Similar languages. Which language provides the best access?

There are several languages that are similar and for the most part mutually intelligible.
Assuming you would only learn ONE of those languages and accept that you may only passively understand the other languages at a lower level: I wonder learning which of those languages would make most sense.

For example:

  1. Should one rather learn Malay or Bahasa Indonesia? (Do people, who speak Bahasa have an easier time understanding Malay or do Malay speakers have an easier time understanding Bahasa? Or does it not matter?)

  2. Should one learn Danish to understand Swedish and Norwegian or Swedish to understand Danish and Norwegian, etc?

  3. Should one learn Italian to get access to Spanish, French etc, or rather Spanish to get access to French, Italian, Portuguese?

1 Like

As someone who has learned Spanish and dabbled in other romance languages, I can say that knowing Spanish is making it much, much easier to understand Italian, Portuguese, and to a lesser extent even French. Mostly due to so much shared vocabulary, but also because the sounds of the languages aren’t vastly different either. However, I’m sure it works in reverse as well, for example learning Italian to make Spanish and French more accessible.

Ultimately, I think Spanish is a great option to learn first because of how many native Spanish speakers there are in the world, but to each their own.

1 Like

I did answer a similar question some while ago on Duolingo, in it I covered numbers 2 and 3. I don’t have any experience in Austronesian languages so I can’t comment on them.

"Well it really depends on you interest in a particular language but I’d say that Spanish and Italian are good languages to branch of into Romance languages, Latin does help with many languages because it exposes you to many different grammar features but for someone who is starting out or not that interested in Latin I am not so sure it’s the absolute best language to start.

For the main Scandinavian languages Norwegian seems like the best choice since Swedish does have a few tricky sounds as well as Danish that has on top of that some unusual letter that might increase the difficulty.

Those are the languages based on my experience but as a general note I’d say go with you interest first, so if you like french more than Spanish and Italian then that is a better language to start of with. Motivation is very important and unless we are talking about something really complex like Mongolian or Japanese I think that the motivation to learn will quash the difficulty of a particular language."

1 Like

For 2), I’d say Norwegian. Norwegians can understand their neighbours best. Also, when you learn Norwegian, you’ll come across dialects, so you’ll already be used to a greater variety. Spoken Danish sounds quite different to Swedish and Norwegian, but written Norwegian (Bokmål) is really close to Danish. I learnt Norwegian in the past and could at least write it quite well. Despite not having used it in years, I still know some.

As for the Romance languages, I’m really not sure despite speaking/ learning several of them. Just pick whatever you like. Italian will help more with French than Spanish, but Spanish will help more with Portuguese. I’d say decide which ones you really want to learn and which one seems easiest and most interesting to you. It also matters what you find difficult. Grammar? French is irregular, but apparently, Italian even more so. Spanish is pretty regular, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easy (the tenses and moods can make your head hurt). Pronunciation and spelling? Spanish or Italian are way easier than French or Portuguese. If it’s between Italian and Spanish only, I’d pick Spanish unless you really prefer Italian.

1 Like

In many cases, the middle language of a group is probably a good choice. Unless that language isn’t widely spoken.

For romance languages, Occitan maybe is a good middle ground. For more widely spoken romance languages, I’d probably choose French. You learn the (basic patterns of) grammar of romance languages from it, and once you get the more difficult phonetics of it, the others will be easier by comparison. But of course, starting with any of them will aid in learning or understanding the others.

For Scandinavian languages, definitely Norwegian. It’ll be much easier to understand written Danish or spoken Swedish with Norwegian as your base. Plus Icelandic, Faroese, or Elfdalian wouldn’t be as hard to pursue.

I can’t speak for Indonesian or Malay, as I know very little about them.
But for the more studied east Asian languages, I’d imagine Japanese is the one to go with. After learning Japanese you’ll have a big head start on reading Chinese, and understanding Korean grammar.

Edit: For romance languages my experiences are limited to learning French to an intermediate level in school many years ago, Spanish in high school, and Italian on my own to somewhere upper beginner. Portuguese and Occitan I’ve only looked at a little, not even to A1.

1 Like

i never could understand the argument about learning a language to get access to another just pick one you are motivated by and learn it ,


I very much agree with @ktjoseph Sometimes those of us who fancy ourselves “polyglots” have those big plans of “conquering the world” which, in our case, amounts to learning all the languages of this world or, at least, cast as big as a net as possible, maybe by learning a language from every important family in order to later “attack” other related ones and so on.
If you think in those terms, of course you need an “attack plan” to optimize the results.
I do respect anyone’s interests but in my experience that way of thinking ends up being unproductive. From a pure practical point of view you’re leaving lots of factors which are more important: What kind of content is available, will you be able/willing to engage with the culture whose language you’re learning? Can you meet speakers from those languages? Will you care to talk with them? Will you like the literature, etc.?

At the end of the day, motivation is key: when you learn languages as a means to an end, chances are you won’t keep motivated for very long. That’s especially true as you grow old and find yourself spending a limited amount of time in many competing endeavours.

Having said that, I’ll explain my own strategy about OP’s point 1, as Malay/Indonesian is my current main target language/s. I think this will also illustrate my main point:
The way I see it, in a case such as Malay/Indonesian I like to think of it as two varieties of the same language, as a “diasystem” to use a technical word. It is a very different situation from learning, say, French and Spanish. Malay and Indonesian are in fact closer than most Arabic “dialects”. I think the situation is more similar to Persian, in that there are many variations but mostly two main standards: Iranian and Afghanistan (debatedly also Tajik) and each of those also related to a main colloquial standard (Teherani/Kabuli) which in turns differs from the standard. Depending on your interests you may concentrate on one variety or another but to me it makes sense to treat everything as a single language, learn the most important differences and then read/listen whatever you find in any of the varieties. The main reason is my personal interest: I want to learn about the many cultures of maritime South Asia. Besides, that way I maximize the amount of material I can use and the chances of finding something interesting. For example, there seems to bee way more material in Indonesian than in Malay but sometimes I find something very interesting in Malay. At the same time., content in Indonesian can be in the formal register or in Bahasa Gaul or in a mixture. At the same time, Malay can also be formal or coloquial and the differences are far from trivial: my goal is to understand everything and in fact I find that some varieties reinforce others. For example in Indonesian the most usual way to say “want” is “mau” and in Malay “hendak” (colloquially usually abbreviated to “nak”). However both languages have the equivalent word of the other (mahu and hendak) so it pays to be exposed to both variants. In general the main part by far of the vocabulary (plus the whole of the grammar) is useful for both languages.

So, as passive understanding goes, I learn all. At the same time I only consciously activate a variety at a time, and I choose that based on my interest. I may go to Bali so Indonesian is clearly my choice here. I strive to speak in a medium register with some aspects of bahasa gaul but not too many because I think this is what would sound more natural in actual conversation with natives, which is what I’m interested in.

This is my approach, others would do it differently but notice that my rationale is based on my goals and interests… In particular interest in the culture and in traveling. The question of who would understand better the other language and so on does not play any role in my decision. I don’t even think it makes any sense to even ask the question because it depends mostly on individual capacity and attitude. I’m sure that a Malayisan person can understand you if you speak clearly in standard Indonesian and if that Malysian persanon wants to understand you and makes an effort. Ditto for the opposite cas

If you’re so interested in mutual intelligibility, I would advise you to watch videos in which people interact in different languages. There are quite a few. For example:
Brazilian Portuguese | Can Spanish and Italian speakers understand it? - YouTube [Portuguese/Italian/Spanish, many other such experiences in that channel]
Malaysia vs Indonesia: Bahasa Challenge #WeAreBackAgain - YouTube [Malaysian/Indonesian]
There are many others and they often come to different conclusions. For example the above video shows two persons mostly communicating fluently using their respective languages and having fun discovering differences. However, it’s not difficult to find the opposite view. I can’t find right now another video of a Malaysian person complaining about his difficulties when he visited Jakarta. This goes on to prove the importance of attitude for comprehension.

This is the video I referred to above:

And this is about the relationship between both countries, which does influence a lot perception of intelligibility:

I’m Brazilian and my native language is obviously portuguese. I have never learned other romance languages. Here in Brazil we can understand about 80% of written and spoken spanish but native spanish speakers have a harder time understanding spoken portuguese because of complex sounds spanish doesn’t have. When it comes to french we don’t understand anything, I have never met anyone who could understand french without having studied it but everyone understand spanish like it’s their native language. Italian is harder than Spanish and maybe we can understand 20% of spoken italian and 30% of written italian. We understand zero Romanian and I have not enough experience with Catalan and have only heard it in a youtube video for about 30 seconds, I do remember recognizing a cognate however.

1 Like