Learning Multiple Languages at Once
Three Ways To Be Successful and Stay Sane
There’s a long-standing consensus among language learning enthusiasts that learning multiple languages simultaneously is more difficult than learning multiple languages sequentially. When asked, most people who have learned to speak one language at a time reply that they don’t think it’s a good idea. Those that have learned several languages at once say it’s not for the faint of heart: It takes a serious amount of dedication and time management skills to pull off. It’s difficult to make any blanket statement about learning a language because contextual factors, such as method of learning (classroom, language learning apps, tutors, etc.) and your personal motivation for learning that language, have such a huge impact on success.
Despite the intuition many multilinguals share that simultaneous learning would be extremely difficult, a recent study of native Persian speakers (ages 20–29) learning French and English in a classroom setting found that “not only is simultaneous learning not an impeding factor but also it reinforces learning of the two languages.” These researchers go on to mention that other factors, such as pre-study proficiency levels and development of personal learning strategies are also relevant, but that more studies in other contexts are needed to determine whether learning multiple languages at once can actually be a net benefit.
It’s not uncommon to be required to learn multiple languages in a short period of time for a certain degree or career opportunity. Maybe you want to learn the native language of a fellow expat romantic partner while you’re both living abroad and learning the local language. Perhaps you’re just the type of person that gets bored easily and is more engaged when challenged.
Whatever the reason, if you’ve decided that simultaneous study of multiple languages is right for you, you’ll want to plan carefully to avoid burnout or wasted energy. We’ve narrowed it down to three basic rules to stay sane while you tackle this new challenge:
- Choose your languages wisely.
- Make a realistic plan.
- Stay motivated.
1. Choose your languages wisely
Don’t get carried away
According to the testimonials of those that have tried it, it’s not recommended to study more than two languages at once. Even if you are a full-time language learner, there are simply not enough hours in a day (or week) for your brain to rest when switching between four languages (three new languages + your native one).
One similar, one different
Some people find that studying similar languages at the same time is too confusing. If you have a choice in the matter (maybe you have a list of languages on your New Year’s resolutions you plan to eventually get through), you may want to start with two very different languages, such as learning Russian while also studying French. This will also make switching between the two more “refreshing.”
One easy, one hard
If possible, choose one “easier” language that’s closer to your native language. If English is your native language, you’re in luck, because you have lots of languages with features or words in common, since English has a history of contact with many other languages. Romance languages like French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese will have many cognates, or similar words. Germanic languages like German, Swedish, Danish, and Dutch will also have many cognates, as well as similar grammatical features. At the very least, it’s probably best to pick only one language with a different writing system at a time.
Get a head start
If you already have some competence in one language, you may want to begin by brushing up on that language and then adding in another one. Just like juggling, it may be easier for you to get comfortable with the motion of tossing one ball between your hands before adding another. If you’re starting from scratch, you can still establish a base level of competence, then add the other.
2. Make a realistic plan
Learning two languages at once will take longer than learning one, so give yourself some wiggle room. This may seem obvious, but remind yourself of this when you feel like things are taking longer to click in your head than you’d like. Decide how much time you can realistically spend per day (or per week) studying, then subtract something like 5% to allow for fatigue (or just for unexpected life events!). If you reach your goal and decide to spend more time studying, you’ll feel extra productive. Remember that it’s best to leave yourself wanting more when you begin in order to avoid burning out during the honeymoon stage of learning a language.
How you divide your allotted study time between the two languages is something you may want to test out for the first few weeks, but it also depends on your goals for using the language. Some people like to do 50/50, switching between their two languages every few days or doing one in the morning and one at night. Others prefer to have one main language at around an 80/20 ratio for a long period of time and then switch.
Take note of strategies that work for you
Though the concept of aligning activities to learning styles has recently been criticized as not actually contributing to enhanced retention, you may still notice that certain activities help you remember things better. For example, perhaps drawing illustrations of words instead of the English translation on flashcards helps you visualize the meaning of the word instead of just the translation. If you’re someone who gets distracted easily, you may prefer to listen to podcasts while you do another activity with your hands, like knitting or cleaning. If you’re a musician, listening to music and following along with lyrics in your target language may be the most enjoyable and therefore memorable for you. If you’re a social butterfly and love finding out about others’ lives, a local or online tutor or language exchange may be best for you. If you’ve found that teaching material to someone else helps you remember it best, then try creating a course and sharing it with a community online. Lingvist’s Custom Decks tool, which allows you to automatically create and customize decks, is perfect for this. The more time you spend learning languages, the more you’ll start to notice which methods are most effective for you and be able to adjust accordingly.
It’s okay to be slow
Don’t feel frustrated if your progress is slower than your previous experience learning a language or than you expected. It is well known that children raised in a bilingual setting demonstrate significant delays in their oral fluency and vocabulary acquisition, but that they can eventually reach the same level of proficiency in both languages as their monolingual peers. All the time you spend with a language is useful, even if it takes some time before you start to see the results. When you were learning your first language (as an infant) you most likely didn’t start speaking until around a year of listening to the language, so remember that your brain needs time to absorb it. Unfortunately, adult learners do need to put in a bit more deliberate effort, but it’s still possible to become conversationally fluent in multiple languages given enough time!
Save the environment – for one language
Establishing environmental associations can help avoid mixing up the different languages and tie the mental switch between languages to a physical trigger. Assign certain settings or times of day to each individual language. Just like they say you shouldn’t work where you sleep, keeping languages physically separate can help keep them mentally separate. Try only studying one at your kitchen table while having breakfast and the other only while sitting on your couch in the evening after dinner.
Take breaks to stay motivated
Don’t beat yourself up too much if you need to take a break: learning a language – especially if you’re doing so in your free time for leisure – takes a lot of mental energy. This is especially true when learning two languages at once, as in the beginning stages it requires switching between three languages (Your native language counts too!). Researchers have found that short-term stress (such as freaking out about not sticking to a study plan) can actually inhibit the formation of memories. In this case, it’s best if your mental cup does not overflow. Taking a day off can ensure your motivation levels remain high so that you’re less likely to burn out and end up needing a week off.
Switch it up
One benefit of learning two languages at once is that if your motivation for learning one language starts to wane, you can switch to focusing on the other language more heavily for a few days. If you notice yourself slacking on your scheduled learning sessions or dragging your feet through your practice activities, switch up the ratio of study between the two languages. It’s important to pay attention to your ebbs and flows of motivation, because sometimes it’s your brain’s way of telling you that it’s too full for the moment. Switching to the other language you’re learning can keep things feeling fresh and interesting, moving you through any cognitive plateaus you may face.
3. Stay motivated
Limit distractions and immerse yourself
Though multi-tasking has become a standard way of life for most people in this day and age, distractions will drain your focus and use up your study time. If you’re the type of person that needs a few streams of information to stay focused, make sure they’re all in the language you’re learning. During your allotted study time you can listen to music in your target language, or if you need a break, take a look at news articles or social media in your target language. Close all other tabs on your computer (or switch your browser language to the one you’re learning!). If you’re using a language learning app, turn your phone on Do Not Disturb to avoid notifications popping up in your native language.
The more you can simulate immersion for that time period, the better. Once you get to a certain level of competence, try to avoid thinking in your native language and then translating. Instead, relax the native voice in your head and let the foreign voice do the thinking. The more you listen to music, watch films, etc. in the foreign language, the more you will start to associate words with their meaning, rather than their translation, and this will become easier. This is ideal because apart from concrete nouns (like “tree” or “cat”), words rarely have a perfect one-to-one translation.
Forget your native language
Once you’ve reached a certain level of competence, take advantage of the fact that you’re studying two languages and completely eliminate your native language from your studies. Read poems or journal articles in both of the languages you’re studying without (or before) looking at the English translation. See what information you can glean from one language versus the other to see where your weak points are. Watch a movie in one of your target languages while setting the subtitles to the other.
Get creative with your practice
Just like life, your learning plan will work best if it consists of a balance of structure and novelty. It’s probably best to use some sort of guided curriculum, whether it be an online language learning program, a textbook, or classroom courses at a nearby community college. This will save you a lot of planning work, introduce topics in a scaffolded way, and be more efficient than a scattershot approach. Apart from that, it’s up to you to introduce some new activities that ignite your passion and remind you why you decided to study these languages in the first place. If you’re feeling stuck, check out this article for inventive ideas on how to memorize vocabulary. Luckily, with access to cultural media online, this is easier than ever.
As your curriculum will likely only be for one language, you can also try coming up with creative ways to integrate both of your languages into one activity. For example, try out this “Compare and Contrast” activity:
Remember in high school when you were asked constantly to compare and contrast things in your essays? Well, it turns out there was a method to your teachers’ madness (at least in this instance). Making connections (such as comparing similarities) and disambiguating between two things means you’re engaging in critical thinking, which is a great way to remember information. Additionally, separating things into categories (like “dangerous” or “food”) is one of our brain’s favorite activities, as it helps us to conserve brainpower by avoiding re-evaluating things every time we encounter them.
Therefore, thinking critically about and categorizing things such as similar or dissimilar aspects of two target languages is a great way to cement those facts in your brain. For example, if you were learning Spanish and Portuguese at the same time, a fantastic exercise is to make lists of facts you know about the two languages such as this:
|Can leave out the subject pronoun (in most cases)||✓||✓(European only)|
|Formal second-person singular (used in Europe)||✓ (usted)||✓ (você)|
|Formal second-person singular replaces second-person singular in American dialects||✓ (tú –> usted)||✓ (tu –> você)|
|Present continuous (e.g., “I am eating”)||✓ (estoy comiendo)||X (estou a comer)|
|Letter “ñ”||✓||X (“nh” instead)|
Making these lists may also lead you to investigate whether or not a statement is true of both languages. The two languages don’t have to be from the same language family either. You will find that many features of languages are shared despite being from completely different parts of the world, especially when it’s a yes or no answer. Any study time you spend doing this self-driven research will be well spent, as you are more likely to remember the answers to questions that you’ve formulated yourself, rather than passive facts you’ve read.
Ready to be a polyglot?
Though the definition of a polyglot can shift depending on who you consult, the usual answer is someone with basic proficiency in six languages. If you’ve decided to learn two languages at once (plus your native language), you’re already on track to getting halfway there! If you’re interested in the minds and habits of successful polyglots throughout history, check out the book Babel No More. If you’re interested in jump-starting your journey to multiple languages, Lingvist is the fastest way to increase your vocabulary. With a subscription, you can learn different languages at once and keep track of your progress in the Insights tab, allowing you to stick to your language learning schedule. Congratulations on taking the first step (the planning step!) to becoming multilingual and good luck!