Laddering as a method to learn new languages

What do you all think about laddering (using the last language you learned in order to learn a new one)? For example, as a native English speaker, I use English to learn French. Then, I would use French to learn, say, Mandarin by using learning materials written in French.


Good question. The way I do laddering is using French to study other languages, via the Assimil book series. I like the idea, I use 2 target languages there in my case.


English was my first foreign language. After I had reached a reasonable level of proficiency I started using English to learn other languages. Recently I added French language learning material to study Italian. It is a convenient way to combine the study of two languages. I can recommend it.


I use a similar method. Instead of “laddering” from the immediately previous language, I leverage my language learning through the similarities I can find in the languages I have already learned, being from the same family (I learned Catalan in six weeks in 2002 thanks to being both a native Spanish speaker and my previous knowledge of Italian and French, both at an average level at that time) or from similar language structures. For example, I am learning Macedonian, a South Slavic language. I can find some similarities of structure in non-Slavic languages like Modern Greek and Romanian (due to Balkan Sprachbund).

I speak Romanian at B1 level and Modern Greek at A2 level, so it’s quite easy to learn Macedonian (and its closest neighbour Bulgarian) despite neither have studied nor speak a Slavic language before.


When I started to learn Japanese, there were absolutely no books in Czech. So I was “forced” to study Japanese in English. Luckily it wasn’t so difficult to understand the explanations and vocabulary even if I wasn’t so advanced in EN.

I studied at Czech-Italian high school and during my university studies I went for Erasmus in Verona and Naples, so when I was there, I was studying Russian, German, Spanish and English partially in Italian :smiley: It was funny specially for Russian as I was usually the best in the class (for obvious reasons as my language is very similar to Russian and Italian language is from completely different language family).

When I continued in Czech Republic, the lessons were made for Czech speakers, so I wasn’t so good anymore as the teacher was obviously not teaching us the “obvious” stuff. During the classes of Spanish on the contrary I was the worst as all Italians understood better. Sometimes there are ancient words in Italian that are modern in Spanish or on the contrary. So if I didn’t know these old words in Italian bcs they are not being used anymore, then it was more difficult for me than for Italians to understand it in Spanish. It was really nice experience - to see the connection between different languages and differences between different language groups.

I love the connection between languages, when you are able to learn something thanks to another language, and I would say that specially people from small countries like mine are experiencing it, as sometimes there is really no other way how to learn some new language, if not across another foreign language.
For instance we still don’t have any study book for Turkish in Czech, neither for Greek. We have just 1-2 books for Chinese which are really not good and if I remember well, the same happens with Arabic. In our case the only hope is to wait or to find it in Slovakian or to order the EN study book on Amazon or so.


I watched a Korean movie (very new-to-me language) with Portuguese subtitles (a language I’m fluent in) and had a good experience. It’s not much, but it made me want to try it again!


I’m doing that now with Vietnamese (2+ years) and Japanese (about 1 year). It’s challenging because my Vietnamese is probably at a B1 (close to B2) level while my Japanese is still pretty basic (A2). I don’t do this a lot because it is mentally taxing. What I’ve been doing is finding videos on YouTube, changing app configurations and doing italki lessons using this method.

  1. YouTube is absolutely the best as they have a huge number of influencers and videos for native Vietnamese speakers who are trying to learn Japanese. Just find these videos and do your input from them.

  2. A lot of apps have the ability to change the base language. For example, I used this app called Mondly and set the base language to Vietnamese to learn Japanese.

  3. italki lessons. I’ve now been looking for Vietnamese Teachers who have a high level of Japanese and have purposefully told them to teach me Japanese using Vietnamese. This also gives me the flexibilty - if I don’t feel like doing Japanese, I can just do conversation practice in Vietnamese. Sometimes I can say, let’s do 30 minutes Japanese and 30 minutes Vietnamese or even the full hour in Japanese.

However when I do laddering, it does get tiring. You really need to be able to focus so I really only do laddering in the morning when my brain is fresh. I find that in the evenings - after work - I’m pretty mentally fried so like to stick to simply activites llke watching videos or just reading in my target language.


I love it as a way to improve a language I already have at a certain level, while adding a new language. Makes both stronger.

I think this is useful only if you have achieved a strong foundation in the last language you’ve learned. If not, it’s going to be extremely confusing and you might not only lose interest in the current language that you’re learning but also lose confidence in the last language that you’ve learned. I think at least a B1 in your last language if you’re going to use it to learn a new language


I always combine 2 languages. For Example I am Romanian but I speak English, so I learned German through English. Because I can understand Spanish I started following Spanish teachers teaching German, so I can practice it too. I am also combining some Portuguese with German or with Spanish. It saves time and gives me practice for 2 languages.


I have been using Duolingo and Assimil to work on my French. Although a native English speaker, I have registered on Duolingo as a Spanish speaker, and have purchased the version of Assimil French for Spanish speakers. A few years ago, before a trip to Barcelona, I learned just a little Catalan on Duolingo, also as a Spanish speaker–Duolingo doesn’t offer Catalan for English speakers.

I think this approach has several advantages:
(1) It links and at the same time differentiates the two languages.
(2) It provides a new perspective on the more known language, and occasionally teaches something wholly new about it.
(3) I’m one who finds that etymology is the best mnemonic. This approach doesn’t supply etymology per se, but it does push one up against the similarities between the languages: the “raw material” of etymological and related inquiries.
(4) In some cases, as with Catalan, it may provide access to materials not available in one’s L1.
(5) It gives an otherwise possibly boring app a second interesting challenge, helping sustain engagement.

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Tu poți să învăța italiană și catalană foarte repede, cu cunoștințele tău de limba română.

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Great question, @Cindy. I do ladder, but not necessarily with the “last” language. I agree with @hoopstats about trying to use languages that help you recognize the similarities and differences when possible.

But I also just try and focus on what materials I can find. For example, I am studying Farsi at the moment, and I have found materials in English and French (Assimil), and I am not restricting myself to one or the other. Likewise, I found Hungarian materials in English and German, so I just use both.

But when I use an app where I can change the interface, like DuoLingo, Memrise, or Glossika, I definitely try to use my highest-level related language as the source to leverage my understanding.

Laddering can be helpful and fun. But in the end, “you learn best when you already understand” – so laddering simply to ladder can slow you down. It’s a tool, like any of the methods we use. Use it to help your learning, not to hinder it.