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?

Le Grand Robert & Collins French/English CD-ROM Dictionary

Since I’ve been doing more French-English translations lately, I decided to invest in a CD-ROM dictionary instead of a standard paper dictionary. Wordreference.com is of course a great online resource but I wanted something more. Le Grand Robert & Collins French/English CD-ROM Dictionary contains 425,000 entries, all with standard IPA pronunciation and plenty of sample phrases […]

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Update on the Easyjet Drama: Refusal to Pay Compensation

Oh Easyjet, how I loathe you more and more everyday. Remember how they abandoned us overnight in Venice without providing food or hotels like they are legally supposed to? Even though I was reimbursed for the canceled flight, I never received the insultingly low 120€ for alternative travel costs (we paid nearly 1,000€ out of […]

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French Slang Nouns (New Video)

Here are some common informal nouns used in everyday speech in France. Once again, it is more important to simply understand these words and not worry so much about trying to use them. The standard vocabulary is given after the sample sentences.

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Are you a Juillettiste or an Aoûtien? and Another Reason to Visit France

We are in the middle of les grandes vacances in France and it certainly shows, even in smaller towns rather than just Paris. Many shops are closed or not nearly as crowded as usual, most of the people wandering the streets have cameras around their necks, and I can always find a parking spot directly […]

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The Importance of Learning Collocations instead of Individual Words

As Randy from Yearlyglot pointed out recently, word pattern recognition is an important concept in language learning and attaining fluency. Word patterns or collocations are simply the way certain words (whether function or content) habitually occur together. These conventional sequences are instantly recognizable to native speakers of a language, but remain difficult for second language learners to acquire […]

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Improving Comprehension of Foreign Languages with TV Series, Movies and Subtitles

Watching television shows and movies in the target language is a great way to learn the (real) language, but it is even better if you can read along with the subtitles while watching and listening. Most linguistics studies and language students agree, but someone needs to tell the producers of DVDs this.  I am still […]

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French Summer School Online: Free Resources to Download

Académie en ligne is the official website of Education Nationale in France that provides support materials for all courses in public schools so that students can continue learning during the summer. The site was launched last summer, but I had forgotten until This French Life posted about it.  It’s designed for all students from CP […]

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Death of a Language Website: learncanadianfrench.com

Last year a friend of mine who had recently immigrated to Quebec sent me a link to a great website about learning Canadian French. The URL was simply learncanadianfrench.com and the site included grammar and vocabulary specific to Quebec as well as several videos of Quebecois songs and examples of Quebecois speech. It was an […]

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Learning French Slang & Culture through Hip-Hop and Rap

Even if you don’t like rap in English, it pays to listen to it in foreign languages because the songs are usually full of informal language and slang as well as cultural references. Here are some songs that also teach you verlan (a “backwards” form of slang), French geography, Francophone names, common acronyms and the […]

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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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