CwS: Does learning languages get easier the more of them you know?

[3 minute read] (ESL learners โ€“ click on the bolded words to see explanations and notes. Try the exercise at the bottom after! ๐Ÿ™‚ )

Today, I got into a discussion with one of my students about learning languages.

She was telling me how much more confident and fluent she has become since she started taking lessons and regularly dedicating energy into improving her English skills.

As she knows I’m studying many languages myself, she asked me about my experience.

“Do you find it easier to learn a new language, because you know so many?”

I pondered this for a moment.

I’ve heard people say that the second foreign language you learn is much easier than the first one, and so on.

But adding an extra language to your skills also means cramming thousands of new words and a complex new grammar system into your brain.

The more words you know, the easier it is to forget some, and the more grammar systems you hold in your mind the easier it can get to confuse them.

So if you ask me, learning languages only gets easier if each one makes you more open-minded about how languages work, and therefore you have less resistance with each new one you tackle.

Knowing a wide range of languages has exposed me to very different systems for grammar, similarities in vocabulary, and features of pronunciation.

For example, the separating verbs in German, where half of the verb detaches and travels to the end of the sentence. The lack of the verb “to be” in Russian. The German combining of multiple words into one instead of keeping them separate. The Russian seemingly random pronunciation of some As as Os. The declination system in both those languages that changes the suffix of a word depending on what role it plays in the sentence (subject, verb, location, etc.).

So when I recently took up Hungarian, I was only mildly surprised when I found it has elements of all the aforementioned baffling features, and a host of others to boot.

Even brand spanking new oddities aren’t so difficult to accept, because I’ve learned to be flexible. Whatever pops up when I’m studying a new language, I just find a way to wrap my head around it.

But this doesn’t automatically come with learning a new language. I know a couple people who are studying English, but seem to want to wrestle it at the same time. Why do we use this preposition here and that one there? How the heck do you make sense of phrasal verbs? If you can say “I’ve been living”, why can’t you say “I’ve been being” or “I’ve been knowing?”

Sometimes there’s an explanation (be and know are state verbs, which is an exception to the use of the present perfect continuous), but this isn’t always easily understandable to someone with a different language background. And in other cases, it just boils down to being an exception, or something you simply have to memorize.

Of course it’s good to ask questions and try to understand the workings of a language. But rather than taking things in their stride, some individuals just don’t want to accept things that from their perspective don’t make sense.

And the only thing that this does is make learning the language more difficult โ€” no matter how many others you already know.

Obviously, there’s much more that can affect how easy or hard it is to learn a language. This is my perspective on one of the main things. What else have you found in your experience? Share it with me in the comments below!

ESL Notes (16 words / expressions)

Definitions written with reference to Cambridge Dictionary

Ponder: think carefully about something. (Back to the text)

Cram: to force a lot of things into a small space. (Back to the text)

The more… the easier: this is an example of a common and useful grammar structure. You make it with two comparatives, which could be with “the more”, “the less”, or “the -er”. See more examples in the Cambridge Dictionary entry here. (Back to the text)

If you ask me: in my opinion. (Back to the text)

Tackle: to try to deal with something. In this case, it means to start learning a new language (in other words, to start dealing with learning the new language). (Back to the text)

Take up: to start doing a particular activity or job. (Back to the text)

Baffling: impossible to understand or explain. (Back to the text)

A host of: a large number of something. (Back to the text)

To boot: in addition. (This looks like an infinitive verb, but it isn’t! It literally means “in addition”.) (Back to the text)

Brand spanking new: completely new. “Brand new” already means completely new, but adding “spanking” emphasizes it even more and adds an element of humor as well. This is a very informal expression. (Back to the text)

Oddities: something that is strange or unusual. “Odd” is another way to say “strange”, and “ity” makes it into a noun. (Back to the text)

Pop up: to appear or happen, especially in a sudden way. (Back to the text)

Wrap my head around something: to understand something difficult. (Back to the text)

Wrestle: to fight with. This is a type of sport, but I used it metaphorically. (Back to the text)

Boil down to: another way to say “come down to”. If a situation boils/comes down to something, then that something is what influences it the most. For example, “Most of the decisions that companies make boil down to money.” In other words, money is what influences the company decisions the most. (Back to the text)

Take things in your stride: to deal with a difficult situation calmly. (Back to the text)


Want to start using these words and make sure you donโ€™t forget them? Try this exercise! Think about these questions (discuss them with someone) or write down your answers, using the word or expression in your discussion or answer.

  • What is a place where you like to ponder things? Do you ever ponder the big questions, like what is the meaning of life?
  • How many people could cram into the back of your car?
  • Have you ever taken a trip where you crammed a ton of activities into just a few days?
  • What happens when you get tired, or drunk? (Use the structure “the more/less… the more/less“).
  • What do you think people should do before they get married? Use the phrase “if you ask me” to start your answer.
  • What problems is your government currently trying to tackle?
  • What hobbies have you recently taken up? Is there a hobby you’d like to take up in the near future?
  • Does your native language have any grammar or vocabulary features that could seem baffling to someone who wants to learn it?
  • Think about a recent negative event, such as a business failing, or a breakup, or a politician who is unpopular. Talk about the reasons for this event, and use “a host of” in your answer. (For example, “There’s a whole host of reasons why he didn’t get the job. First of all,…“).
  • Think about someone you really admire (a friend, an actor, a public figure, etc.) Talk about their great qualities that you admire, and use “to boot“. (For example, “He’s kind, handsome, and wealthy to boot.“)
  • Cambridge dictionary says, “Even today a man who stays at home to take care of the children is regarded as something of an oddity.” Is this an oddity in your home country as well? What else could you consider an oddity?
  • Is there a person, product, or advertisement that seems to pop up everywhere?
  • Is there something one of your friends does and considers normal, but you cannot wrap your head around why or how they do it? For example, they might spend a lot of money on something that you don’t consider valuable, or they have great talent at something that you find very difficult.
  • Think about a problem you or someone you know is experiencing at work or in their personal life. What is the main reason for this problem? Use “it boils down to” in your answer.
  • Are you able to take criticism in your stride? Do you think this is a useful skill to have?

Feel free to try writing some more sentences, or a text, of your own to practice some more.

Thank you for reading! These ESL notes, links and exercises each take several hours to make, so if you found this useful, the kindest thing you can do is to like the post, leave a comment, or share with anyone who needs it. Have questions about any other words? Leave a comment and Iโ€™ll be happy to reply!

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