Triangulation: How to Use One Language to Learn Another

Hello everybody! I have a really nice and simple method for you today that may just revolutionise the way you learn several foreign languages simultaneously. By using one foreign language to learn another, there may be more benefits than you would have imagined.

As usual, this article will explain what Triangulation* is, why I think it’s a great method, and how to use it without blowing something up.

 

What? 

Triangulation is simply using one foreign language to learn another. In this way, we are replacing our native language (L1) with another, non-native language. The target language (L2) remains the same. I’ll use my own situation as an example:

 

  • I was born in the UK to British parents: English = L1 (Language 1)

  • My BA was in modern and Classical Chinese and I lived in China (where I built my school) for 15 years: Chinese = L2 (Language 2)

  • I will eventually learn Japanese: Japanese = L3 (Language 3)

 

When I finally get round to learning Japanese, I’ll use native Chinese textbooks and materials to do so. That is, Chinese will be the language of instruction (L1) to learn Japanese (L2).

What do you think would be some of the benefits of this approach? Think for a minute before reading on. 

 

Why?

As with any method, there must be a raison d’être, and Triangulation has several which I’d like to discuss individually. They are:

 

  1. Availability;

  2. Faster progress;

  3. Simultaneous reinforcement of 2 target languages;

 

There is one major pitfall in the method that should also be considered which I’ll come back to shortly.

 

  1. Availability

 

This is actually why I started learning French (before realising it was a delicious language in itself). The idea is that English sucks at foreign languages; if you want to get to the good stuff, or are learning a more “exotic” language like Hebrew or Sanskrit, knowing English alone won’t get you very far as all the best manuals, textbooks, readers and primers are in French and German (see this excellent video for a 2-minute introduction here. Let’s have a look at my favourite textbooks for learning French and their availability:

They’re all there. Nothing is missing. The same is true for Spanish and German. English does really well with popular languages, so there wouldn’t be any reason for learning another language in order to learn French as availability is not an issue. However, I plan to learn Greek (ancient and modern), but the only volumes available in English from my go-to assortment of textbooks are the following for modern Greek:

Only three textbooks! And more importantly, no Assimil (which is my favourite general textbook series). But! There is a Greek edition (ancient and modern) for French speakers as the powers that be believe there's obviously there’s a market in France but not in the English speaking world. Assimil has so many choices that its English editions do not cover. Sanskrit anyone? Not in English. Danish? Swedish? How about the mouth-watering challenge of Egyptian hieroglyphs? You’ll only be able to access these volumes if you learn French first.

The situation is identical with many languages. There are thousands of books to help Chinese learn Korean and Japanese but few available for an English audience. Using Triangulation vastly increases the options available to a learner. 

 

2) Faster Progress

 

A major benefit of Triangulation is the lack of unnecessary repetitions in terms of explanations. For example, the Romance languages all share a very similar grammar that is often at odds with its Germanic cousin, English. One prominent area is in the subjunctive. In English, we hardly use this mood so when we’re using a Romance language, the English textbook tends to (naturally) explain it in great detail. I’ve studied several Romance languages (Latin, Spanish, Italian, and French) and each time I must go through the same tedious explanations of the use of the subjunctive. I recognise that the usage differs slightly in each language, but more often than not they are identical (would love to hear your views on this). It would ultimately suffice that I only learn the rules in-depth once rather than four times. However, if I were learning Spanish from a textbook written for Italian people, the subjunctive would be taken for granted and only commented on should the Spanish usage differ from that of the Italian. 

Another example is Chinese and Japanese. They share much of the same script so a Chinese textbook wouldn’t waste any ink (fascinating as it is) in explaining such orthographic niceties such as how 木 = tree, 林 = woods, and 森 = forest. The Chinese already know this plus a million other details that monolingual native English speakers don’t, and therefore wouldn’t write about in a presentation of the Japanese language. If you’re just starting out in East Asian languages, then an English textbook is essential, but if you’re already adept at one, then I believe you should be seriously considering Triangulation. I haven’t started Japanese properly yet, but my textbooks are all lined up and most of them are written entirely in Chinese.

 

3) Reinforcement of 2 Languages

 

This brings us to the third benefit; by using Triangulation, you are in essence studying 2 foreign languages simultaneously. This is wonderful for poly-maintenance** but is also great in its own right. Imagine you only have one hour a day for language study (shock horror!). By using Triangulation, you can work on two languages. Obviously, there will be a disproportionate amount of progress made in each one, but it does solve a very real problem that polyglots have.

 

Before moving on, one important caveat of using this method is confusion. It’s generally a good idea to be pretty strong in a foreign language before using Triangulation to learn another, otherwise, it becomes a linguistic case of the blind leading the blind.

 

How?

It’s easy to use Triangulation- just go out there and purchase a book, but there’s one important exception that I want to mention for those who use Shadowing. Usually, the procedure for Shadowing is as follows:

But when using Shadowing with Triangulation, that is, when you are using a textbook that is not your native language to shadow, I recommend a new stage to be inserted between stage 1 and 2 (Blind and Global):

The reason for this is that there should be as little confusion as possible when learning L2. Also, if using Assimil in French, be aware that the French may sometimes be ungrammatical to illustrate what is happening in the foreign language. If this does occur, rest assured as the text usually brings attention to any ungrammatical constructions by way of parenthesis.

 

Conclusion

 

Triangulation is a great way to expand your armoury in a foreign language. It can make available several excellent languages that do not traditionally have a readership in English, and it can also save the learner much time by not focussing on relatively simple linguistic behaviour. In addition, there is the added bonus of studying two languages at once, which can be extremely valuable when time is short. However, it is recommended to be fairly competent in a foreign language before using it as a springboard from which to learn another language. 

 

So, what do you think of Triangulation? Do you think it is a good method for learning, or that it just adds unnecessary confusion to an already difficult subject? 

Challenge: If available, try using a foreign textbook to learn a language. Do the benefits outweigh the negatives? Good luck!

 

Please share the article if you feel others may benefit from its lessons!

 

*As with many articles and tutorials on this site, I am indebted particularly to Professor Arguelles for his ideas.

 

** This refers to maintaining multiple foreign languages. Stay tuned for an upcoming tutorial

About Me

My name is Neil and I have been teaching English professionally for almost 20 years, the last ten of which at my language school. 

Apart from a diploma in teaching English as a foreign language (Cert Tesol), I have a BA in modern and Classical Chinese. I also speak Spanish, Italian, and French, and read Latin. 

Besides continuing my daily studies of these languages, I have also set myself a language goal of one new language a year. I’m looking forward to starting Japanese or German on the 1st January 2021.

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