FRIDAY, Feb. 4 (HealthDay News) -- Children who know two languages find it easier to learn a third one than those who know only one language, a new study finds.

The research included two groups of sixth graders in Israel who were learning English. One group included 40 students from the former Soviet Union whose mother tongue was Russian and who spoke fluent Hebrew as a second language. The other group included 42 native Hebrew speakers with no fluency in another language.

The University of Haifa researchers tested the students' language abilities, and found that the students who spoke both Russian and Hebrew were more proficient in both English and Hebrew than the students who spoke only Hebrew.

The study authors said their findings show that preserving a mother tongue in a bilingual environment does not compromise the ability to learn a second language. In fact, proficiency in one language assists in the learning of a second language which, in turn, helps a person learn a third language.

"Gaining command of a number of languages improves proficiency in native languages. This is because languages reinforce one another, and provide tools to strengthen [language] skills," researcher Professor Salim Abu-Rabia said in a University of Haifa news release.

"Our study has also shown that applying language skills from one language to another is a critical cognitive function that makes it easier for an individual to go through the learning process successfully. Hence, it is clear that trilingual education would be most successful when started at a young age and when it is provided with highly structured and substantive practice," he concluded.

More information

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has more about learning more than one language.