A while back I wrote a post trumpeting that every citizen in the European Union should learn exactly two languages: Their mother tongue and English – instead of a mish-mash of the 25 languages or so currently being taught (and spoken) in European schools.
However, in that post, I also wrote that if someone wanted to learn a third language, well, then “by all means.”
This spurred Paul Edwards in Australia to send me a question. Basically, Paul asks me what I think of a comment he read on The Economist. In this comment, a Finnish person writes that having been taught more languages than his mother tongue and a primary foreign language back in school actually created a problem for him. Words from the now superfluous languages are still stuck in his brain and are getting in the way of perfecting his primary foreign language.
Or, in this particular case, also having learnt Swedish and German in school is now cluttering his linguistic mind and making it harder for him to truly perfect his English – he often struggles to retrieve certain English words from memory and, unwillingly, remembers the German or Swedish words for the same thing instead.
It is an interesting proposition that our brains can actually get so full of information that it gets harder to keep things apart. And previous studies have actually substantiated that the brain needs to make room for new information by discarding some of the old stuff – suggesting that, yes, sometimes already stored information can actually get in the way.
Two is best – macro and micro
First let me say that my main argument – on a general macro level – is that the best system would be that we all learn just our mother tongue and whatever other language is the world’s most widespread lingua franca. So two languages.
This was the main focus of my original article. With one shared tongue, societies such as the European Union would be able to communicate much more directly with each other, with less risk of things getting lost in translation and with fewer interpreters needed.
One language shared by all will promote both integration and mobility – as well as make people feel more connected across cultures and borders. Direct communication fosters a feeling of relatedness that brings with it lots of societal perks. Cultivating multiple lingua francas instead of just one would be unnecessary and counterproductive. It’s much better that we all just spend our time getting really good at one.
Certainly, learning just one language other than your mother tongue also makes sense on a micro level. This way you can allocate more ressources, most specifically time, to learning that one language really, really well – and you won’t waste valuable hours you could have spent honing other skills, be that cooking, computer literacy or playing the guitar.
Is three a problem, then?
But, would it actually be a major problem if non-native English speakers in the EU also spent time learning a third language on top of getting very good at English?
Major? Perhaps not. But there is probably some truth in this. A recent study published in Neuron suggested that forgetting old information can make us more efficient. A bit like if you initially learn the wrong name for someone, and even a while after later learning the real name, the old one just won’t leave your mind. So you keep calling Michael Tom, or Mary Jane. A specific face has cognitively been connected to a wrong name in your mind. Or, in linguistic terms, the mind now pulls from storage the wrong signifier for the signified.
It can take a while to unlearn this information, but when you do, you’re cognitively going to be more efficient. Michael is now always Michael, And Mary is always Mary. And it now seems a bit strange that you always got them wrong back then.
I haven’t seen a study like this applied to languages but it seems plausible that storing more languages may work in a similar way: They sit in your mind, confusing it and making you less efficient when you are trying to recall information.
On an anecdotal level, I spoke a bit of Italian when I moved to Spain a few years ago, and for several months I found it hard to not use an Italian word or an Italian conjugation when trying to learn to say certain things in Spanish. For example, I would use -iamo as the suffix for 1st person plural instead of -emos.
It is fair to say that the Italian I brought with me often “got in the way” of learning Spanish. On the other hand, before Italian, I spoke just Germanic languages: English, Danish and some German. Learning some Italian made me understand the basics of latin grammar – something that helped me when studying Spanish.
Then again, I have just returned from two weeks’ holiday in Italy, and only this morning I happened to throw two Italian words into a simple conversation in Spanish. And I simply could not retrieve the Spanish words from my mind. I think I have a couple of weeks of unlearning Italian ahead of me. While parts of the little Italian I speak came back to me while in Italy, I now need to move it back into a darker corner of my mind so it doesn’t get in the way of learning more Spanish.
However, neither of these languages seem to get in the way of my English and Danish. Why? Again, It is anecdotal, but I speak and read a lot of English and Danish every single day, so these seem to just “stick”.
Using means keeping apart
In my time studying language, I have met a few people with remarkable, linguistic capabilities. Notably a Russian translator and language aficionado who spoke more languages than I can remember, including English, Italian, German, Mandarin, Danish, Japanese, Greenlandic and more. But these linguistic savants can probably be considered outliers.
There are of course also areas of Europe where trilingualism is quite normal. Say, in some Alpine areas both Italian and German are considered mother tongues – and English is widely spoken. In some areas, the small Ladin language is added to the mix.
But these languages are typically all used quite often by their speaker. If they are, my impression is that they are cognitively easier to keep apart. They are like your favourite pens in your penholder. Or your favourite tools in your workshop. You know how to use them really well. You know how they feel in your hand.
But if languages are not used very often, like in the case of the Finnish commenter, it is plausible to me that some linguistic residue from way back when could potentially get in the way of perfecting one’s primary foreign language. At least for a while. These languages become those old, not-very-good pens still left in the penholder. The unused tools cluttering the work shop. The ones just making it harder to find what you are really looking for.
I would, however, think that this would, in time, be unlearned by the mind so as to not get in the way of new information. I know that my own, one-semester encounter with French is now safely tucked away in some unreachable part of my Inferior Frontal Gyrus. Eventually, your mind manages to tidy up the penholder and the workshop, and the old pens and tools are either thrown into the bin or moved to out-of-sight storage on faraway shelves. Similarly to how we eventually unlearn the wrong name we used to associate with a specific human face.
Why this has seemingly not happened to the Finnish commenter even after several years in the USA, I cannot answer. Brains are different. Maybe some of us are better at unlearning than others. Maybe the base language, in this case Finnish, plays a part. Presumably the level of, and beginning of, exposure to the primary foreign language – in this case English – plays a big part. Start late and start small – and it will be much harder to truly master a new language. Even if you try to compensate in adult life by studying hard.
On a whole different level, there could actually be other benefits to going beyond two languages. That is, if you truly master them and practice them. A recent study showed that for older adults, trilingualism can boost overall “cognitive reserves” more so than bilingualism.
In other words, if trying to squeeze in a third language can in fact get in the way of learning the second one really well, then – perhaps – this is compensated for by the overall increase in cognitive abilities. Obviously, this is something that would be difficult to study and compare directly.
No matter. My conclusion is still: Stick to the two. On top of our mother tongues, we should all become masters of just English – and then spend the time saved on learning other skills. However, if you do choose to learn a third, make sure it is one that you will continue to perfect and use – otherwise it runs the risk of just being that thing stuck in your mind that gets in the way of perfecting the world’s one true lingua franca: English.
Main photo: In parts of the Alps, it is not uncommon to speak three or four languages. San Cassiano in Alta Badia (in South Tyrol). Photo: Giuseppe Milo / CC