Will Laddering Work Even With Highly Dissimilar Languages?

Thus spake Aki

Khatz!! I have a question regarding this as a person starting their 3rd language.

I’m a native English speaker, and in 2 years I became fluent in Japanese (whether speaking/reading/writing/listening).

I’ve started Spanish using English again as my base language.

Now, I’d love to use Japanese as my base language, however it seems (from what I hear, and from the early stages) that Spanish and English are quite clearly way closer together than Japanese and Spanish. Grammatically and in terms of vocab.

I can see why one would go from Japanese-Chinese, but would you still ‘ladder’ the languages so different like Spanish-Japanese?

Yeah, if I were you (which, admittedly, I am not) I would actually ladder Spanish through Japanese for 1.5 reasons

0.5) For the very reason that they’re far apart, hence leading to less confusion for you (you’re unlikely to confuse English with Spanish as a native speaker, but imagine learning Dutch thru German…Actually, scratch that, using traditional methods, I successfully managed to confuse Mandarin with French, so…no. Plus, MCDs make confusion much less of an issue…I never really confused Mandarin with Cantonese, so…I imagine Dutch thru German would be toadly fine, too).

But yeah, languages that are close together are no walk in the cake. False friends abound (libraire in French does not mean “library”)…grammatical constructions (i.e. sentence patterns) that make no literal sense abound (“for to go to the beach”? WTF?).

1) Maintenance of your Japanese. Spanish and English together threaten to shut Japanese out of frequent rotation in your life, which would lead to a rather rapid loss of skill — “Japanese muscle mass”. Even from-childhood native-level speakers (natural natives as opposed to “simulated natives”) lose skill due to neglect. As for somatic analogies (bone and muscle mass and what have you), just look at space travel: you can have lived on Earth, with gravity, your whole life — decades — but spend a few dozen weeks in space and you can’t even walk when you come back 1. So it’s all about the maintenance, and laddering offers that to you for Japanese.

1.5) There’s no reason this has to be an either-or issue. Again, MCDs are your friend. You could make some of your cards Japanese-Spanish, some English-Spanish 2, some monolingual Spanish. Some of my Cantonese cards are mono, some are Canto-Mandarin, some are Canto-Japanese, some are Canto-English, and it all works out fine, again, thanks to MCDs. 3

To tell you the truth, I don’t know why it is that MCDs largely prevent language confusion, but they do, and they do it in a way that (for whatever reason) vanilla sentences never did. So they offer the possibility of “stable”, zero-interference 4 multilingualism. The whole issue of whether or not two languages are related is thus a total red herring in terms of learning them. Either way, you’ll need exposure. All other issues are cosmetic. The only remaining unresolved major issue, then, is how to successfully and consistently apportion your ear time so that each language gets enough.


  1. If you have more precise info on this, please correct me, because, unburdened by knowledge, I talk a lot of crap about space science.
  2. Note: with MCDs, you only ever hide the target language, so Spanish, in your case, gets partially hidden
  3. If you think about it, I’m not even laddering Cantonese any more, not in the original, one-to-one sense; I’ve kind of transcended that — I’m “spidering” it. Cantonese is the head/thorax/abdomen, supported by the other languages, which are the legs. Or something. Whatever, anyway, it’s weird and messy and organic and effective and fun…a lot like Hong Kong itself, actually lol.
  4. technically, it’s “micro-interference”; you may still see some interference, but if my experience is any guide, it’ll be minor — overall, next to nothing

  3 comments for “Will Laddering Work Even With Highly Dissimilar Languages?

  1. Felipe
    March 6, 2014 at 02:36

    I kinda agree…. a lot of people think you can just translate English words to its spanish equivalent and say the whole phrase… “what time is it?… Oh, it’s twenty to the two!!”, this is called Spanglish, and is created by laddering spanish/english (You can overcome this by going spanish-spanish though, easily).. you dont want to speak like this!

    I learnt english using spanish as a base… and yeah without SRS, in one of the most anti-english countries in the world (chile), .. the natural method baby ;)

  2. kronpas
    March 10, 2014 at 23:04

    ^ Learning without SRS is not natural, but “traditional” method. SRS assisted learning is a fairly recent invention.

    On the article: being a Vietnamese native, I found out bridging English -> Japanese didn’t work well since when you learn a language you also train yourself in that language’s “thought flow”. English does not share much similarity with Japanese, while my native language does, so it is way easier to learn Japanese by Vietnamese rather than English. I do note loan words/katakana in English though, since they are basically bastardized English.

    Without actual Japanese environment (read: living in Japan) your Japanese will inevitably slips, esp. if you follow full immersion method which this site promotes. One can’t immerse himself in both languages at once.

  3. Sarin96
    March 19, 2014 at 06:00

    Ok, let’s face it.
    Slowly I came to the end of my first language that I learnt simply by immersion.
    I’ve chosen a language that isn’t that difficult, pleases me and just sounds good in my ears.
    This language was for me Italian. Sure the immerion in Italian will never end, because I wanna stay fit in the language and therefore I organized already a vacation in Italian just to see how it is to live in a country, where immersion is everywhere as long as you avoid stuff from your country.
    But my language lust is still alive… no wonder, I’m 18 years old an my natural lust of languages will take decades to get less. But now let’s face my problem (^^): I want to learn Icelandic. Yep, almost no one speaks it, it won’t give me a big advantage anywhere, but I love the language, just simply as that. But in Italian I had tons of possibilities to immerse myself and now here comes the problem: Will the stuff that is produced in Iceland, be enought to lift me up to fluency or native level? A different problem is that I haven’t found a good dictionary yet. I mean, sure they have there some but it seems that they lack in content… clearly this is just a problem at the beginning before the transition to is-is, but the beginning will decide if I stick to the language…
    So can anyone help me? Khatz? How shall we treat languages that lack in ressources for immersion?

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