Language Acquisition Triangle

Vas Voo.koh.teach on 2016-08-03

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Spending most of my life trying to master languages (Japanese, Arabic) that are very different from my native language pair (Serbian, English) has equipped me with a nice understanding of how to approach language learning. If in your life you plan to learn some new languages, or ambitiously aim at getting an intuitive grasp of how humans communicate in general, I think these following words may be of benefit to you.

Grammar & Writing-System are the important Criteria

In essence, a language has two features: grammar [the sequence of words] and writing-system [whether it uses characters or ideograms, draws vowels above the line or below the line, goes from right-to-left or left-to-right, …]. So now consider that we may have a language like English, the native tongue for most readers of, and we have a language like Chinese. From a globally-inclusive linguistic perspective, these languages share very similar grammar [word sequence] and are therefore relatively easy to learn if you start in English and go to Chinese, or start in Chinese and come to English.

Consider a more varied example, such as Japanese and Korean. Both of these languages follow similar grammar, and their writing systems are reminiscent of one another but still drawn rather differently. When we look at just the grammar [sequence of words used to describe equivalent events] we see that they have a dramatically close overlap, and are therefore easy to pick up if we are going from Japanese to Korean or vice versa.

Now, however, consider we go from Japanese to English, or English to Japanese — we find that the grammar is backward. The sequence of words is almost completely reversed for two equivalent phrases. This is a challenge for a language learner, no matter if you start in Japanese and want to learn English, or start in English and want to learn Japanese. A Japanese native must put in roughly the same amount of work to master English as a native English speaker must to get a great grasp of Japanese.

Magical Antipodal Relationships

So this relationship, between two really different languages, is antipodal (like two opposite points on a sphere) and if we consider that we can put all the world’s languages on such a sphere, or we pick four of them and put them on a square’s corners, or we make a triangle with English at the top, Japanese/Korean in one corner, we can find the other language that is most-different from both Korean and Japanese and English and draw it in to the other corner. In my studies, a language pair that fits this description (being very different from both English and Japanese/Korean simultaneously) is Arabic/Hebrew. Hebrew and Arabic are quite different, but they share a foundational mechanism called the “root” system where words start as bunches of consonants and altering the vowels between the consonants affects the meaning in predictable human-understandable ways. (Just to give a simple example: KTB are the vowels in Arabic for “writing-related things” and Keh-tib means “writer”, Kee-tab means “book”, Mak-teh-bah means “office”…)

In my case, I started with English as a base language for my Language Acquisition Triangle, and I drew Japanese-Korean in one corner. I know Japanese, but not Korean. However, if I want to learn Korean now, I could do it rather quickly, perhaps in one year, because I have such a solid understanding and foundation of how Japanese works. This is the first hidden benefit of learning a new language — you can pick up similar languages with more ease because now you have a reference frame.

The next step is to find the most different languages from the languages you already have on your triangle, and place them in the last corner. When you do this, now you have a complete Language Acquisition Triangle and you can pick any of the languages of the world and find exactly where they would live inside your triangle. Some will be closer to some corner than another, and you can see that the “distance” from what you already know to what you wish to know is shorter.


The whole idea of a Language Acquisition Triangle is that you take the time in your life to learn two radically different languages from your mother tongue, and if possible, the two languages you choose are also radically different from one another. Then, any language you wish to learn afterward will in some small or great measure mimic or reflect a language you already have a working knowledge of, and therefore you will spend less time learning and more time acquiring/using/practicing/communicating.

In Short

In the Language Acquisition Triangle, one corner is your native language, the other two corners are the most grammatically and writing-system different. Learn those languages that are the corners of your triangle and all other languages you’d wish to learn are closer-by-proxy/relevance/triangulation.

Next: Read “To Learn Japanese, You Need a Rocketship.”

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