Learning a new language within the same language branch as another language you already know is much easier than learning something within a completely different branch or family. And knowing a central language in a language branch also makes it easier to understand things you see and hear in another language from that language branch, even if you don't know that language at all.
The Germanic language branch of the Indo-European language tree has roots older than the Roman Empire. Germanic tribes can be traced back as far as 750 BCE, and common vocal elements defining Germanic language are believed to have occurred as early as 500 BCE. With writings that can be traced to at least the first century BCE, there can be no doubt that Germanic languages are at least as old as Latin.
Its varieties are known as East, West, and North Germanic. The East Germanic languages are all extinct now. North Germanic language include Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. And West Germanic languages include German, Dutch, Yiddish, Afrikaans, Frisian, Scots, and English.
Yes, you read that right: English is a Germanic language. I'll bet that came as a surprise to a few of you. The one that was surprising to me was Afrikaans.
- Verb tense and aspect are simplified into present tense and past tense.
- Most verbs mark the past tense by the use of a /d/ or /t/ sound at the end of the word.
- Word stress favors the word stem, or the first syllable of the word.
- Verb comes second in word order. (Except in English, where it merely comes after the the subject, and not specifically second.)
Germanic languages tend to differ much more than those of the Slavic and Vulgar Latin branches of the Indo-European language tree, no doubt because they have a longer history, but probably also because they lack the strong influence of a significant Empire in their early history.
If you have studied languages from different branches or families, you know how very different they can be, so you can probably appreciate the similarities in vocabulary. If you learn a word in one Germanic language, it's easy to remember in another.
Here are samples with the words house, book, and many:
I don't know Afrikaans or Danish, so I only know what I get from Google Translate. (Unfortunatley, they don't support Scots.) Still, the similarities are pretty noteworthy:
I have many books in my house.
Ek het baie boeke in my huis.
Jeg har mange bøger i mit hus.
Ich habe viele Bücher in meinem Haus.
This is just a small sample of the similarities between Germanic languages. You find similarities are even more notable within the Western or Northern subdivisions of the Germanic branch.
As with the Vulgar Latin languages, just learning the basic rules of pronunciation in a given language — something that can usually be done un an afternoon — is often enough to allow speakers of one language to understand what someone is saying in another.
I've studied German, and I speak it a bit, though not fluently, but I've found in the past that I can often understand what I hear or see in Dutch. My knowledge of English, coupled with an understanding of German grammar, gives me the ability to figure out quite a bit in a language I don't know at all!
The polyglot advantage?
So, if you're going to travel to Amsterdam and you already know German, grab yourself a good phrasebook and Google some Dutch grammar before you go, and be surprised by how well you're able to communicate! The same thing goes for Afrikaans, or Norwegian, or Danish.
No doubt if you were picking only one language from this language branch, German would be the most useful. But the nice thing is that there are enough similarities to really give you an advantage once you start learning a second language from this branch.
But don't forget... you already speak at least one language from this branch — English! Granted, English has probably deviated more than the rest of the Germanic languages, and picked up a lot of other influences (especially from French), but it still shares a lot of similarities in grammar and vocabulary... an advantage that shouldn't be overlooked.