So you are passionate about languages. You enjoy reading about polyglots and dream of someday becoming one. You have caught the learning bug and you want to learn as many languages as you can handle.
In fact, you've already been learning one language (let's call it L2) and have just become excited about learning another (L3). Should you finish the former before starting the latter, or tackle both at the same time? Which way is more efficient?
This article will discuss what you should consider before tackling several languages at once. I'll use what I've learned from those in the polyglot community and from my own experience, to provide practical advice on how to make the language learning process as efficient as possible.
Should you learn several languages at the same time?
Examine your motivation
This may sound obvious, but motivation (or lack thereof) really makes or breaks your learning process.
Take a moment to think: why do you want to learn multiple languages at once? Perhaps you've been learning one, but have recently moved to a country where they speak a third language that you don't yet know. Or maybe you're a linguist and you're interested in learning several languages as part of your profession.
You should also think about your long term prospects. Language learning is a long process that requires sustained effort. Ask yourself: will you be able to maintain it? Will you be interested in these languages long-term, or are you just being impatient in your quest towards being a polyglot?
Examine your own character too. You should be patient, disciplined and willing to keep going despite frustration, rather than being prone to burnout and not finishing things that you have started.
You should also think about your goals for using these languages. Think about whether you want to learn a language as fast as possible or if you are only interested in the passive understanding of it.
Maybe you're only interested in reading literature in one language, for example, but are striving for all around fluency in the other. Working on passive skills is easier than being able to speak. By differentiating the goals behind learning each language, each one will interfere with the other less.
Learning a language usually takes a heck of a lot of time. You may already have a full-time job and other things to do that don’t leave much time for language learning, or you may simply want to rest after work.
After all, language learning is not something you just do. It requires active effort and can be very tiring. There are no shortcuts. You'll need to set aside a substantial amount of time in your life to learn just one language, let alone two, and you might need to change your lifestyle to accommodate it.
If you already speak several languages, you will also need time to keep them sharp, which makes things even more difficult. I will provide you with advice on how to use your time efficiently when learning more than one language, but you will nevertheless need time too.
If you're too busy, or have terrible discipline and time management skills, then you might need to reconsider learning two languages at the same time.
How advanced are you in L2?
Though it might sound exciting, do not start off learning both languages at the same time. Yes, you will constantly learn lots of new stuff and will progress very quickly at the beginning. However, you will eventually burn out once you notice that your progress is slowing down and what you've learned so far is, in fact, only the very tip of the iceberg.
If you cover exactly the same areas in both languages, they will overlap and interfere with each other. You will likely be learning the same things in each: how to describe yourself, how to ask for coffee, etc. Even more importantly, your learning methods will most likely be the same, provided that you have similar goals for both languages.
However, if you are at different levels in your two languages, your learning will most likely not overlap at all. For example, if you're at an intermediate level of L2, you will probably be speaking with people, reading news and watching videos. However, if your L3 is at a beginner’s level, you will be doing very different things. For instance, you might be using lots of flashcards, online courses and textbooks, while still abstaining from speaking it.
Therefore, as a rule when thinking about learning two languages at once, the more advanced you are in your L2, the better.
How similar are the two languages?
A lot will depend on what languages you are learning. Now, this isn't as much of a black versus white issue as people often claim. There is a common idea that it's bad to be learning two languages from the same language group, such as Spanish and French. This makes a lot of sense, but it's not the whole truth.
Here are what I believe to be the pros and cons of learning two languages that are similar to one another:
- Similar languages will interfere with each other more, which can be very confusing. You will mix them up at least a little. I am currently experiencing this personally while learning both Icelandic and Norwegian. I often want to use Norwegian words (my L3) when speaking Icelandic (my L2). It seems that my active skills of the latter are somewhat undermined as a result.
- You may find learning grammar more interesting if you decide to learn two languages that are not similar to each other at all, being that studying similar words and structures can get a little boring.
- Related languages will reinforce each other, especially if you already know a good deal of your L2. You will already know many words and some grammar points, even before you start learning your L3.
So ultimately, it's a tradeoff. While it may be technically easier to learn multiple similar languages, it is also more confusing and perhaps less interesting.
Tips for learning multiple languages
Prioritize your languages
Try to prioritize the focus of your attention and decide which language you feel is more urgent. Also, consider which language you think will be harder because this is the one that will require more time. Don't try to plan your learning schedule too much, just know in your mind which language is the priority.
I would suggest assigning around 70% of your total learning time to your L2. You can make daily goals for the priority language, for example, and only study the other language once you've accomplished them. If your L3 isn't particularly hard and you find it fun, it can even help you to unwind in the evening, while still allowing you to progress towards fluency.
Try focusing on one for some time
You could, alternatively, experiment with a different method: try focusing on only one language for a set amount of time. For example, for a day or even a week.
This may be better than switching back and forth throughout the day. With this method, you can spend quality time with one language, since it can be hard to properly divide daily time between each language.
I can personally attest to this. Whenever I'm trying to concentrate on one language, a voice in the back of my mind is telling me “maybe I should switch to the other one, I'm not giving it enough effort." This may leave you confused rather than focused. It may be best, therefore, to forget one language for some time altogether simply to have some peace of mind.
Alternating between the languages weekly, meanwhile, will add to the novelty value of your learning. You'll be more eager to come back to each language after taking a break from it.
Furthermore, you will give your mind some time and space to process what you've learned. Linguist Stephen Krashen claims that language learning and acquisition are more of an unconscious process than a conscious one. In the end, it’s a good idea to experiment and see what works best for you.
How to avoid mixing up the languages
In order to keep the languages that you are learning separate from each other in your mind, you need to somehow associate each of them with something concrete. Anything will do. You can associate your languages with anything from the time of the day or week, to locations, to the use of personas.
Here are some ideas:
- Try establishing a routine by always learning one language in the morning or on particular days of the week. This will keep your L2 and L3 mentally separated, which will help you avoid worrying about one language when you’re trying to study another.
- Change your environment with each language by, for example, learning one language at home and learning the other at the library. Going outside if you have a garden or even simply switching your position within the room can also help. After a while, your mind will know automatically that it needs to switch its focus to a different language when you change your location.
- As Benny Lewis from Fluent in 3 Months proposes, using different personas for each language can create powerful associations in your mind. You may have noticed that people change their personality somewhat when they speak in different languages. They might sound serious and intellectual when they speak British English or German, but then appear more emotional when speaking Spanish. You can use it to your advantage by exaggerating it. Learning Italian? Use plenty of hand motions and get some wine!
Learn L3 through L2
In order to save time and kill two birds with one stone, you can try learning one language through the other. When you don't understand a word or a sentence in L3, don't translate it into your native language or another language that you know well. Instead, translate it into L2. If possible, pick up a textbook in L2 on how to learn L3. The same goes for internet courses like Memrise or Duolingo.
If the languages you're learning are at least remotely related, develop a list of words that are similar in both. Whenever you come up with a word in L3 that is similar to the one in L2, enter it into Memrise, Anki or any other flashcard device. Test the words in L3 by using prompts in L2.
This can be a great help thanks to the fact that when you search for a word in L3, you will now remember that this word is similar to a word in L2. Otherwise, you may never have realized that you actually knew the word!
So should you learn several languages at the same time?
As you have seen from this article, it really depends. Learning one language is already challenging, and it can be made much more difficult if you add more to the list or already have others to maintain.
However, if you have a good reason to start learning a third language, and you have enough time, discipline and determination to keep going despite frustration (which you will experience), go for it! Just make sure that you have more than a beginner’s level in your L2, make sure to prioritize your languages and experiment with scheduling your learning time.
Most importantly, decide what works best for you and stick with it!
What is your experience with tackling several languages at a time?