One of the ways polyglots become polyglots is by using the tools they've already learned in one language to help with the next. Sometimes those tools are more than just learning techniques. Sometimes, when studying a second language in a language family that is already known, the entire previous experience can be mapped onto the new language, making it easier to learn.
Today, I'd like to explore how that works in the so-called Romance languages... though I prefer to think of them as Vulgar Latin languages, because that term avoids the connotations of romanticism. It also points out that most of the features of modern Romance languages were present in Vulgar Latin. This comes to me as no great surprise, since Latin itself was a very difficult language. I can imagine how the less-educated would have felt much more comfortable without some of its peculiarities.
I'll be focusing on the four most popular Vulgar Latin European languages: French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, however most of this will be applicable to to the lesser-known, more regional languages as well, such as Bolognese, Catalan, Galician, Sicilian, Romanian, and so on.
All of these languages have certain grammatical features which are similar to each other, and different from other languages from different language families. Some of those features include:
- There are two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine, with separate masculine and feminine forms for plural as well. There is no neuter.
- Nouns have definite and indefinite articles.
- There is no noun declension, except for personal pronouns.
- Adjectives typically follow the noun.
- Sentence structure is subject-verb-object (SVO), and is not very flexible.
- Word stress tends to fall on the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable.
Anyone who has studied languages from two different families knows how very different they can be, and can appreciate how just the grammatical similarities listed above would be a huge advantage. But that's just the start! Languages from a language family tend to all have vocabulary that comes from the same roots, so the words are easy to remember too!
Let's take for example the words door, wind, and the verb to come.
Now, as if that's not already enough similarity to make my point, let's translate the sentence The wind is coming through the door.
Le vent vient à travers la porte.
Il vento viene attraverso la porta.
O vento vem através da porta.
El viento viene a través de la puerta.
Let's try another one. How about Where is the new restaurant?
Où se trouve le nouveau restaurant?
Dove si trova il nuovo ristorante?
Onde fica o novo restaurante?
¿Dónde está el nuevo restaurante?
This isn't even scratching the surface of the similarities between these descendents of Vulgar Latin. In many cases, 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 have heard stories of Italians and Spaniards having conversations with each other, each speaking his own native language. And from my own experience, I know that my Italian studies this year have been made somewhat easier by the fact that I already know Spanish, and have a little experience with French.
So are the polyglots cheating?
If someone were to learn Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese and then go brag to the world that he/she was a polyglot, I might tend to be unimpressed. But on the other hand, a person who focused their attention on one family of languages could perceivably learn them all to a better degree.
All the same, I don't know any polyglots in the online language community who are doing that. Yes, several people know more than one Romance language, but they also tend to know a Germanic language, and a Slavic language, and often one or more of the Asian languages.
Nevertheless, if you do find yourself wanting to know another language in the same family, it's nice to know that you're starting with an advantage.