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Learning Multiple Languages At The Same Time

Multiple Languages

When I announced my intention to learn Korean this week alongside Irish I was asked about my motivation to learn multiple languages at the same time.

Why learn several languages simultaneously and is it even advisable to do so?

Here are some of my thoughts on the issue.

 

If your time management skills suck then forget it

I’m stating the obvious but if you’ve got shithouse time management skills then that’s something you need to sort out before trying to learn a language, let alone several languages.

I’m learning two new languages while maintaining a handful of others at the moment and you know what?

I work a normal day job, full-time, 5 days a week.

This means that I have a few hours in the morning before work, lunch breaks, some of the weekend and the occasional evening to get shit done. If I didn’t know how to make the most of the time I have, I’d be getting nowhere.

 

Focus on one at a time

If you’re learning a few languages it’s good to focus solely on one language for a few days or a week at a time, rather than switching between them throughout the day.

This is not because of the possibility you’ll mix the languages up (I’ll get to this), but simply because it’s good to spend quality time focused on one language to ensure periods of immersion. If you’re constantly switching between learning different languages you’re not allowing yourself time to do that.

I spent 3 hours the other day watching Irish video and blocking out English (and other language) distractions as much as possible, and by the end of it I felt like I was actually thinking in Irish.

Get yourself a diary and allocate times of the day and week for language A, B and C. Allocate times where you tell the rest of the world to piss off and leave you alone, the phone gets turned off, distractions are eliminated and you get serious with the materials you have or people you meet with.

Unless you’re absolutely ruthless with your time and harsh with the people and things that distract you, you’ll fail to properly divide your time between each language.

 

Mixing them up is not such a bad thing

This is a common concern regarding learning a few languages simultaneously but it’s nothing to worry about.

So what if you mix up a few words here and there, or occasionally confuse word order in the initial stages? You should be making plenty of mistakes anyway.

It’s not going to fossilize that way unless you stop learning.

Most of your language transfer comes from your native language which is an unavoidable issue that pretty much everybody faces when learning a second language. Transferring from your second or third language to a fourth language is no different – it’s not permanent, but simply a stage in the learning process that will iron itself out as you become more proficient.

I’m not bothered at all when I accidentally drop a French word when talking Irish, or an Irish word when practicing Georgian because to me that means I’ve learned the word so well that my memory is retrieving it automatically.

It’s confirmation of further success more than anything else.

 

Motivation – Why are you learning them in the first place?

As you should with any language learning endeavour, make an honest assessment of your reasons for wanting to do it.

Do you actually need to learn two or more languages simultaneously? Are you impatiently racing toward a goal of (hyper)polyglottery or just simply an enthusiast who loves languages like Professor Arguelles?

Is conversational fluency your target or are you more interested in studying the grammar and syntax of a bunch of different languages purely out of fascination with no real intention of ever connecting with your target language communities?

 

I love Irish but don’t need it

Irish languageAs I’ve already said before, despite the fact that I started learning Irish back at the end of December/early January, I have absolutely no need for this language. I’ll spend more time in Ireland and the Gaeltacht in the near future but I’m almost certain that I’ll never require this language for work, migration or anything else.

My Irish friends have criticized me for “wasting my time” in fact. Tá sé marbh ar aon nós.

For reasons I’ve already covered in detail, my purpose for Irish has been more emotionally driven than anything else, but despite this fact I’ve spent countless hours immersed in Irish at home and work over the last few months (sometimes spending up to 3 hours a day watching and listening to material), poured lots of time and money into it and haven’t lost any passion or drive to succeed with it.

It’s a perfectly valid reason to learn the language and a strong motivator but there are no major functional or financial goals to aim for.

Korean on the other hand…

Compare that with my recent challenge to learn Korean which is more needs-based considering the fact I’ll be moving to the country soon for work and will need it to get the most out of my time there.

To be honest, I never even considered studying Korean in the past and it’s a language that hasn’t really interested me at all up until two days ago.

Even though my Korean skills after two days consist of only being able to slowly read the alphabet and a few basic expressions like 안녕하세요 and 감사, I’ve already developed a new-found interest in the language which will further boost my motivation level to push on.

Despite the fact Korean has no emotional value to me like Irish does, I’ll be driven to succeed with it because it has a very functional goal.

 

Ask yourself before you start

When I started this blog I remember reading an article about blogging that said something along the lines of:

Before you start, picture yourself 6 months, 1 year, or a few years down the track and answer honestly whether or not you’d still have the same passion and motivation to keep going with it.

The same holds true for language learning.

They’re really interesting and exciting in the beginner stage because everything is new and different but after the honeymoon stage is over they start to lose their buzz. If you don’t have a good reason to keep going with it you’ll get bored and move on to something else.

Language learning forums are full of people who talk about how they spent X amount of time on a language in the past, and either got bored or found it too difficult and moved on to another one.

Save yourself the wasted time and question your motivation before you start.

 

Some other points to consider

Here are some other points to consider with regard to the benefits and achievability of multiple language acquisition:

  • Although it’s a contentious issue in second language acquisition studies, try to think of languages as skills you acquire like any other and understand multiple language learning as no different to learning different skills at the same time. E.g. learning to ride a bike, swim and play tennis at the same time. No one would suggest that learning different skills simultaneously is a bad idea or unachievable.
  • The multiple languages you’re learning may have cognates or other similar grammatical features to each other which in turn will help you speed up acquisition of both. This was the case for me learning Arabic and Hebrew simultaneously, and the same is true for people learning several Romance languages. If you’re putting off Italian to focus on Spanish for example, why not kill two birds with one stone?
  • Bilingual and multilingual children with parents from different linguistic backgrounds usually don’t learn their different languages sequentially (one after the other). Most often they learn simultaneously (although one language tends to come out stronger than the other).
  • When you go through periods of boredom or fatigue with one language (it happens to everybody), instead of not being productive at all you’ve got your other language/s to focus on for a while. Sometimes I find the best motivator for language study is to study an entirely different language.

Are you learning more than one foreign language simultaneously?

What are some of the challenges and benefits you’ve personally experienced in doing so?

 

 

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26 Responses to “Learning Multiple Languages At The Same Time”

  1. I'm currently doing an experiment with my language studies. I LOVE the Turkish language and I greatly look forward to speaking it fluently. However, I don't have anyone to practice with really and I wish that I had something other than youtube videos for listening practice. But hey, I have to make do for now. Anyway, in my experiment I'm trying to learn some Brazilian Portuguese (hopefully to a B1 level by August). I live in Orlando, Florida of the U.S. and there is a very large Brazilian population here and I am looking for more work. I figure that learning some Brazilian Portuguese could potentially increase my prospects of finding work. I speak Spanish (C2) and luckily I don't have to worry about grammatical aspects too much which is nice.

    I can conclude so far that Brazilian Portuguese is by far the most difficult language I've looked at (well, maybe aside from Northern Sami) because I AM NOT PASSIONATE ABOUT THE LANGUAGE and therefore don't feel as motivated to learn it. I'm now back to Turkish full time but still want to see if I can work on some Portuguese pronunciation (which sounds like coastal Spanish with a strange vocabulary, a lot of lazy and nasal pronunciation) and vocabulary now and again.

    To me it all comes down to need and passion.

  2. I am learning German,Mandarin and will start Spanish this week. I was really only going for German ( my mom speaks it) , but now we are adopting children who speak Spanish only, and I have fallen in love with Mandarin. I am a language fanatic,and love the challenge. Hardest thing though would be 1: not reverting back to English with my family and 2:, It is very hard to find immersion places in my town outside of Rosetta Stone in my study ! And I worry of it's all too much. But, I love what you said about it being a skill.

    By Yá Li Shan Dèlí Yá on May 5, 2012 | Reply
  3. It's tough not having people to speak to. I'm craving for more opportunities to speak Irish with native speakers.

    How's your Turkish coming along anyway? Do you feel like you're making plenty of progress?

    By mezzoguild on May 5, 2012 | Reply
  4. Thanks.

    Sounds like a fun challenge! Luckily you've got people there to practice with each day.

    BTW is that your real name? :)

    By mezzoguild on May 5, 2012 | Reply
  5. I've been studying two languages this year – Turkish and Georgian. Well, actually three for the next six weeks because I'm taking on Piedmontese for HTLAL's 6 week challenge.

    They're at very different levels, though, so I've not seen a problem with any of them, other than Georgian going very slowly and I tend to get impatient with it. But that's the nature of the beast. Turkish is steady-as-she-goes and gets the most exposure, by far.

    Honestly, Piedmontese has been a real joy. Because of my background, it's been the most relaxing language activity I think I've ever done, speaking aside. It's a good place to fall back to when I get frustrated with Georgian.

    R.
    ==

  6. G'day, Rick.

    Piedmontese is an interesting choice. Any particular reason why you wanted to learn it? Did you find good material?

    I have a love-hate relationship with Georgian. Absolutely love the beauty and uniqueness of it but hate how difficult it is. Even living in the country with private lessons I struggled with it more than any other language. I'm going to maintain it until I get some more time to devote to it.

    By mezzoguild on May 6, 2012 | Reply
  7. I chose Piedmontese because I wanted to participate in one of the 6WC on HTLAL, and needed an "easy" language (I was originally going to go with Afrikaans). It's my favorite region of Italy and I usually get there at least once a year to ski, so I thought it would be useful, since I always hear it when I'm there. It's about as far from Italian as Catalan is from Spanish – in other words, not completely incomprehensible, but there's enough grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation differences to throw you off.

    It's turned out to be a perfect companion language to study because of my frustrations with Georgian.

  8. That's a tough question to answer. In some ways yes I feel very confident with my Turkish abilities but at the same time what I do know is very superficial. I spent six weeks in Turkey four years ago and learned enough to travel but not hold any inspiring conversation. Basically, I knew how to speak enough to get roughly what I needed and wanted. It's by far the most logical language I've ever looked into which brings my frustration levels down to a minimum. I'm watching one Turkish film a day for at least an hour and then I take a look at my phrase book, 'teach yourself' book and verb dictionary. So far it's been helpful.

    I'm trying to find a way for me to move there without having to resort to teaching English (I'm looking for an 'all turkish all the time' kind of environment while I'm there) but I also need to find a way to make a living while I'm over there. I taught English in the past and it greatly took away time from my language goals.

  9. This will be my life in September. As an American who is living in The Netherlands, I am required to do what is called Inburgering. Which means that starting in June, I will be taking 9 hours of Dutch classes, every week, for a year and a half. I'll be going back to University here in September and Spanish is required for my degree.

  10. An interesting topic to be sure. I definitely agree that learning multiple languages at once is possible.

    A related topic, which I've not seen discussed much, is learning another language in a foreign language you already know, or are in the process of learning. This must be a common task for ESL speakers who learn other languages with English tools.

    For me it was a daunting task starting Quechua classes completely in Spanish w/ Spanish/Quechua materials when my level of Spanish is only B1 or B2. If nothing else, my Spanish has improved immensely.

    Best of luck with the Korean.. looks like in only a few days you learned the alphabet, quite an achievement :)

    By Ramblurr on May 17, 2012 | Reply
  11. Hey Kaitlin.

    Sounds intense!
    Best of luck with your Dutch and Spanish. You must be loving life in the Netherlands :)

    By mezzoguild on May 19, 2012 | Reply
  12. I’ve tried this before and basically came to the conclusion of “forget it”. It’s not realistically do-able unless you’ve got not only good time management skills but also a lot of spare time in which to manage :)

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  13. I think there are hidden strengths to learning several new languages together, although I understand peoples reluctance. I haven't used this strategy to a great degree but found a strange sense of my language muscles limbering up nicely while staying in a Mayan village and making lists of vocabulary and basic phrases in Yucatec Maya through Spanish. I had a similar experience with learning very basic Romanian occasionally during a period of learning Hungarian. I would like to try this strategy while learning two languages properly. Keeping them in separate chunks is certainly a good idea but I feel that switching to a different language without just returning to your native tongue is a great workout.

    By Bazz1 on May 24, 2012 | Reply
  14. Donovan – Fair play for taking on the Gaeilge! I'm going back to it soon, after a break of forty years myself. I did it in National school and three years of secondary to 1972 for my Inter Cert exam and that was the end of it. In those days we associated it with the church and the old conservatives. It just wasn't cool back then.
    I've learned a few languages since then and find myself feeling sad that I don't speak my own native tongue, so I'm planning on taking it up as an extra subject when I go to university this year.
    The key to a people's psyche is in their language, and you will understand the Irish at a much deeper level than any other visitors, and in some ways you will get a sense of what we are that some of us who have lost it don't even get any more. It's not so much what you will say or hear in the language, although I'm sure that will be a wonderful experience, but what you will sense about what lies beneath that distinctive English we speak, and the glimpse you'll get into what we really mean. I probably don't sound like I'm making too much sense, but that's probably because I'm an Irishman, speaking English. Adh mor ort! Sorry, not very computer savvy- don't know how to put fada's/ accents, etc! Good Luck.

    By Bazz1 on May 25, 2012 | Reply
  15. This is just the article I needed to read! I am currently working on two languages and I was beginning to wonder if I was crazy for doing so. It's nice to know I'm not the only one and that someone else thinks it is manageable to do!

    By Shannon.Kennedy on Jun 18, 2012 | Reply
  16. Hi Donovan,
    I am sharing your point of view in learning more than one language at the time. Just focusing on the first one and then switching to the second one once one feels confortable enough to do that. Years ago I have been learning Swedish, Danish and Norwegian together; it worked very good, even though I concentrated on Swedish. I believe that it woks better if one's learning to languages of two different genetic branches (Korean and Spanish, Mongolian and Dutch…); the risks to mix them up reduce considerably.
    I am going deeper into Korean..it works, but the fact of not having many opportunities to speak it makes the efforts of learning it harder and harder…. Keep in touch!
    Raffaele

    By raffaele.vairo on Oct 10, 2012 | Reply
  17. Great advice for most people, but shutting out the world doesn't work well for parents, and even less so for single parents – we do not have much time to ourselves, and evening study time is often full of interruptions. However…

    Rather than let this be discouraging, I have accepted that my progress will be slower than I would like, and I make sure to study at least a little every day. I have sought out language partners in my age group because they also usually have kids or are otherwise at similar places in their lives. It really helps to keep motivated when I'm doing language exchange with someone else who is also getting interrupted by family needs. We can be understanding and supportive of each other in this way and also encourage each other in our studies.

    I have met all my language exchange partners on italki.com, and all my speaking practice is done via Skype, which I highly recommend for people like me who live in small towns with out a population of native speakers of their target language.

    By Theresa on Oct 16, 2012 | Reply
  18. Hello Donovan,
    just stumbled onto your blog minutes ago and the first thing I found was what I was looking for all this time. Great article,though intimidating at first. Everyone here seems to be on 5+ languages. I appreciate all the wonderful advice you've given us,they're all really helpful. I am currently learning German (for work), Russian (for pleasure) and writing my thesis, so I would say my main problem would actually be, what you said in the beginning, TIME MANAGEMENT! Maybe I should take your example and view the thesis as and 8-hour days work, and the rest use for languages, a couple of day at a time each.
    So, no questions here,just had to say,I happy to have found your blog.
    Regards from Serbia

    By Ana on Dec 1, 2012 | Reply
  19. Hey Donovan!
    How nice it was to find a polyglot who believes that learning two languages at the same time can be done! There is so much discouragement online among other multiple language speakers who warn that attempting more than one language will spell disastrous failure, especially if you dare to attempt two similar languages. It astounds me to hear them pooh-pooh the idea. I was studying spanish on my own for several years for personal reasons (my sister-in-law is Colombian). When I acquired a job two years ago that required me to learn some italian, I found that my spanish was invaluable. Even before I began to study the language, I could already understand a bit of what my italian colleagues were saying, and they could understand me as well. It has accelerated my study of italian, not hindered it. You are absolutely correct. Children from bilingual families commonly learn two languages the same time. If you are going to make mistakes as you learn (which we all do) then accidentally transferring one language word into another is hardly a crime! In fact, its a sign of progress. It means you have retained something, even if you do apply it incorrectly. Certainly, it does take time, a great deal of patience and determination, as does any skill you wish to acquire. I would never advise someone against learning two languages at once, if they really felt compelled to do it. Just because some polyglots dont have the temerity to do it, doesn't mean that no one should. It has been done. Successfully. By people all over the world.

    By Lynne on Feb 28, 2013 | Reply
  20. I am learning Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, Russian, and Arabic. I just started Hindi, Russian, and Arabic yesterday. I love languages and couldn't choose one over the other. If for no other reason, I am learning them because I enjoy it.
    I do have another reason though. I want to be connected with people all around the world. Hear their story and tell mine. We as a race should stick together and talk to others out of our country. These languages, including English, are the top 6 languages spoken in the world according to a few sources. That means that I will be able to conmunicate with a very large portion of people, which is what I truly want.

    By Kitten2cat on Mar 27, 2013 | Reply
  21. That\’s a big challenge you\’ve set yourself there. Good on you. :)

    All the best!

    By mezzoguild on Apr 2, 2013 | Reply
  22. I am currently learning Croatian, Italian and Japanese (I know a bit of Chinese and German as well) and I am considering picking up Bengali as well.
    I have found that if I don't use a language for a few days it goes backwards ALOT (if you are not up to a certain stage with it).
    I know the article writer is a linguist, but if anyone is learning more than one language, (or even one) spend time on each of them EVERY DAY, if only for 20 min or so. Make sure you break them up though. I found Croatian and italian to be a little confusing at times (As they are similar). Non similar languages like japanese/chinese to european languages are easy to cope with though. (Although I keep reading the japanese kanji as chinese characters which is slightly annoying.)
    I will also soon add indonesian and brazilian portuguese (once I am fluent in italian – not far off yay! :) ) in the next few years.
    Has anyone successfully learnt more than three languages at once? Many people I have talked to have never gone for a 4th language to learn at one time (Of course starting in different years. E.g. my languages are at university, I was already proficient at italian so last year I added Croatian, this year I added Japanese. (I studied in China over the summer holidays 2012/13 to learn a bit of chinese which I will continue once my japanese is good enough and then learn cantonese too…)

    By Sof on Apr 16, 2013 | Reply
  23. It's really nice of you to learn Turkish just out of interest, I've always wondered how our grammar would look like to a native English speaking person, and now I've seen one example. I'm currently learning Dutch because I'll be studying in the Netherlands and French because it had a strong presence in the Turkish language before the global domination of English as a lingua franca, and I also like the way French words flow through the mouth. I suggest that you watch live Turkish news channels (Haberturk, CnnTurk) online, because not only will you be more familiar with the language but you'll also introduce yourself to Turkish politics , society and culture.

    By kertenkele on Apr 20, 2013 | Reply
  24. So great to know Im not the only nutter who studies 2-3 languages at once!!! Yay!
    I did Japanese for 3 years at highschool but that skill has been hibernating (although I still remember well the first two alphabets:).
    So I studied Spanish as a major at university with French as the minor and German as an extra in the early 2000s.
    I studied German during 2004/2005 alongside Russian (on my own) before I went overseas and got it to an intermediate level. Russian was very elementary then.
    Then I went to Russia for two years in 2005 and 2007 and studied with a Russian teacher (I taught English and a bit of Spanish). ( I was in Spain in 2006).
    I started Brazilian Portuguese in 2008 and have been dabbling at it on and off (my spanish helped) since.

    I did very little language study for the two years after that. (I got married and had a child:)))

    At the moment am reading Dan Brown in Spanish. Im not doing anything with my French but it definitely needs a push sometime in the near future. ( I have done the odd maintenance on it over the years so have not lost what I know).
    Im also increasing my Russian by beginning to read unabridged books (thats all I do with it and write up vocab lists and watch movies – I already covered the grammar pretty much in Russia). I also started Arabic a couple of months ago and have almost got the alphabet down, And last week I started Hindi. My partner is Indian so theres a special motivation with Hindi.

    I love the idea of learning two languages every two years! I am going to try it – although to be honest I really am studying three (not including my spanish which is really advanced).

    How am I finding it?

    My Russian does not get in the way of the other two (Arabic and Hindi) because it is so far ahead. I dont struggle with grammar anymore as I hit it hard for one year full blast ( while in Russia) studying no other languages at the same time. I get no word confusion with the other two.

    Arabic script and Hindi script dont pose any problems either. I consider it no different to learning both hirigana and katakana and kanji – the three Japanese alphabets at the same time or in the same period of time.

    I dont , however, like studying Italian (which I have dabbled at within the last 5 years) alongside Portuguese, since my Portuguese doesnt feel well cemented enough in my mind to not confuse it with my Italian – which is not total beginners but pretty weak.

    So thats it. Hope you found that interesting and of use!

    By Kate on Dec 18, 2013 | Reply
  25. I couldnt agree with you more! It is exactly how I feel about languages. It is such an adventure starting and going through the process of learning a new language. And then moving onto the media like books, films and TV shows. And the kick you get when you can ditch the subtitiles!

    By Kate on Dec 18, 2013 | Reply
  26. Very cool article, I've been bilingual all my life but am now trying to learn Russian , French and German. I must say I respect your dedication to learning the language of your heritage. Gaelic is a very beautiful language to hear when it is spoken. I hope more people in Ireland and Scotland begin studying it as well, revitalizing and upholding your culture is a sacred tradition. It inspires me to see that there are still people who maintain their distinction from the Anglo-Saxons and retain their own cultural values. Irish books and poetry are among the oldest and most important works of art in Europe after all.

    By Andranik on Mar 14, 2014 | Reply

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About The Author:

I’m an Applied Linguistics graduate, ESL teacher and translator with years of travel and language learning experience. I have a huge passion for language learning and for helping to raise awareness of endangered minority languages around the world.

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