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How Do Linguistic Similarities between Languages Affect Learning a Foreign Language?

Researchers from Freie Universität Berlin, University of Rochester, and Radboud University Nijmegen publish findings.

№ 356/2019 from Nov 21, 2019

Linguistic similarities between languages play a determining role in people’s ability to learn a new language, according to a recent study by researchers from Freie Universität Berlin, University of Rochester (USA), and Radboud University Nijmegen (Holland). The researchers evaluated data from about 50,000 adults with 62 different native languages. The data came from the Dutch government’s citizenship test, which involves testing applicants’ language level in Dutch. The researchers claim that, for example, native Arabic speakers only have about a five percent chance of obtaining better results on a Dutch language test than 50 percent of the German native speakers who scored the lowest. For English native speakers, the chance of scoring better than half of the worst German native speakers was 25 percent.

According to the study, a person’s native language accounts for anywhere between 9 and 22 percent of the difference in how well people learn to speak Dutch. “This corresponds to 28 to 69 percent of the variance that can currently be explained using a modern model that takes into account other factors such as the learners’ educational background and how long they have been learning a foreign language,” explains the first author of the study, Dr. Job Schepens of Freie Universität Berlin. That means that between one quarter and over half of the variance between language learners’ ability to acquire a new language depends on their native language.

Dr. Schepens says, “Learning a foreign language can be made harder or easier depending on your native language.” It is important to note, he adds, that this effect is beyond the control of the language learner. “Our findings have implications for how adults are taught a foreign language. Teaching methods that take into account students’ native language could be more effective than methods that ignore it.”

Further Information


Schepens, J., van Hout, R., & Jaeger, T.F. Big data suggest strong constraints of linguistic similarity on adult language learning. In: Cognition. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S001002771930229X?via%3Dihub


Dr. Job Schepens, Division of Biological Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Education and Psychology, Freie Universität Berlin, Email: job.schepens@fu-berlin.de