when learning a third language, what are the relative advantages or disadvantages of studying the third language in either my native language or my second language?

More specifically, if I choose to learn a third language in my L2, how will this going to aid and/or harm my learning or that third language? How will it going to aid and/or harm my L2 learning? Are there any studies on this?

For example: My native language is English and my L2 (Swedish) is at about a B1 level. Lets say I'm interested in learning Russian and I have found both an English-->Russian course and a Swedish-->Russian course online. What are the advantages and disadvantages of me taking each of these courses?


5 Answers 5


Generally it's easier to learn new languages from your native language, whether you're learning L2, L3, L4, etc.

Learning L3 using L1

You will understand things better when they are explained to you. If you try to learn tricky grammar rules and the definitions of obscure vocabulary you will likely not understand the explanations as well in L2.

Your native vocabulary is almost certainly better than that of a second language. It's hard to learn L3 vocabulary using L2 if you don't know the same vocabulary in L2. In fact you may subconsciously revert to L1 to understand it.

If L1 and L3 are similar, you'll be able to take advantage of cognates and other similarities more than L2 and L3 because you'll be less likely to confuse your native language with another.

Learning L3 using L2

However, if you would like to challenge yourself, there are benefits to learning L3 using L2, such as the simple fact that you'll strengthen both languages whereas if you learn using L1 your L1 proficiency probably won't be improved much. However, this multi-tasking will slow your progress in L3 compared to learning with L1.

If L2 and L3 are related, you'll be able to see the similarities between them perhaps more easily than if you're learning from L1. However, this may be problematic as you may also confuse similar words or grammar constructs (more likely to happen than with L1 and L3).

Most of this I know simply by experience. Most prominently I've learned Portuguese (L3) using both Spanish (L2) and English (L1); more easily with the latter. I'm also learning German (L4) using English (L1) and it's a struggle. I can't imagine learning German using Spanish or Portuguese.

  • I would use the language you are most fluent in (usually L1). Ideally, you want to drop dependency on a language other than the one you are learning, as early as possible. I can't see where injecting another language in the mix would help (beyond recognizing any similarities).
    – user3169
    Apr 21, 2016 at 21:06
  • you may also confuse similar words or grammar constructs That definitelz depends on wheter L1 or L2 is closer to your L3.
    – foggy
    Feb 20, 2017 at 11:14

English is my L2. My L1 is one of the smaller Slavic languages. After many years of using English as L2 daily in work, when considering next language (L3: to make it more interesting, let it be from different language family, like Spanish or Thai), I can find much more free online resources in English than in my L1.

But of course I am not as familiar with English grammar (as I am with my L1 grammar), and when some grammar complexities of L3 are explained in English, I might be confused and need to translate them to L1 terms (which, as added complexity, might lack them completely). Oh well, I hate learning grammar anyway! :-)

Obviously, if my L3 would be another Slavic language, learning it through my L1 would be much simpler. But even then, because there is so much more resources available for L2 (English) speakers, I might use those in L2, and use L1 only for comprehending the grammar (which is similar and is not a problem at all).

Also, if I want language exchange, there are much more native speakers of L3 interested in exchange of L2 with English than with my native L1, so again, L2 (English) is more beneficial.

So answer is "it depends" what your L1, L2 and L3 are.


It would be very difficult to learn an L3 in your L2 because so much would be lost when you translate the text in your head.

I have had the experience of watching students attempt to do this. I was taking biblical Greek with a class of ESL students. The students were from various Southeast Asia countries (Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Malayasia). They were taught in English the Greek language using the Grammar-Translation method. The students really struggled because of the abstract nature of learning this "dead" language. I struggled learning Greek even though English is my L1.

One advantage that you do have is the ability to actually use the language with people. This is the biggest different between my example and your situation.


I can't think of any really.

How advanced are you into the language you're planning to use to learn your target language? Because you asking makes me think that you're at a point where I personally wouldn't move onto another language yet.

Also, in my experience, once you're past the basics and vocabulary, and start to learn the subtler parts of the language, you don't really need to learn "through" another language anymore. At this point I'm usually focused solely on the target language, letting my brain form a picture in my head about how it flows and feels, what constructions are used - it is at this point that you learn stuff which you can't really translate back.


My native language is Finnish and I am currently learning Danish through English. My English is quite good. I understand written text as well as Finnish and also understand speech quite well, aside from difficult accents. English is also my current working language and I have written scientific articles in the language (but not about the language).

The only problems I have noticed is that I don't know specialist vocabulary such as food vocabulary and specific pieces of clothing, as I have never really discussed food in English. This makes it harder to learn the relevant terms in Danish. Another example is various birds, species of fish, and trees. I roughly know what kind of tree some English term corresponds to, and I can maybe translate it into English, but I have no idea what it is in Finnish. As such, I don't know what it precisely looks like, even when I know the tree.

As such, I would say that if your L2 is at high level, than you should be fine.

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