Like people, languages come in families.
No, there aren’t such things as mommy, daddy, and baby languages, but rather languages that share common origins and characteristics, based upon their evolution throughout human history.
In this article, I'm going to talk about something called language families, and how learning languages from the same family can benefit (and occasionally harm) your language learning progress.
“What are language families?”
I’ll give you an example:
You might know that there is a group of languages called the “Romance languages”.
There are many, many Romance languages, but the most well-known examples include Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan, and my native Italian.
Despite the fact that many people consider French, Spanish, and Italian languages of “love”, the word “Romance” in this case has nothing to do with love at all—instead, “Romance” means “of the Romans”, or, more specifically, “related to the language spoken by the Romans”, which was the Latin language.
You see, once upon a time, languages like Italian, French, and Romanian didn’t exist at all. Back in the days of the Roman Empire, the main language spoken in what are now called Italy, France, and Romania was simply Latin.
Then one day, the Roman Empire fell, and the Latin spoken in each of these areas began to evolve independently of other locations. The variety of Latin spoken in Italy gradually became Italian, the variety spoken in France became French, the variety of Romania became Romanian, and so on.
So much time has passed now, in fact, that speakers of these once-Latin languages occasionally have a hard time understanding one another, if they can at all. Italians, for example, have great difficulty understanding Romanian speech, especially without the aid of writing. And vice versa.
So, in a nutshell, that’s what language families are: groups of languages that evolved from the same ancestor languages.
And language families can have multiple levels, as well.
Modern Greek is not a Romance language, but bears many similarities to Romance languages because its ancestor, Ancient Greek, was a sister language to Latin. Latin and Greek (and many, many other languages) actually evolved from a common ancestor language known as Indo-European. English is a descendant of Indo-European, as well.
Other well-known language families include:
There’s a lot more than that, but I think you get the idea.
So why are language families important?
Why should you, as a language learner, spend any time thinking about how languages are related to one another?
Language families are important because in most cases, it is faster to learn multiple languages from the same family than it is to learn the same number of languages from completely different families.
In other words, knowing about language families can make it easier for you to become a polyglot.
There are downsides as well, but let’s first dive into the benefits:
The Benefits of Learning Languages from the Same Family
1. Shared Linguistic Features Are Easier to Master
In general, learning languages from the same family is easier because languages within the same family share many similar characteristics with one another. Exactly which characteristics are shared will vary from language pair to language pair, but it’s fair to say that any similarity is possible.
By this, I mean that languages within the same family can share:
Once you’ve expended the necessary effort to learn one language within a family, you can then choose to learn a related language with one or more of the above shared characteristics. When you learn this related language, it will be much easier for you to master the shared element, since you already did all the hard work with your previous language.
Let me give you an example:
Polish is a Slavic language. When I started learning Polish in late 2011, I could already speak Russian, which is also a Slavic language. Since I knew Russian well, I was already familiar with the common features that all members of the Slavic language family share, such as the aspect of verbs, the form of words, native Slavic vocabulary, syntax, and needless to say, the case system.
For that reason, it was easier and faster to learn Polish in 2011 than it was for me to learn Russian in 2004. Knowing Russian already meant that I could learn a lot of Polish “for free” (that is, without expending a lot of effort).
2. You can understand other languages of the same group without speaking them.
Within the same language group, there are some languages that are closer to others, and in different ways. For example, Portuguese is surprisingly similar to Spanish when written, but surprisingly different when spoken. In particular, the pronunciation of Iberian (Portugal) Portuguese sounds very different from any variety of Spanish—in fact, when I heard Iberian Portuguese for the first time, I thought it sounded like Russian!
On the other hand, Italian and Spanish are structurally less similar than Spanish and Portuguese, but share a very close pronunciation. So, if you put an Italian and a Spaniard together in the same room and forced them to speak to one another without using a common language, they would probably understand each other more easily than if you repeated the same experiment with a Portuguese person and a Spaniard.
I was able to take advantage of this phenomenon after I had reached a comfortable level in Polish.
Once, when I was traveling through Hungary, I encountered a Slovak truck driver who could only speak Slovak. Slovak is a Slavic language, but despite that, speakers of Slovak cannot easily understand Russian. So, to communicate with this person, I had to resort to using Polish, which is a much closer sister language to Slovak than Russian is.
Despite the fact that we were speaking two different languages to one another, this man and I succeeded quite well at communicating—in fact, we didn’t even have to slow down our talking speed!
An interesting side note to this phenomenon is the fact that sometimes the ease or difficulty of understanding a sister language depends on which language you speak. As I mentioned earlier, Portuguese and Spanish are related, but it is often easier for Portuguese people to understand Spanish people than the other way around.
3. Actively learning one member of a language family can help you maintain your existing level in other languages within that family.
Language skill is not a static thing. If you learn and use a language actively and frequently, your level in that language will improve; if you don’t do that, then your level will gradually decrease, sometimes dramatically.
This is one of the main challenges that polyglots face. To maintain their skill level in all the languages they know, they need to find time to practice those languages. And there’s only so much time in a day to do that.
When you know multiple languages within the same family, however, this challenge gets a bit easier.
Since languages within the family share many similar characteristics, actively practicing one language within that family can help reinforce your existing understanding of other languages in the family, even if you don’t actively practice the others at all.
For example, I currently speak five Germanic languages: German, Dutch, English, Swedish, and Danish. Aside from English, German is the language of this group I speak most often (I use it with my coaching clients). German and Dutch are very similar, but I hardly ever speak Dutch at all, nowadays. Despite this, my frequent use of German has allowed me to maintain a respectable level in Dutch, and allowed me to use it well on certain rare occasions.
The Downside of Learning Languages from the Same Family
So far, it may seem like learning languages in families is something that only offers advantages. However, as they say, “all that glitters is not gold”.
There is one main disadvantage to learning languages from the same group, and it can be summed up in a single word:
What does “interference” mean?
It means mixing up and confusing the languages, both as you learn them, and when you go to use them.
Since languages within a family are similar, but not the same, it is very easy to confuse them as you go about your learning. Since you’ll generally always have one language that is “stronger” and another that is “weaker” in your mind, the stronger language will often exert more influence, and make it harder to “relearn” similar structures in the new language.
This happened to me with Dutch and German.
When I started learning Dutch, I already spoke German quite well. So, whenever I went to use a Dutch structure that was similar to a German one, my brain automatically chose the German version.
This led to me speaking an awkward hybrid of Dutch and German, rather than just Dutch, as I intended.
For example, I used to say:
“Als ik in Amsterdam was” (when I was in Amsterdam) instead of “Toen ik in Amsterdam was” because in German, “als” is the word you use to introduce a temporal clause: “Als ich in Amsterdam war” would be the German version.
This kind of interference is inevitable at first, but can gradually be minimized, or eliminated altogether.
The best way to do this is to learn one language in the family extremely well (to around a B2 level) before you learn another language in the family. At that point, you will have built a strong enough “core” in the first language that the second, weaker language will be unable to interfere much with it.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, the stronger language will interfere with the weaker language, but as you improve your skill in the weaker language, this interference will decrease, and the two languages will grow strong and independent of one another.
What happens if you don’t learn one language well before learning another from the same family? Massive interference!
Since both languages are not at a B2 level, they are not strong enough to withstand interference from the other. It’s as if they were two young trees planted next to one another. Small and weak, the two trees will have to compete for the same water and air to survive. If these resources are limited enough, it is very likely that one or both of the saplings will die, rather than growing up into big, strong trees that can survive well, even with competition.
This is why I always highly recommend that people NOT learn two closely related languages at the same time.
Spanish and Italian at the same time? Nope.
Polish and Czech. Not a good idea. Dutch and German? Not recommended. You’ll experience massive interference and confusion throughout the learning process.
Before we go, I want to talk about another type of interference between languages, which can get in your way even if you know both languages well.
I’ll call this interference “blocking”.
I’ll illustrate with a brief story:
I once knew an American girl who had moved to Italy after living in Spain for three years.
Upon arriving in Italy, she was totally fluent in Spanish, and had no problems using it whatsoever.
When I met her, she had been living in Italy for one year. Italian was her main language learning priority, and she focused on learning it every single day. At the time we met, I would say she spoke fluent Italian.
One time, she told me the story of how she recently met some Spanish tourists in Rome. Even though she hadn’t spoken Spanish in a long time, she was confident in her skills, and decided to strike up a conversation with them.
Much to her surprise, when she opened her mouth, no Spanish came out! Instead, all she could speak was Italian!
In that moment, she said it was if she was trying to dig through her brain for the Spanish she was certain she knew, but all she could find was Italian. Somehow, her more recent and ready Italian skills were blocking her Spanish skills!
This has happened to me too, from time to time. As a language learner, it can be quite a shocking and uncomfortable experience, and is definitely one of the stranger forms of interference one can encounter.
Luckily, I can confidently say that this kind of interference can definitely be overcome.
In the above story, my friend was unable to speak Spanish because her Italian knowledge was so much fresher in her mind. In fact, it had been more than a year since she had spoken any Spanish at all.
So the problem clearly is lack of practice. Even if you know two languages in a family well, if you speak one and ignore the other for a long time, this “blocking” is sometimes likely to happen.
The solution? Make an effort to practice both languages, as regularly as you can.
If, say, your dominant language - given your life choices and circumstances - is Spanish but you don’t want to lose your fluent Portuguese, make sure you spend at least 10 to 20 minutes every day with Portuguese.
You can do this in a variety of ways, be it listening, reading, or even having a pretend conversation in Portuguese with yourself! Best would be to hop on a Skype call or maybe text chat Whatsapp to keep your Portuguese capacities alive.
Now, before I finish, I wanted to share a couple of other tips and make you aware of certain “traps” you may want to avoid.
First, though learning one language in a family is highly likely to make learning another language in that family easier, it is not always the case. At the very least, certain structural features of the language can be different enough to make learning harder.
For example, though French and Spanish are both Romance languages, French pronunciation is extremely different from Spanish pronunciation. So if you know Spanish and expect to learn French pronunciation quickly and easily, you may be sorely mistaken.
And another thing you may encounter when learning multiple languages within a family is a decline in interest as you learn more languages. Since you’ve already mastered one or more languages within the group, gaining knowledge of other similar languages may seem less challenging or exciting to you. In certain cases, this could demotivate you and cause you to stop learning the new language.
That’s what happened to me when I started learning Romanian after learning French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Since Romanian would have been my fourth Romance language, it didn’t seem as exciting or exotic as many of the other languages I had my eye on. To make matters worse, I had no connections with Romanian people at the time, so I wasn’t particularly motivated to find a way to learn it.
To wrap it up, languages are grouped in families. Languages of the same family share similar traits.
Learning one language within a family means that in most cases, it will be easier to learn other languages in that family, as well.
For this reason, if you want to become a polyglot, it can often be a good idea to learn multiple languages in the same family before moving on to other ones.
There are downsides to this however, so if you want to learn multiple languages in this way, you should follow certain strategies. For example, I highly recommend you learn a language to fluency (B2, or even better, C1) before moving on to other languages within that group.
Don’t make the mistake of trying to learn two close languages at the same time, or you will likely confuse them. Even with the right strategy and right timing, a certain amount of interference - be it syntax, pronunciation, or vocabulary - is inevitable.
This problem, however, can be easily solved. The more you learn and speak two similar languages, the better you will be able to keep them separate. If you’re in this situation, make sure you use both languages on a daily or weekly basis, and make sure you invest some time in clearly distinguishing and practicing the two different sound systems.
What about YOU? Have you ever learned languages of the same language family?
Did that help or get in the way? Share your story in the comment section below!