Many language learners have a great deal of difficulty trying to memorize hundreds upon hundreds of vocabulary words from the lists in their textbooks. Teaching experts call this stage of learning rote. This means that the information is remembered word for word, and the definition is burned into your brain. However, this information, while retained, is not understood.
The goal of learning a language is to understand words and what a person is trying to say. This stage of learning that the ideal language learner should aspire to is called application. Application suggests that you can comprehend and correlate acquired knowledge with new material, draw conclusions, and synthesize information independently.
To apply this to language learning, we need to show that languages can be correlated. If you look at the linguistic map below, you can see the gradations of Romance languages throughout Europe. Ibero-Romance languages (in green), such as Portuguese and Spanish, have certain characteristics that distinguish them from other Romance languages. However, Catalan, spoken in northeastern Spain, is a Gallo-Romance language. It shares many features with Spanish, as well as with Occitan (a language spoken in southwestern France near the Spanish border) and French. Here, we see green fade into the blue areas in France, signifying the correlation between languages in that region. We also see this in the languages themselves.
Image by Koryakov Yuri & Serg!o (CC-BY-SA-3.0)
In Spanish, the word for “language” is la lengua, in Catalan it's la llengua, and in French, it's la langue. Ignoring the fact that they sound alike (we will soon see that it is not a reliable guide), even more curious is that all three also happen to mean “tongue”. And to top it off, they're all feminine nouns! So, with these clues in mind, we can reasonably conclude that these words are cognates, or words of common origin and similar meaning.
So you may be wondering, “What does this all mean?” Well, it's the key to accelerating your learning! You may not realize it, but when you start learning a language, your brain instantly tries to link it to ideas and concepts you already know in order to store it more easily. The first mistake that some people make is assuming that they have to start completely from scratch in order to learn a new language. However, this cheats you out of an incredibly easy way to learn! Your brain recognizes that two words may mean the same thing, but they are from different languages. This separates the two words in your long-term storage, especially if they sound different. I myself used my knowledge of Spanish to expedite my Italian learning, and this helped immensely in remembering all of the vocabulary.
In my guides to Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan, which can be downloaded here, I make frequent mention of parallels between Spanish, Italian, French, and other languages to help accelerate learning. This is very helpful in the analytical part of my teaching method. By helping my students correlate things they already know, the information is retained long-term. This in turn makes language learning easier and more fun. Learning a language should not be a drag, nor should it be endless trudging through vocabulary lists.
If you know Portuguese and you're learning Italian, exploit it. Not only are words similar, but structures are also often very similar among languages. For example, in Portuguese, the imperfect subjunctive of the verb ser looks incredibly similar to that of the Italian verb essere. Take the phrase, “As if it were a dream” for example. Como se fosse um sonho (Portuguese) and Come se fosse un sogno (Italian) sound nearly identical.
I know you might be thinking that if you try to correlate words all the time and find cognates, you'll start mixing up languages altogether. But there are a couple of things that you can do to avoid this. First, as mentioned before, your brain instantly recognizes the similarities as well as the differences between languages. All that's left for you to do is to practice the vocabulary in context. Second is the importance of practicing languages at different times. The temporal separation helps your brain process the languages distinctively and keep them from mixing with each other. For example, study Italian at night and study Spanish during the daytime.
I hope that this was helpful in providing a strategy for learning foreign languages! Remember: many languages are related, so you should take advantage of any links that your target language has to the one(s) you already know.
- Romance Languages in Europe in 20 C. AD. 2009. Wikimedia Commons. By Fert. Web. 16 Nov. 2014. <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Linguistic_maps_of_Romance_languages#mediaviewer/File:Romance_20c_en-2009-15-02.png>.