Three Cups of Language

In Linguistics and Language Learning on September 28, 2008 at 4:22 pm

Learning Your Third Foreign Language

By Antonio Graceffo


At a popular bar in Tainan, Taiwan, a Polish-Canadian girl was celebrating her graduation from the International MBA program. She spoke English at near-native-speaker level, with only the occasional hint of her Polish origin. Two new IMBA students were invited to the party. They just arrived from Poland and were happy to have found one of the few people on the island, who spoke their language. The Polish-Canadian girl switched easily from Polish to English, speaking to her various friends and well-wishers. At one point, she turned to say something to a Chinese colleague, and I was shocked at how unbelievably bad her Chinese was, after two years of living and studying in Taiwan.


The syntax was wrong. The Grammar was wrong. The pronunciation was so flawed, I barely understood her. The Chinese native speaker didn’t even realize she was speaking Chinese.


How could this be? This girl was obviously multi-lingual. She had just completed two years of studies in Taiwan. Why was her Chinese so bad?


To understand the dynamics at work here, we need to first dispel a commonly believed myth. Many people think that Bilingual people are exceptional language learners. But this is not the case, more on this in just a moment.


A Canadian friend who was also at the party, asked, “But isn’t it true that your first language is hard. Then the second one is easier. And that the more languages you know, the easier they are to learn?”


My friend’s question was a good one. Is learning a third language easier than learning a second? And would that mean that learning a fourth language is easier still?


The short answer is, yes, but this only applies to LEARNED languages. Your native tongue, no matter how many native tongues you have, does not count as a learned language. Every person, in every culture, everywhere in the world acquires his native tongue. And if he lives in a culture with two or three official languages, he simply acquires two or three languages, regardless of intelligence or language learning ability.


In China, even small children can speak Chinese. Does this mean that they are more intelligent than you because you cannot?


Nearly 70% of Taiwanese people grow up speaking both Mandarin and Taiwanese. Many also speak Haka or some tribal language. Since they are growing up with two or three languages, one would assume that they were good language learners. But after years and years, and countless hours of English classes, they generally score on lowest levels of English fluency on competitive exams, against other non-English speaking countries.


I had a Chinese-Canadian girl studying with me in Costa Rica, she was absolutely incapable of stringing a decent Spanish sentence together, after a year of studying in the country. Before arriving in Costa Rica, she completed two years of Spanish studies at university and achieved perfect marks.


One night, in San Jose, we were in a Chinese restaurant. The Chinese-Canadian girl found that the waiter couldn’t understand her English. She asked me to translate into Spanish, when we discovered that the waiter’s Spanish was less than basic. This was long before I spoke Chinese.


“Couldn’t you just talk to him in Chinese?” I asked.

“Oh, no, I could never do that.” She told me. “Chinese is a home language. I can only speak it with my family.”


Your native tongue, or tongues, doesn’t count as a learned language, because you neither studied it, nor, learned it, in an academic sense. Your mother didn’t force you to memorize list of irregular verbs and tenses. She never had you diagram sentences, or do dictionary exercises. But, when you study a language, in a traditional program, you will be asked to do all of this and more.


When I studied Applied Linguistics, at the University of Main, in Germany, we had any number of bilingual, trilingual, multilingual people among the classes of entering freshmen. At the beginning of the studies, the other students envied these “linguistic geniuses.” We marveled at the ease with which they switched from French to German or Russian to German.


When exam time came, however, we discovered that bilingual students were no better at doing homework, completing assignments or memorizing grammar and vocabulary. In fact, in many instances, they were worse off. They had spoken the language for so long, incorrectly, with their family, that their mistakes and shortcomings were cemented, made permanent through wrong practice.


I remember a Mexican-American student telling our Spanish teacher a story about what happened to him while walking along the train tracks. But when he told the story, he referred to the train tracks as, “las cosas para el tren,” the things for the train. The word had actually been on our recent exam, but he continued to talk the way he had when he was five years old and didn’t necessarily possess the correct vocabulary to fully express himself.


This brings up another point about bilingual people. Although many claim to be bilingual, it doesn’t mean that they are 100% fluent or equally fluent in both of their languages. We acquire our mother tongue from our mother, hence the name. Most of this acquisition occurs before we attend school. For monolingual children, attending school reinforces what they have already begun to acquire at home with their mother. But for bilingual children, going off to school may signal the end of the development of their “home language.” The vocabulary and usage may become frozen at the state of development of a five or six year old. The Mexican-American kid will go on to take course in biology, chemistry, history, and literature, all taught in English. If he is clever, he will eventually go on to university. Maybe he will become a lawyer or an engineer. Will he know all of this specialized vocabulary in Spanish? Monolingual kids acquire this specialized vocabulary in school. Bilingual children usually don’t acquire it at all.


Before I’m accused of being antibilingual, let me say that I have also known brilliant linguists and translators who were raised bilingually. But, they became brilliant by attending school. The only advantage they had over a non-native speaker, or their monolingual classmates, was that their pronunciation and accent were usually better, than an acquired accent or pronunciation.


In my case, I grew up constantly exposed to Spanish and Italian. But I didn’t actually learn the languages till I went off to college and studied. When I worked in the financial industry in New York, I knew Spanish vocabulary for accounting and finance only because I had attended business school in Costa Rica.


Said another way, when I was five, my grandmother never taught me the words for exotic options, hedge strategies, or tax avoidance. Grandma and I never discussed the merits of covering a stock position with puts and calls.


So, whether you agree or not, it is clear at this point where I stand on the subject of bilingual people acquiring a third language. Now, let’s deal with the other part of the theory. If you learned two languages, through study, is the third language easier? I say yes, but….We need to understand how language is acquired, and even experts are torn on this subject.


David Long, head of the Thai language program where I studied in Bangkok, explained how he viewed the way we learn languages. He said to picture an empty cup in your brain. You fill the cup by listing to language. When you have listened to enough language, the cup will run over. The overflow is speech. In other words, first you listen, then you speak. But, correct speech cannot come until you have had sufficient listening.


David’s cup illustration was drawn from a language acquisition theory called ALG (Automatic Language Growth). The theory requires students to listen for an incredibly long time before allowing them to speak. Other theories, such as The Silent Way, also require months of listening before speaking, but ALG is one of the only theories which quantifies how much listening it takes to fill the cup. The number of hours varies depending on the language you want to learn and what your native tongue is, but for most people, we need to listen for 1,000 – 2,000 hours, before we start speaking.


ALG, and many other theories, look at the way a native tongue is acquired. We have already established that the native tongue is acquired by first listening, mostly to your mother. How long do babies listen before they speak? Most children don’t start speaking till somewhere between two and three years old. Some children may possess a vocabulary of between five and twenty words by age two. Babies listen for a long, long time before they start speaking.


The reason why most people find learning a language difficult is because they don’t get enough input before they try to produce output. While listening is the best way to acquire language, the second best way is reading and studying. Whatever the means of input, you need to hit your thousand hours mark if you hope to speak.


An American friend of mine, also in the IMBA program in Taiwan, told me recently. “After nearly four years in Taiwan I am finally ready to admit that I am not going to learn the language by osmosis. I just went down and signed up for classes yesterday.”


The IMBA program, like most IMBA programs, is taught in English. So, foreign students are not exposed to Chinese in the classroom. They are also not exposed to Chinese while they are studying or doing homework, which is all obviously in English. Most students support their studies by working as English teachers, where they are also not exposed to Chinese language.


David Long is really big on writing out time charts of daily routines to demonstrate just how little foreign language exposure the average expat receives.


7:00 – 8:00 Wake up, shower, eat breakfast in the room, while watching CNN

9:00 – 12:00 IMBA classes, in English

12:00 – 3:00 lunch, nap, homework, studying, meet with English-speaking friends to complain about Taiwan

3:00 – 7:30 Teach English

7:30 Eat dinner in the room, watching illegally-downloaded episodes of American TV shows

8:30 – 12:00 Studying, homework, gym, drinking beer, complaining about living in Taiwan

12:00 sleep


It is possible for the average foreigner to get through a whole day without uttering a single word in Chinese, with the exception of ordering food. We could be generous and say that people with similar schedules are exposed to 20 minutes of language per day. But honestly, it’s not new language. It’s the same 20 minutes of language as yesterday: “What would you like to eat? Is that for here or to go? Would you like to take advantage of our new buy-five, get-three-free promotion?”


That twenty-minutes of language is probably worth about five minutes in terms of learning. At five minutes per day, how many days do we need to reach the necessary 1,000 hours?


In actuality, at this rate you could never learn a language. At five minutes per day, the rate at which we loose language would exceed the rate you would learn it. In fact, if your exposure is less than a solid hour per day, you will probably never learn it.


If you think about a language lesson you attended, you learned a number of words and phrases. Maybe you even completed the exercises in class. Ten minutes after class let out, you forgot fifty percent of the new vocabulary. By the time you sat down to do your homework, it was almost like seeing a brand new list of words, you had never heard before. That’s why exposure, significant exposure, repeated exposure, and review is necessary. If you didn’t sit down and do homework at the end of each day, that day’s lesson would be completely lost.


A good example of language loss would be all of the Americans who suffered through four years of high school Spanish, but when they went on holiday in Puerto Vallarta, they discovered they couldn’t speak beyond, “Donde esta la biblioteca?” With their Spanish being so bad, finding the library wouldn’t do them a lot of good anyway?


Let’s say that you have successfully acquired a foreign language, after two thousand hours of exposure. Could you acquire the next language in less time?


ALG says that when you start to acquire a second language you simply establish a second cup in your brain. The portion of your first cup was simple language mechanics, that babies are unaware of. Those mechanics have to be mastered first, before any language can be learned. But, if you have already learned them once, you don’t need to learn them again. In simple terms, your second cup would be about 15% smaller than the first one. So, you would need 15% less exposure to learn the second language. The third language might be marginally easier, but for the most part the third, fourth and 87th languages would all be equally as difficult to learn.


Keep in mind, we are talking language acquisition, in general, not about the difficulties in learning specific language combinations. Related languages, of course, would be easier to learn. For example, if your second language is Khmer, you will acquire Thai faster than someone whose second language is German. Learning Spanish is easier of you already speak Italian.


Although David Long and I would both agree that this is true, we vary slightly in why we believe the second, related language is easier to learn. We both agree that there are such concepts as linguistic triggers. In other words, the smell of Thai food triggers Thai language in my brain. David says that the reason why a Khmer speaker learns Thai faster is because cultural understanding is one of the most important aspects in language learning. I agree with him that the cultural understanding is important. But I still can’t get away from the nuts and bolts. I am, on some level, a language mechanic. I say the second and third languages may be easier, also, because of similarities in grammar and vocabulary. ALG, on the other hand, says don’t get hung up on words. Language is about communication. I agree, but I still like to see my students copying vocabulary lists.


It’s a minute point, which language geeks, like myself, enjoy debating. But, the practical point we both agree on is, the second or third related language is slightly easier to learn.


In my personal language ethos, I picture boxes in my head, labeled with the names of languages I speak. There are boxes for English, Chinese, Thai, Khmer….I studied some Filipino and learned a bit of the language when I was at school there, but not enough that Filipino has its own separate box in my brain.


So, what happened to the Polish girl?


Here is my theory, and it goes along with my boxes in your brain theory.


The Antonio Theory of Language Acquisition:


We all have a box in our brain, marked for our native tongue, for example, “English.” Nearly everyone has had at least some foreign language classes in their life. But, most people don’t learn their studied languages to any level of fluency. So, a box marked “French” never gets built in your brain. Instead, you have a box marked “Foreign language.” And in that box are the remnants of your high school French and college Spanish and that six week Berliz course you did in Japanese.


The languages won’t break out and form their own boxes till you study them more deeply.


At school in Thailand, I often had people tell me, “Every time I try to speak Thai, my high school Spanish comes out of my mouth. And I don’t even speak Spanish.”


My theory is that the new Thai words these students are learning simply get piled into the box marked “Foreign Language.” When someone approaches them and asks a question in Thai, like “what’s your name?” The student reaches into the box marked “Foreign Language,” and grabs the answer closest to the top, the one that he practiced the most, the one that has been in there the longest. He responds, “Me llamo Pablo.”


After 500 hours of study, Thai will have its own box, and this type of interference won’t occur anymore.


In the case of the Polish girl, I believe that she was born with the native tongue of Polish. She moved to Canada before she finished elementary school. At first, English went into a box, marked “Foreign Language.” And, she probably sometimes responded in Russian or German, when someone asked her, “what’s your name?” Eventually, because she was attending school every day, English got its own box. Once that happened, the only interference came from Polish, her mother tongue.


After a number of years of school in Canada, the young lady reached a point where her total exposure to English exceeded her hours of exposure to Polish. In fact, she didn’t even possess Polish vocabulary for half of what she was learning in school. At that point, English jumped up a notch, and became the defacto mother tongue. Polish became a second, extremely fluid, foreign language. Along the way, her high school French lessons were shoved into a box with the German and Russian she had learned in school in Poland.


She was probably no better, and possibly worse at learning French than were her mono or bilingual Canadian classmates.


When she came to Taiwan to take her IMBA, she also took Chinese classes, because she had an interest in learning languages. The Chinese lessons went, not into her English language box, but into the highest priority foreign language box in her brain, namely, Polish.


I noted that when she spoke Chinese, her accent was 100% Polish and not English. If she spoke at length, and if we had a Polish native speaker helping us to analyze her syntax and grammar, I bet we would find that most of her mistakes were mistakes made by a Polish native speaker and not a native speaker of English.


Amazingly, she no longer makes mistakes in English. This would support my thesis that English has become her native tongue. But, it is her original native tongue, now her strongest foreign language which interferes with her acquisition of Chinese.


In theory, no matter what your native tongue is or what language is giving you interference, you should be able to learn Chinese after 2,000 hours of listening. But, being in the IMBA program, and not a Chinese language program, she had probably had less than a few hundred hours of Chinese input. Most of the IMBA students who take Chinese classes on the side, don’t concentrate too much on them because they are not part of the degree program. And they often drop out of their Chinese lessons, in order to devote more time to their IMBA studies. At that point, their level of exposure to Chinese is the same as any other foreigner in Taiwan, nearly zero.


On a psycholinguistic level, I wondered if she may even have an emotional attachment to the language she spoke as a young girl and on some, subconscious level didn’t not want to let go of it. Could she be so emotionally attached to Polish that she will never learn Chinese?


I don’t know. I write, and throw my ideas out there in the hopes that readers will write back and give me some in put.


Antonio Garceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at See his vieos on youtub.


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