Bilingual? Why Not Go for Three?

Learning a new language is kind of like shopping at a sale where everything is “buy one, get one half-off.” At least, that’s what the results of a new study from the University of Haifa reveals. Once you’ve got a second language down, picking up a third language is much easier. There’s also evidence that becoming bilingual might improve your proficiency in your native language, as well.

The researchers figured that people who were already fluent in two languages would have an easier time learning a third language. To test this, they looked at a group of Israeli 6th graders who were studying English. Some of the 6th graders had been speaking Hebrew since birth and were learning English as a second language. Others were native Russian speakers who were fluent in Hebrew and were learning English as a third language. The students were tested for proficiency in all three languages and for intelligence.

Surprisingly, the native Russian speakers scored significantly higher in both English proficiency and Hebrew proficiency than the native Hebrew speakers did. The difference in the English ability between the two groups was exceptionally remarkable. On the English tests, the kids who grew up speaking Russian scored 20% better on writing, 22% better on orthography and 35% higher than morphology.

In a write-up on Science Daily,  Professor Abu-Rabia, who coauthored the study, explained the significance of the results:

“Gaining command of a number of languages improves proficiency in native languages. This is because languages reinforce one another, and provide tools to strengthen phonologic, morphologic and syntactic skills. These skills provide the necessary basis for learning to read. Our study has also shown that applying language skills from one language to another is a critical cognitive function that makes it easier for an individual to go through the learning process successfully. Hence, it is clear that tri-lingual education would be most successful when started at a young age and when it is provided with highly structured and substantive practice,” he concluded.