The main Romance languages are:
They share a large common vocabulary and similar grammatical structures such that fluency in one allows you to gain rapid fluency in another. Indeed, by some estimates, you can learn a second romance language in half the time you learned the first. In general, the more Romance languages you learn, the easier it should be to learn subsequent romance languages. As Barry Farber says in How To Learn Any Language:
You learn so much Italian when you learn Spanish that it's a shame not to switch over and pursue Italian once your Spanish is adequate. Portuguese isn't far behind, and even French, the Romance language least like the others, has enough similar grammatical features and vocabulary to help you conquer all of the other Romance languages.
To learn them all, we must first choose an optimal order for our learning sequence. The most widely spoken is Spanish, but the most culturally influential is French. French also offers access to many high quality language courses, such as Assimil. Spanish has more affordable immersion opportunities and more people to practice with (depending on your location). In the end, choose the language that will be most immediately useful to you.
It may interest you to consider Esperanto: it is much easier than any natural Romance language (claimed to be six times easier), has the same shared vocabulary, and will allow you to gain fluency quite quickly. There is some evidence that first learning an easy “practice” language like Esperanto facilitates the learning of subsequent languages. Some studies even claim that learning Esperanto first, followed by French, is more effective than studying French for the same amount of time.
In one study, a group of European secondary school students studied Esperanto for one year, then French for three years, and ended up with a significantly better command of French than a control group, who studied French for all four years. Similar results have been found for other combinations of native and second languages, as well as for arrangements in which the course of study was reduced to two years, of which six months is spent learning Esperanto.
If Esperanto interests you, you can learn it for free at Lernu, or from Teach Yourself Esperanto, which is considered among the best Teach Yourself language courses ever written.
Lernu provides free tutoring and a personalized lesson plan with sufficient material to teach you the language fluently. According to the heading, “after you’ve studied everything on this last, you’ll probably be able to speak Esperanto!” You may find it worthwhile if there is an Esperanto club in your area. You can check here for clubs in the U.S.
Next, we’ll learn French and Spanish in your preferred order. Spanish and French are far apart, as Romance languages go, so this order will minimize confusion.
One of the best courses for learning French, the FSI Basic course, available here, is completely free, as it was created by the U.S. government to train diplomats and so is in the public domain.
This course is extensive, but also quite boring, and it would be quite a challenge to force yourself to study for the hundreds of hours needed to complete it. As such, you will probably end up using this course as a supplement. The hundreds of grammar and conversation drills, along with the dialogues, will be an invaluable aid to developing fluency.
For pure reading ability, I recommend Wilson's Teach Yourself French, available used at very low prices. The author claims in the introduction that you will be able to read almost anything after completing the book. I found that to be true (with significant use of a dictionary), but I started studying French after I was already fluent in Spanish. In any case, you will be surprised by how much you can read after finishing the book. It has a sequel, which further develops reading ability, called Everyday French.
A less boring but costly supplement/alternative to the FSI course is the French in Action course (you will also need the text and study guide). As far as I know, this is the best, most lively French program available. And, for pure listening comprehension, you will find no better resource than the set of free videos available here. They are entertaining, though corny, and have a cult following.
Another good (and less expensive) method is the Assimil course. These are a favorite of noted polyglot Professor Alexander Arguelles. In fact, one of the reasons he recommends learning French first is to be able to use the French Assimil courses for other languages which are not available in English.
There are countless schools offering French immersion programs, but I have yet to take this step. I believe immersion to be vital for the development of true, conversational fluency in a language, and have been researching various schools in France and Quebec. An alternative, for now, would be to find an online tutor and converse at an hourly rate through Skype.
The best course to learn Spanish is the free FSI course, and this course is considered the gold standard of FSI courses among language nerds. If you have an interest in language, you have likely seen an FSI course while browsing language programs in bookstores, but they have been repackaged by Barron’s under the title “Mastering Spanish” or “Mastering French” and are sold for absurd prices. Don’t be fooled: they’re profiting from slightly altered public domain material that was paid for (if you’re American) by your tax dollars.
The same criticism of the French course applies to this one: it’s a tough slog. I was able to work through all four volumes in about six months, after which I took multiple immersion trips to Guatemala and Nicaragua to gain and improve fluency.
I was impressed that my Spanish, developed only by means of the FSI course, was better than many of the immersion students in Guatemala on their second or third trip, as were they. The immediate correction provided by the drills offers feedback no teacher would have the patience or time to provide, and their impressive range and sheer quantity cover so many situations that you will rarely find yourself at a loss for words.
There are also Assimil and Teach Yourself courses for Spanish, but I didn’t use them. Like the French in Action videos, there is a series of free videos, called Destinos, available here. They are a great help in improving comprehension, but aren’t as entertaining as the French in Action videos.
A Spanish immersion trip will likely be considerably cheaper than a similar trip for French. The deals available in Central America are especially good. I studied primarily at a school called Celas Maya in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. The cost of tuition and homestay is incredibly low:
Spanish Language Study
US$150 weekly (September through May)
US$165 weekly (June through August)
• Five hours a day, five days a week of one-on-one instruction with a 1/2 hour
• Homestay with a nearby Guatemalan family including a private room seven days
a week and three meals a day except Sundays. (more info)
• Optional participation in scheduled activities
• Access to the school library including textbooks, videos, literature, and
• One hour a day (weekdays only) of free Internet access in our Internet café
• Daily fresh coffee, tea, hot water, and mid-morning snack.
Language study is available without the family homestay for a savings of US$35 per week.
This covers nearly all the costs of the trip. You can find reviews of intensive immersion programs (for many languages) here. Teachers vary in ability, but they are rotated weekly and are generally quite good. The one problem is that the crime rate in Guatemala has risen considerably. Be sure to read the country report by the Travel Department before going.
If you go, don’t miss Lake Atitlan. It is astonishingly beautiful: Aldous Huxley called it “the most beautiful lake in the world”. This is a typical scene. Antigua is also a very interesting and pleasant city, with all buildings and roads kept, by governmental decree, in the colonial style. It’s also full of Spanish schools, but the usual advice is to go to a city with less tourists, such as Quetzaltenango, if you’re serious about learning the language.
After French and Spanish you’ll learn Latin, on the advice of Professor Arguelles. If you have no interest in dead tongues then skip this step, but this quote by the professor may make you feel a bit guilty for doing so:
The suggestion that it might be possible to learn all the Romance languages without knowing Latin just because she is "dead" will surely cause all the great 19th century philologists to turn over in their graves, for they would most certainly all assert to a man that being well versed in Latin is an invaluable cornerstone in the construction of polyglottery.
My recommendation is to use the Lingua Latina courses according to the recommendations of the Dowling method. The traditional methods teach you to decode Latin texts – even after years of study, traditional students still aren’t reading with fluency. The Dowling method’s goal is to allow you to read Cicero with the same ease and fluency with which you are reading this sentence.
We then proceed to Italian. Assimil can once again be recommended. Unfortunately, FSI does not offer an Italian course. Used copies of the Ultimate Italian course are quite cheap and provide sufficient material to prepare for another immersion trip. After learning the previous languages, few difficulties should arise.
We follow with Catalan. There is little material available for this language, but there is a Teach Yourself course and an Assimil course for Spanish speakers (that should include you at this point). Catalan seems, if you try to read or understand it, somewhere between Spanish and Italian. With minimal study time and an immersion trip to Barcelona, you should be able to pick it up with little effort.
Portuguese will also be easy. For some native speakers of Spanish and Portuguese, the languages are mutually intelligible. The languages are so close that, before ever having studied Portuguese, I once took a placement test and received a grade of “intermediate” due to my knowledge of Spanish. Fortunately, FSI has two good Portuguese courses here.
Next, we have Occitan. Professor Arguelles says he could find no speakers of the language on a trip to France, and that these days it should be treated more as a written language than a spoken one. Assimil offers a course in the language here (now you see why we started with Spanish and French).
And last, we have Romanian. Assimil's course with audio is quite expensive. The course without audio isn't exactly cheap, and audio is really a necessity. There are at least two Teach Yourself courses, a newer one and an older one. The older version is far more in depth, and better suited to serious study. Romanian is the most difficult language on our list, since it has a large quantity of Slavic loan words and noun cases, and this is why we've saved it for last. Our best bet will likely be Assimil, followed by an immersion trip.
For general information on learning languages and some motivational material, take a look at Barry Farber's How To Learn Any Language. For more information on learning entire language families, check out the classic book The Loom of Language: An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages as well as the posts of Professor Alexander Arguelles at the Lessons in Polyglottery forum, where you can ask learn directly from the professor.
This entry was based in particular on chapter 9 of the The Loom of Language and this post of the Professor’s.
Also, here is the Professor's overview and advice on using Assimil, FSI, and Teach Yourself.
I will write entries on learning the Slavic and Germanic branches in coming days.