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Pattern Recognition

Second language strategies to make second language acquisition easier and quicker while enhancing other areas of your life.

Pattern Recognition
Pattern Recognition - Second Language Strategies

Develop a Skill Useful Beyond Language Acquisition

Welcome, aspiring polyglot! One of the major sticking points many face when embarking on their language acquisition journey is fear of speaking. This primarily boils down to fear or a lack of confidence in one’s abilities to speak a language properly enough for it to be understood. While understandable, this roadblock will prevent anyone from becoming fluent if allowed to continue unchecked. With that in mind, here are some ways to build that confidence and begin speaking as soon as possible, even if there are some errors here and there.

language, delay Photo by Erik Mclean

First, what matters most?

In my opinion, knowing how letters are meant to be pronounced alone is just as important as knowing how the letters interact with one another, especially if it is grammar dependent. Nailing down the correct usage of words can be difficult when getting started and self evaluation is no easy task. Start writing in the new language from the beginning and key words will make themselves known quickly.

These key words will prove indispensable throughout the duration of second language acquisition. However, in order to understand words and their place in the foreign language you are learning, it is important to understand the pieces that make those words.

In German, the necessity of this is self-evident. Individually all of the letters are pronounced as they are written (similar to Spanish), but together, things change. For example, in the German word, “stein” (stone) the ‘s’ and the ‘t’ interact to make the English sound “sht” while the ‘e’ and the ‘i’ interact to sound like the English letter “i”. Alternatively, if the ‘e’ and the ‘i’ were reversed, as in the word “spiel” they would interact to be pronounced like the English letter “e”.

When it comes to French, though, understanding how these letters interact is even more important as the pronunciation without context will not really tell you what the word is.

In the French language, these are the ways to show a pronunciation of the sound for the English letter “a”: ai, est, et, ait, ais, aient, er, é, ée, és, ez, and surely there are more.

french, language, meme

So, yes, understanding how the letters are meant to be pronounced is important, but seeing how the letters interact with one another is equally important and can set a good language learner apart from an average language learner. Here are some ways to facilitate that comprehension:

Pattern Recognition and foreign languages:

Comprehensible Input

The ability to see and recognize patterns in a new language, particularly in new vocabulary, then leverage them to your advantage is extremely important. Many of the hangups that are shared across the language acquisition community are due to an inability to recognize the patterns not only within a target language, but across linguistic barriers. One of the easiest will be learning the “tion” words. For romance language learners, this tip will increase your vocabulary instantaneously.

Almost every word in English ending with “tion” is nearly identical in a romance language. Some examples:

English: - Information - Definition - Exploration

Spanish - Información - Definición - Exploración

French: - Information - Définition - Exploration

Portuguese: - Informação - Definição - Exploração

Italian: - Informazione - Definizione - Esplorazione

Beginning to see just how powerful the idea of pattern recognition is in language acquisition? If not, here’s a thread that delves a bit deeper:

This is but one of the many patterns that can be discovered, then leveraged, to enhance and accelerate language acquisition. As you certainly noticed, too, there are patterns across languages to follow as well.

French is almost always identical to the English word

Spanish usually replaces the “tion” with “ción”

Portuguese replaces these with “ção”

Italian replaces them with “zione”

With this knowledge, nearly every English word ending in “tion” is now part of the repertoire for anyone working with romance languages.

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Rules to Focus on from the Beginning

This is not a comprehensive list of grammatical or pronunciation rules, just a base list to provide a strong foundation for developing language skills in any of these languages irrespective of learning style.

Military parade in front of Arc de Triomphe on Bastille Day.
France, study abroad, immersion Photo by Yiwen
  1. The French Liaison
The liaison is something you can use that will help differentiate words. As previously mentioned, when hearing fluent French, it can feel as though an entire paragraph is only one word. Using this appropriately and often will help you not only recognize individual words, it will also help you sound more like a native!

For instance: To say, “I believe in you” you would say, “Je crois en toi”. Normally, the ‘s’ in crois would not be pronounced, however because the next word begins with a vowel, in this case, it would be pronounced as an English “z”. The rule is simple and it is one of the few rules without exception in the French language. If the word ends with a consonant and the next word starts with a vowel, pronounce the last letter of the preceding word.

Luckily, this is one of the areas, as with most French grammar, where if you mess up, no one will say anything (unless you have really great friends who are helping you master the language) since native French speakers mess this up too from time to time.

2.   Y and En

In French, y can be used to replace a place that has been previously discussed or is relevant to the context. The difference between y and en is that y refers to a place and en refers to a thing. For example, “I am going to go to church.” could translate to “Je vais aller à l'église” OR it could translate to “Je vais y aller” Here, the y refers to “church” and is therefore an appropriate place to use it here.

French is an extremely context dependent language, so test and use this until you really get a feel for when you can or should use it and when you cannot or should not be using it. The same goes for en in French, except it is used in place of a thing rather than a location.

For instance, if someone were to ask if you would like more cookies you might respond, “Non, merci, j’ai déjà assez de biscuits” OR you can respond, “Non, merci, j’en ai déjà assez.”Here, the “en” is tied to the word “biscuits” and since we are responding to a question, it fits into the conversation and can be used here. Again, play around with these and use them incorrectly until you start using them correctly.

3.   Spanish Pronouns

Spain, Spanish, Travel Photo by Ralph (Ravi) Kayden
This is pretty basic, but if it’s new to you then it is certainly an opportunity area and one that can be taken advantage of immediately. In Spanish, unless looking for extra emphasis, the pronoun does not need to be said aloud (or written) before the verb.

The reason for this is simple, context should dictate the subject. When in doubt, use the pronoun. An example, if you want to say “I am going to visit you” you can either say, “Yo voy a visitarte” OR “Voy a visitarte” they mean the exact same thing. If you want to say, “We are going to eat with them” you can say, “Nosotros vamos a comer con ellos” OR “Vamos a comer con ellos” Again, they mean the exact same thing.

4.   Talkin’ bout you

To wrap up the romance languages, a brief discussion on how to indicate that which is being said is about another person, or oneself. In this we will briefly touch on reflexive verbs, but those will require an entire post in and of themselves simply to understand how to recognize the patterns.

For now, though, what if you wanted to say, “I am going to make you food.” In French you could say, “Je vais te faire de la nourriture” whereas “I am going to cook for you” would translate as “Je vais cuisiner pour toi”. Both of these scenarios refer to doing something for “you” but, as written above, it could be said using “te faire” (“make you” something) OR “pour toi” (do something “for you”). It is the same in Spanish. Have you decided to become a pattern hunter yet?

Let’s resume with the previous example. If you wanted to say, “I am going to make you food.”In Spanish you could say, “Voy a hacerte la comida” OR you could say, “Voy a cocinar la comida para ti”. Here we again see how one can “hacerte” (“make you” something) OR one can do something “para ti” (for you). Finally a quick touch on reflexive verbs. A reflexive verb can be conceptualized as something one does to oneself.

Luckily, in the English language, though it may sound off, it is possible for reflexive verbs to make sense. This simply means that there is another tool available to you to differentiate or verify whether or not a word needs to be spoken as though it is reflexive.

An example: The verb for “to sit” is reflexive in every romance language.

French: S'asseoir

Spanish: Sentarse

Italian: Sedersi

Portuguese: Se sentar

English: To seat oneself

Don’t Look Down
Study, learning, foreign Photo by Joshua Earle

This is how to make it make sense in a language that by and large does not rely on reflexive verbs. Ask yourself, “Is this an action I am doing to myself?”

Some examples:

To sit: I seat myself.

To bathe: I bathe myself.

To worry: I worry myself.

To put makeup on: I put makeup on myself.

To get up: I get myself up.

When you see words that are reflexive and you are unsure as to why, it is always worth going through this exercise to understand how you might say it in your native tongue. As always, though, grammar rules are meant to be broken and trampled on, it is a rite of passage. Make as many mistakes as possible until they become less and less frequent. Progress over perfection, even native speakers make mistakes almost every day.

polyglot, study, exam


Seeking to master grammar is great and all, but it will torpedo your confidence. It is next to impossible to gain confidence when consistently failing at something; and it is foolish to focus entirely on an aspect of language acquisition that will come sooner or later anyway.

Grammar will always come, whether or not you expressly practice it, provided you are speaking, reading, and writing often enough. How do I know this? Simple, unless otherwise studied, native speakers rarely know the meaning of grammar rules of their mother tongues. Having done it once is halfway to being able to do it again. So, build that confidence. Speak and read and write as often as you can manage. Then pay attention to the patterns.

What truly separates the B2 from the C1/C2 is being able to recognize and apply patterns appropriately in various circumstances. As soon as your brain recognizes that x in y language probably means that x is also true in z language, the language acquisition will accelerate.

The ability to recognize and implement these patterns is also huge for building confidence. Being able to see that if these letters make these sounds in x language and both x and y languages are romance languages, and to expect those letters to make those sounds in y language, will certainly set you apart from classroom peers. This isn’t pertinent to languages alone, either.

Start training your brain to recognize patterns. This may be slow at first, but once you see one the second is much easier to uncover. I would be lying to you if I said it wasn’t going to be difficult. But you can do difficult things and be great. So go do difficult things and become great. I will be here by your side endeavoring to do the same. I'll be here rooting for you and watching out for your successes in the meantime.

For more content find me on Twitter or Instagram. If you are struggling to get speaking in your target language, get up to 55% off a Babbel subscription using this link. I look forward to seeing everyone’s progress in the months and years to come.