Learning Italian through French, or a Third Language through a Second

I’ve mentioned before that I find learning a third language using my second language much easier than using my native language. Currently, I am improving my Italian by using resources written in French rather than English. Switching from French to Italian takes much less effort than switching from English to Italian, and the same is true regarding German, so I’m reluctant to say it’s merely because of the genetic relatedness between French and Italian. Granted, learning two Romance languages together is probably easier than learning two unrelated languages for most people, but for me it’s more of a question of my second language having priority over my native language when other foreign languages are involved.

Some people discourage learning two languages together, especially languages that are closely related such as Spanish and Portuguese, because they believe that learners will get too confused. That’s quite insulting to learners who are quite capable of learning several languages at once, or using one language to learn or improve their knowledge of another. Perhaps some people do confuse certain similar words, but once an advanced level is reached, everything sorts itself out and humans are able to speak several languages on a daily basis. Multilingualism, not bilingualism and certainly not monolingualism, is the norm throughout the world and is highly beneficial to the health of the human brain, so shouldn’t we all strive to be polyglots?


Once you’ve gained a sufficient level in one foreign language, all of the others that follow are increasingly easier and easier to learn. You’ve already learned how to learn a language and familiarize yourself with the grammar, so now you can focus on learning useful vocabulary and collocations for communication and trying not to get stumped by polysemous or homonymous words.

Italian through French

At first glance, Italian seems a million times easier than French, especially regarding pronunciation. There are only seven vowels and every word is pronounced how it is spelled. Compared to the 15 or so vowels in French, plus the nasals and numerous silent letters, I am in heaven. I don’t have to wonder why in the world a singular noun such as œuf ends in /f/ but the plural œufs contains no consonant sounds at all because Italian pronunciation is not a cruel joke against foreigners, unlike that of French. Italian does have some irregular plural forms, but they are still pronounced exactly as they are spelled. Uomo (man) becomes uomini (men) in the plural but at least -ini isn’t silent for no darn reason!

Articles are slightly more complicated (what’s with lo?) but the possessive adjectives and pronouns are the same. No new forms to learn. Changing from spoken to written Italian is much easier thanks to the phonetic spelling. I never have to worry about if I need to add that extra -e or -s for feminine or plural as in French (they’re silent! how mean is that?) because in Italian, the final vowel simply changes according to person and gender so there is no confusion.

Verb conjugations are also easier. A bunch of v’s? Imperfect! An r in the stem? Future or Conditional! Too many s’? Imperfect subjunctive! Just as in French, the preterit isn’t used in speech (except in southern Italy) so I can spend more time on recognizing the forms instead of producing them. Subject pronouns are rarely used with verb conjugations, which takes some getting used to since they are always required in French.

Some phrases are very similar – passer une nuit blanche / passare la notte in bianco (to have a sleepless night) –  while others can be deceiving: le monde entier / tutto il mondo (the entire world) compared to tout le monde / tutti (everyone). Of course, idioms between languages are often different and need to be learned individually. Yet it is these subtle differences between close languages that I find the most interesting and spend most of my time learning. Both French and Italian came from vulgar Latin, so how and why did the languages change over time and how can we use that to our advantage in learning both languages? The Loom of Language explains this rather well, though I am still looking for a more contemporary book on the subject.

As I reach fluency in Italian, I will continue to update both the Italian and French & Italian tutorials. I am also returning to Italy next week – to the Aosta Valley, where both Italian and French are official languages – so I should have more realia resources to upload.

Just out of curiosity, for those who are learning a third (or fourth, fifth, etc.) language, do you use resources in your native language or do you prefer to use resources in another language that you know well?

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  • Shanna

    I’m currently learning Japanese, which will be (hopefully) my 4th language. I’m mainly using resources in L3 (Korean) and I find that it makes learning Japanese more interesting! Also, Korean and Japanese have alot of similarities in terms of language and using Korean resources does help. At the same time, I can also improve and make use of my L3. ^^

  • http://twitter.com/garikoitz Garikoitz Knörr

    Cool post as usual! I totally agree on the advantages of using resources in a language which is not your mother tongue. By the way, I’ve thought you might be interested in having a look at this tool:
    http://www.romanicaintercom.com/
    Some info in English: http://bit.ly/cXpUJc
    It’s basically “A resource [...] that aims to help students learn to read in four new languages simultaneously (Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Italian or French).”

  • http://parisatmyfeet.blogspot.com Canedolia

    Hi Jennie,

    I totally agree with what you said in the post – I could chat away easily in Italian after a year of studying, while in French those darn nasal vowels and liaisons still catch me out after 16 years of studying! I’ve never tried using French resources to study Italian but I definitely use my own knowledge of French, to the extent that my first Italian teacher actually asked me if I WAS French. I think actually using French textbooks would confuse me though – I like to spot the similarities and differences myself as I think it helps me to learn. The things that still get to me in Italian are definitely the ones that are different from French, such as the use of the subjunctive, and also the combining of pronouns, which I think I’ve ranted about on my blog at least once before now. I actually enjoy speaking Italian more than French just because it comes so easily to me but I think for my next language I’m going to have to choose one that isn’t a romance one, just to remind myself that learning languages is supposed to be difficult!

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Well, I’m learning Japanese in addition to Spanish, and I’m at a fairly high level of Spanish but just starting out in Japanese. I definitely prefer having my Japanese learning materials in English, if for no other reason than there is far, far more out there as far as learning materials for Japanese in English than there is in Spanish. Also, I really feel like trying to use Spanish to do it would really slow me down.

    Unless you’re at a fairly advanced level of fluency in the second language you’re going to be using to learn a third language, such that you can move nearly as fast as you could if you were doing it in your native language, I wouldn’t do it, it just seems like something that doesn’t really help and would just serve to slow you down quite a bit.

    Though I suppose it IS one way of going about learning two languages at once! :D

    Oh, and I totally agree with you on how learning your first second language makes it a billion times easier to learn any other language after that. You really do “learn how to learn languages”. There’s such a huge difference now with me learning Japanese vs. me when I began learning Spanish (my first foreign language), mainly that I actually know what the hell I’m doing now! I’m no longer confused, sitting around, wondering what I should do, should I use this course or that course or this workbook or that workbook, should I spend X amount of time of this activity and Y amount of time doing that or vice-versa, etc. etc. etc. Big difference.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • http://labelleinfrance.com Stephanie

    I have to agree with you – that learning the third using your second is easier.

    I once heard why it’s easier to learn a second langauge as a child because the area of the brain where language is stored is in one section, however when you get older, it splits into two – new vocabulary is learned associating it with old vocabularly.

    The new language is stored in one area and any additional information learned stores it in that area – meaning it takes less time for your brain to transmit information as you continue building your knowledge.

    I wish I could find where I first read that – it was a few years ago but it makes so much sense!

  • Dh3537

    Sadly, English and Chinese have nothing in common.

  • http://www.correresmidestino.com Zhu

    I admire the way you dedicate yourself to learning languages!

    I can totally relate to the fact that once you learned one foreign language, the others are easier to learn.

  • Nilesh

    I’m just seeing this post for the first time. Thank you so much for mentioning me. What a great feeling. Thanks again!

  • http://www.dreaming-in-italian.com ER

    I totally agree! I’ve found it much easier to learn Spanish through the Italian I already know.

  • Pingback: Language Buster» Blog Archive » Learning Italian through French, or a Third Language through a …

  • Cdrakeau

    I prefer to learn a third language using my second one. I only know enough French to get by but I really wanted to start learning Swedish as I have an affection for their culture. When I started to study the Swedish, I whizzed through it but unfortunately, it ruined my French a little. So as not to lose the French that I’ve invested so much in, I purchased Swedish books through Amazon’s French site.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VB7VNSH4Z36YJJGGASDTK4U2MU Sashimi

    Hi, Jennie

    I really enjoy reading your blog.
    I would like to share my experience in learning foreign languages too as I do think languages from the same family can help understand the other better.

    I am a Chinese, graduated with a Japanese major in college. My best friend is Korean so I started self-learning Korean a while ago. I do find out that the books written in Japanese are easier to understand than those written in Chinese or English.
    Right now, I’m working in an European company which most staff speak either French or German. As I am going to a company training in Luxembourg soon, I just started learning French. I feel lucky that I took an elementary Spanish class in college, which does help me a lot in learning French! The concept of masculine and feminine word, the conjugation in verbs, and the use of pronouns are quite similar between the two. Although French is still very hard for me, I am doing better than most of my classmates.

  • Geordie2004

    Just out of curiosity, Jennie, how close do you feel you are to fluency in Italian now?

  • Pam

    I happened upon your site because as I’m adjusting to the idea of learning Italian I noticed how similar they are to the French I already know. So it’s nice to see someone else have the same idea. I’m hoping learning Italian comes easier. Thank you!

  • Andy_Megara

    My native language is spanish. My second language is english. And now I am learning japanese using resources in both languages (spanish and english). When I started, I wanted to find material in spanish, but I found a lot more in english, so I ended up learning japanese using both languages.

  • Andy_Megara

    My native language is spanish. My second language is english. And now I am learning japanese using resources in both languages (spanish and english). When I started, I wanted to find material in spanish, but I found a lot more in english, so I ended up learning japanese using both languages.

  • http://www.facebook.com/MagEakaWebutante Margaret Nahmias

    I have thought about learning Italian since that was the language of my maternal  grandparents, but I would like to perfect  my  Spanish first. I agree with one of the post unless your level of fluency is  advanced enough in your second language to understand ligunistic terms, it could slow you down.

  • CJF

    Over the past few months I’ve become what some would call fluent in Spanish (although for those who have learned a language, it’s sort of a… “the more you know the less you realize you know” sort of a deal…) and am trying my hand at Portuguese.I’ve been trying to learn it by using English, but it really helps to list out the words/verbs/phrases in al three languages–the main reason being that the concepts are often more similar in Spanish than in English (like the verb Ter, in Spanish is Tener, and in English it “to have.” The uses are almost exactly the same between the two languages.

    I almost wish now that I had downloaded my learning software in Spanish instead of English! Great article by the way!

  • dax

    Italian grammar is more difficult than French. Articles ( in Italian are many and are placed everywhere), articulate prepositions ( which don’t exist neither in Spanish nor in French ), names and adjectives  are declined in plural, singular, male and female form and are not pronounced in the same way, tenses more complex ecc…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1665326101 Jonathan Travis

    I always favor my 2nd language (French) when studying another. Probably for the reasons you’ve listed, but I also wonder if since French is less dominant in my mind than English, I can therefore keep myself from using a known language as a mental crutch and try to think in the new language. Basically, with English out of the picture, mentally, I can seperate myself better from what I’ve already known and move into what I’m learning.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rick.tylers Ricky Tylers

    I learn French through English mostly because it’s easier, at least they’re related! My first/second languages (Javanese/Indonesian) are completely different to Indo-European languages! But I also took French course but it was conducted in Indonesian/French though…

  • Sindar

    I use English, because it is easier to find books and articles, written in it. So yeah, I use my second language to learn the third =)

    Thanks for the article, it is very interesting!

  • Fatemeh

    I enjoyed it a lot,thanks
    I’m Iranian and my mother tongue is Persian.I learned English and it’s about a year that I’ve started French.Frankly If i didn’t know English,French would be a nightmare to me.
    While I speak French I analyze everything in English in my mind although there are many similaries between French & Persian.

  • Petra

    My mother tongue is Hungarian, which is in the finnugoric language family, not close at all to neolatin or germanic languages. My English(L2) is on C1 level, and my Italian(L3) is on B2, and recently i’ve started to attend a French course. Even though my English is on a higher level than my Italian, I still refer back to my Italian knowledge while I’m learning French. I found out that there are a lot of “false friends”, but even like this Italian is a huge help to learn French! I’ve been reading some studies about this topic, and they showed that people usually take references from the language which is closer to the source language (it’s the so-called language distance).

  • Unknown

    It doesn’t make any sense! Italian is much more difficult to speak because you have to pronounce every letter. You always have to worry if the declension ends with -o, -a, -i, or -e. However in French, despite the different writings, everything sounds the same and you don’t have to think as much.

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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