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David Graham
Community Tutor
Is it detrimental to learn too many languages?

Hi everyone, 

I wanted to ask people their opinions on a question that I have been thinking a lot about recently. Is learning too many languages at the same time detrimental to the language learning process? (I.E. will learning several languages stop you from reaching fluency in any given language?)

So, as you can see from my profile, I am currently learning a few languages. French, German, Spanish, Chinese, and I have just started taking an interest in Russian. The problem is, I'm no where near fluent in any of these languages. I'm around an intermediate / lower intermediate level of French, German and Spanish, but I'm a complete beginner in Russian, and I've been learning Chinese for about 6 months. 

I'm beginning to think my desire to learn new languages has led me into a bit of a dead-end. On the one hand, I don't want to forget everything I have learnt in French, German, and Spanish. However, on the other hand, I want to keep learning new and exciting languages. 

So, I feel as if I am at a crossroads with my language learning. I have learnt the process of how to learn a Language, (at least from the beginning through to the intermediate stage), but the question is now do I focus myself on one or at most two languages to finally reach fluency in a foreign language? Or do I continue what I am doing? Just sampling languages at a whim, and picking up a new language when I fancy it?

I suppose one of the problems I have is that there isn't one language in particular that I need to learn. I don't need a language for my job, and my mother tongue is spoken by practically everyone where I live.

So, what would you guys do if you were me? Is it better to focus your efforts, or should you allow your curiosity to be your guide? 


Mar 23, 2018 1:39 AM
Comments · 22

"I don't see any merit in perfecting my English to a level that I could be mistaken for a native speaker." 

I just wanted to second that. I don't think it would be possible for me to pull that off in any case (it seems rather unlikely that I could ever eliminate my foreign accent entirely). Even if it were possible, the amount of time and effort I'd need to put in would be staggeringly high, and the pay-off so very minor. So why bother? 
March 23, 2018

On my own experience, I'm native speaker of Spanish and I've been learning English since I was a kid. When I was 27, I started learning Portuguese (I'm B2 certified) and Italian after that (also B2 certified). Now I'm learning French while practising regularly Portuguese and Italian (I don't need to practise English and I have "internalize" it already).

Now you know a bit of myself, here's my opinion:

Mistakes: I make mistakes in every language I speak (I'm sure I make them even in Spanish)

Accent: I have a Spanish accent when speaking Spanish and I obviously have it in any other language. I think accents are overestimated, we all native speakers have one, why should a "learner" have no accent.

Fluency: I'm obviously completely fluent in Spanish, a bit less in English and so on but I can talk about almost everything in every language I learnt (but French)

Order: I wouldn't learn more than one language at a time. I think it's easier to learn one to a certain level and then start another (without stopping learning the "old" ones).

Jack of all trades: with an ace you only beat 12 cards. With 4 jacks you beat 40. If you go to Italy, France or Spain with a perfect English, you may be able to find someone who speaks it in big cities but definitely not in small ones. With an intermediate knowledge in 4 languages, you can go anywhere.

March 23, 2018
Just like Guyomar, I am a professional dabbler. I tried different hobbies, sports and languages and I don't think any was a waste of time.

As for languages, I flirted with about 15 (including dialects). I didn't dedicate myself to all of them... sometimes because I didn't have the time, sometimes because I just lost interest, but there were always those languages I kept coming back to, and I feel confident speaking in the ones I chose (even though I make mistakes and have an accent which I have no intention to lose).

If you want to improve a specific language, you may focus on it for a while, as suggested by Miriam (currently I am doing it with German), and practise the others at the same time.

I think it's a matter of priority.

You can reach c2 in Chinese and be glad with that, you can be b1/b2 in many languages or maybe you can concentrate in Chinese and still have fun with the other languages if you feel like it.

Just evaluate what is more important to you and don't be afraid of letting go when needed. If a language you studied before doesn't appeal to you anymore (I don't mean those moments you can't understand a particular aspect of a language and feel demotivated, but when you really don't see any sense in it anymore), you can always learn something new.

Alberto made a really good point. I could have dedicated myself to English, but how much would I have missed of French, German, Spanish and Italian as well as all the people I got to know and all I learned from so many different cultures?

March 23, 2018


March 23, 2018

I think the problem with learning multiple languages at once when you are not yet fluent is that you spend a lot of time maintaining what you already have rather than actively learning new things. And the lower your level the more 'maintenance' you require so you don't forget what you have already learnt. Added to which you will forget it more quickly if you don't do anything with the language for a period of time. The most compelling advice I saw on this was to learn a language to C1 before beginning another one. When your level is already advanced it requires much less maintenance to keep the language going. I have been toying with the idea of starting a second foreign language for a while but in the end I decided to focus on Spanish. Now my level is comfortably at least C1 I hope the theory works out as I now have a pretty decent reason to learn another language (moving to a German-speaking country soon). 

Edit: The advice about learning to C1 was based on the most efficient way to gain a high level in multiple languages. It was given by someone who knew upwards of eight or nine languages at B1 or above, maybe half a dozen or so at B2 and above, but who had learned them in what he considered an extremely inefficient way.

Of course, there are some people would prefer to have a broader range of languages at a less advanced level and some who just like languages and like to dabble. One problem I had about starting a second foreign language was that it is much more fun to use a language you already know well than be a beginner again. I don't particularly enjoy the early stages of learning a language.

March 23, 2018
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David Graham
Language Skills
Chinese (Mandarin), English, French, German, Spanish
Learning Language
Chinese (Mandarin), French, German, Spanish