Whether you’re gearing up for a big trip or looking to stimulate your brain, attempting to learn a new language is always a noble endeavor. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. We turned to Hannah McElgunn, a Canadian linguist based at the University of Chicago, for the inside scoop on everything English speakers should keep in mind when choosing an adopted tongue.
“There are two ways that languages can be related to each other,” McElgunn explains. “One is through genealogical relation, when two languages descend from a common language historically. Another is through contact, or vocabulary borrowing.” English is a Germanic language, so its syntax (sentence structure) and morphology (how words are formed and relate to each other) will be similar to other languages from the same family, which includes many Scandinavian languages.
But while the majority of English vocabulary is inherited from Germanic speech, many English words actually have Latin roots. Modern languages that originate from Latin, such as French and Spanish, are known as Romance languages. Many of these official languages share cognates with English, or words with a common etymological origin. This explains why, for example, “when you hear someone speak in French, some words will sound like they do in English, just pronounced slightly different,” McElgunn says. (For example, the English word for “restaurant” translates in French to restaurant and in Spanish to restaurante.)
Which languages are most similar to English?
Germanic languages include German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Swedish, and Afrikaans (in addition to English).
Romance languages include Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian, all of which originate from the same parent language (Latin).
According to McElgunn, various languages within the above “families” are also closely related. “The reason people who speak French can understand some words in Spanish is because they’re in the same language family,” the linguist notes. “Likewise, if you already know Norwegian, you could probably learn Danish pretty quickly.”
Tips for English-speaking language learners . . .
Consider how a language sounds
“Let’s say you decided you want to learn a language that’s not related to English in any way,” McElgunn suggests. “One thing I would consider is the phonology, or the sound of the language. There’s a range of possible sounds that humans can make and English only occupies a small part of that space.
“It will be much harder to speak and understand a language with sounds that aren’t used in English because the distinctions between words won’t sound pronounced to learners,” McElgunn says. Lithuanian, for example, has a 32-letter alphabet and 52 different phonemes (distinguishing sounds)—many of which lie outside of English’s 26-letter span. The trick, McElgunn says, is to seek out languages with consonants and vowel sounds that are similar to those used in English. (Hint: See the list of Germanic and Romance languages above.)
Keep sentence structure in mind
McElgunn also notes that roughly speaking, languages fall into two camps. Analytic languages rely primarily on parts of speech like particles and prepositions, as well as word order, to build sentences. Conversely, synthetic languages often use inflection (changes in pitch), combined words, or different forms of the same word to convey meaning within a sentence.
For example, in a synthetic language like Hungarian, the three-word sentence “I love you” translates to a single word, Szeretlek. In Afrikaans (an analytic language), “I love you” translates to Ek is lief vir jou—more literally, “I am loving for you.”
“A language that’s truly different from English might have a sentence with two subjects, an object, and a verb but only one word,” says McElgunn. “It’s going to be hard for an English-speaker to understand the way that breaks down because in English, those would all be different words.” Because analytic languages generally follow similar sentence structures, it can be easier to identify words and their contextual meanings when translating from one analytic language to another. Still, it’s rare to find a language that is purely analytic or synthetic; most languages have characteristics of both. (English, for example, is one of the most analytic Indo-European languages, but it’s still often classified as a synthetic language.)
Similarly, languages can be categorized according to how they are written (as either transparent or opaque). With transparent languages, silent letters are few and far between; you’re meant to pronounce every letter of a word as it’s written. (Spanish, Italian, Finnish, and German are considered transparent languages.)
In more opaque languages, the relationship between how a word is written and spoken is more complicated. “French has a lot of vowels and that can be very confusing,” McElgunn explains. “Eau, the French word for water, sounds like one vowel, O. But to write it as a plural, it’s spelled e-a-u-x.”
In addition to French, English, Arabic, Hebrew, and Faroese are all considered opaque languages. Portuguese, Dutch, and Swedish fall somewhere in the middle of both categories. Still, according to the linguist, this relationship matters mostly to those looking to master a language beyond oral proficiency.
Remember that the mouth is a muscle
“Everyone has different learning styles, but I think the best way to learn a language is to get used to saying things out loud,” McElgunn advises. “If you’re only reading and pronouncing words in your head, you’re not actually training your lips, throat, or tongue—which are all just muscles—to produce these new sounds.”
It might be a bit uncomfortable at first, but McElgunn recommends checking your work by recording yourself, then replaying the audio: “I’m not someone who likes to listen to my recorded voice, but hearing what you actually sound like versus what you think you sound like is a really great way to figure out what you need to work on.”
Lastly, if you’re looking to ditch the translation apps and fully immerse yourself in a foreign language, make sure you’ve chosen your destination wisely. “You might want to consider whether it’s worth going to an urban area where people might have been exposed to a lot of English as opposed to somewhere more isolated or rural where there’s less exposure,” McElgunn says. “That’ll present you with different challenges, obviously, but there will also be different opportunities for learning.”