything around me–until now–when I passed the basic fluency exam in Ljubljana and spent three weeks almost exclusively using the language when my mom was visiting–is shocking to myself. How? How? How? I repeat. How?

More shocking–and confusing–however, is my brain’s inability to keep my Spanish and Slovenian separated in my head. I once gave an entire presentation in my Slovenian class, a carefully memorized speech which had been corrected to perfect grammar by a Slovenian friend… but during the talk, my brain processed the Slovenian word “ker” for “because” while my mouth formed the Spanish word “porque.” I only realized this after my class laughed and pointed it out. Had no one told me, I’d have never noticed I said “porque” and not “ker.”

What, what, what is going on in my brain? I am doing this all the time now. Where I used to say “como” (like) in Spanish, I often now say “kot.” I know the word for magazine in Slovenian is “revija,” but that doesn’t stop me from saying “revista”… every single time.

Learning a third language, I propose, is easier for people who have been bilingual from birth because it is their first foreign language. I never mix English words into my Spanish or Slovenian without it being intentional. I’m guessing that native languages are protected in that way by your brain. So it would make sense that maybe a bilingual individual might only run into the problems I’m having if they learned a fourth language and began to mix their third and fourth the way I’m mixing my second and third.

I wonder how to fix this? My plan is to study, for at least one hour a day, both Spanish and Slovenian… every day. Whether it’s reading newspaper articles, talking to a native in the language, or watching a TV show or movie, I need to get to a point where I can switch between these two languages without mixing them–or without slowing down.

Now, when I speak Spanish, it feels like there’s a weight on my brain and my usual faster-than-light speaking rate is slowed to a crawl which makes people question whether I can even speak the language at all. I used to wonder that, too, until I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I watched a something in Spanish and read some poetry and newspaper articles with 100% comprehension. So, it’s buried somewhere in my brain, my Spanish, and I want to find it back.

In the process, though, I don’t want to lose my Slovenian.

I’m also studying Italian now…

I think I should just be ready for a full year of a headache, coming my way, if I propose to keep this up.

Here’s to hoping it works, and that it’s worth it in the end.

3 thoughts on “Third Language Learning

  1. Mintie says:

    Nice observation! I am bilingual and it was a breeze for me learning my third language. Unfortunate as you suspect I am having difficulties learning my forth language as I keep getting them mixed up with my third. Therefore reinforcing your theory :D

    1. kristinareardon says:

      It’s good to hear from someone who has similar problems. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing my mind! I’ve managed to straighten out (most of the time) my second and third languages… but now have begun speaking Spanish with the accent I had previously reserved for Slovenian, and vice versa. The headaches never end! It’s worth it all, though, right? What are your languages?

      1. Mintie says:

        My first language was Thai but I moved to New Zealand when I was 10 leaving my English to be my strongest language. Then I started learning Japanese in high school and also spend some time in Japan. Now I’m working in Germany and just recently started learning German. I glad that German and Japanese are quite the opposite, I can’t imagine how hard it would be learning a similar language for your third and fourth.

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