How To Speak To 20% Of The World's Population In A Year

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How To Speak To 20% Of The World's Population In A Year

The two most spoken languages in the world are Mandarin and Spanish, with over 1.5 billion speakers between them.

That means that one in every five people on this planet speaks one of these languages.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could learn to speak to 1 in every 5 people on Earth in less than a year?

Well, that’s the challenge I’ve set myself for 2016, by learning Spanish and Mandarin simultaneously and documenting the process along the way.

But before we dive into the specifics of the goals in both languages, the methods I’ll be using and how I’ll be measuring my progress, let’s examine a question that’s asked by so many language learners but rarely gets answered properly.

Is it even possible to learn two languages at once?

Personal Experience Matters Most

Learning two languages simultaneously is one of the most controversial topics in the world of language learning.

It’s often associated with the type of ridiculous marketing schemes that promise you six pack abs in 30 days or a 50% IQ increase in a few weeks. Like these empty promises, learning two languages at once just seems too good to be true to many of us.

Whenever I’ve discussed the idea of learning two languages with others the advice has almost always been the same:

“Don’t do that, learning one is hard enough and you’ll confuse them. You’re better off sticking to one at a time.”

Even polyglots and experienced language learners, like Luca Lampariello and Anthony Metivier have spoken about the perils of learning two languages at once and the problems they’ve faced when trying to do so.

In one of the best articles I’ve read on the subject, Luca warns that haste is an enemy in language learning and that learning two languages is often associated with the type of short term thinking that hinders successful language learning.

In a recent podcast I recorded for MetaLearn with memory expert and language learning expert Anthony Metivier, he spoke about his own experience of learning two languages at once and admitted that while he’s managed to acquire vocabulary in multiple languages, he often found the process to be counterproductive.

He felt he constantly had to choose between them when it came to practicing the core skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing, which made the process less enjoyable and unsustainable.

The key thing to note here is that Luca, Anthony and others who talk about the difficulties of this process are not discouraging learners from taking the challenge on – they’re just alerting you to the trade-offs involved with making that decision.

From my own experience at school learning two languages at the same time wasn’t a problem.

From the ages of 13-16 I studied French and Italian at the same time as Latin and Ancient Greek at school and rarely had a problem of mixing up them up or struggling to prioritise between them.

However, studying two languages as an adult while trying to run an online business and work with students as an academic tutor is another proposition entirely.

One of the reasons the process of learning multiple languages at school felt easy was because my time was organised for me and I’d show up to class whether I wanted to or not.

This scheduling process is something that I’ll be trying to replicate in my own study of Spanish and Mandarin so that I stay consistent, even when I don’t feel like it.

That way, I’ll have to fit my other commitments around the challenge rather than sacrificing my learning when the unexpected happens.

Here’s the thing – maybe learning two languages together is a bad idea.

But maybe it’s a good idea.

The only truth is that you’ll never know for sure unless you try it which is why I’m taking on the challenge this year – to find out once and for all.

Start with Why

I’ve never previously studied either Spanish or Mandarin but in the last few months I’ve been feeling an acute desire to study them together.

However, because of the difficulties associated with the process, I’ve stopped short of fully committing to it, telling myself that I don’t have the time or focus to do so.

The way I broke through this was to take a blank sheet of paper and pencil and write down the reasons that were pulling me towards the challenge and those that were pushing me away from it.

Here’s what this looked like:

Reasons for Doing the Challenge

  1. I want to be able to travel around South America and Spain, and China respectively and communicate with people in their own language.
  2. I want to read Spanish and Chinese literature and philosophy.
  3. I want to explore what it’s like to learn two languages at once and help others who want to do the same.
  4. I want to test out the learning methods I’ve studied and apply them to a really difficult challenge that will stretch me.
  5. I want to write and create content about the language challenge for my online business, MetaLearn.

Reasons for Not Doing the Challenge

  1. The challenge will be too time consuming and distract me from my work –I can’t prioritise my learning over my livelihood and paying the bills.
  2. Maybe it’s not the right time to be doing this – you have a lot going on and can start again in a few weeks when things have calmed down.

This simple exercise was a great way of identifying the limiting factors that were holding me back and forced me to confront them head on, before starting. It also showed me just how much I wanted to take on the challenge and that the reasons for doing it far outweighed those for not doing it.

Here’s what I wrote under the two reasons for not doing the challenge.

  1. Time is never the problem, organisation is. I’ll schedule self-study and conversation sessions in advance every week, which are non negotiable. Whether I want to do them or not they’re in the calendar so I will show up no make sure I get the rest of my work done in the remaining time available.
  2. There’s never a right time to learn anything – a few weeks from now I’ll have just as much on as I do now. If I wait for the perfect moment to start learning something I’ll never learn anything.

Clarifying my motivation has been a hugely valuable activity whenever I’ve done it and has got my learning projects off to a great start as well as being a point of reference to look back on further down the road.

My Goals

Once I’d clarified my motivation it was time to select some specific and measurable goals to aim towards.

As many of you will know, setting yourself the goal of becoming “fluent” in a specific language isn’t going to work.

We need a clear target to aim at, so that we continue to take consistent action to reach it.

I settled on the following goals in both languages to reach by the end of the year:

  1. Give a fluent, 15 minute TED style talk in both languages on a topic of my choice.
  2. Hold a fluent 60-minute conversation with a native, without having to lapse into another language.
  3. Pass national proficiency tests for Spanish (DELE) and Mandarin (HSK).
    Spanish DELE C1 on May 21 and DELE C2 on 26 November 2016
    HSK 3 on June 11 and HSK5/6 and HSKK Advanced on December 3 2016

These long-term goals are certainly ambitious but I believe they’re achievable with the right organisation and sufficient time dedicated to the languages.

From experience I know that setting very ambitious goals has always worked well for me and I’m confident I’ll be able to rise to the challenge.

How am I doing this?

OK, so now that I’ve set out my motivation and some specific measurable goals, you’re probably asking how the hell I’m going to try and pull this off.

As much as I’d love to, I simply don’t have the time to dedicate myself to this full time in terms of study.

But what I can do is integrate the languages into my life, which I’ll do by applying certain universal principles to both languages.

1) Organisation

The main reason that people fail to stick to language learning goals is that they fail to plan, and failing to plan is planning to fail.

As I’m acutely aware of this, I’m scheduling all of my conversation classes 2 weeks in advance and will be setting aside some time to review my progress at the end of each week.

2) Habit Creation

While it’s important to define your motivation clearly when starting out, this isn’t what get’s the job done on a daily basis.

Motivation is transitory and when it fades your whole study schedule can collapse if you don’t have the right systems in place.

That’s where habits come in and I’m in the process of creating several language learning habits so that I can study without needing to be motivated to do so.

These include spending a minimum of 15 minutes on each language first thing in the morning, drilling my flashcards on Anki any time I’m travelling on public transport and watching at least one interesting video in each language every day.

3) Mental Translation

When I was learning Portuguese in 2014, I’d often pause during my daily conversations in English and try to translate what was being said.

If I couldn’t translate accurately, I’d note it down and look it up later and this proved to be extremely effective in improving my vocabulary and fluency in conversation.

Since I’m learning two languages this time, I’ll be engaging in this process in Mandarin in the morning and Spanish in the afternoon.

This doesn’t mean I’ll be translating every single English conversation in my head while it’s going on, but I will be aware of certain phrases and expressions that I use regularly and might need to use in the target languages.

4) Target Language Activities

When I was learning Portuguese I started taking some Samba classes in London as a way of accessing the culture and meeting other Brazilians.

Doing activities in the target language is essentially a form of temporary immersion and I’ll be doing this for Spanish by attending a Spanish public speaking club and in Mandarin by practicing Tai Chi in a traditional Chinese setting.

Although I’ll only be spending two hours in both per week, it will be a great way to have some real conversations and dive deeper into the culture surrounding the languages.

5) Laddering Languages

Given my background in other romance languages (French, Italian, Portuguese) I should progress much faster in Spanish than in Mandarin.

As soon as I reach a point where I’m feeling comfortable enough in Spanish, I’ll invest in some Spanish language study materials for Mandarin, so that I’m switching between the two rather than going back to English.

That way I’ll indirectly be practicing Spanish when I’m studying a Mandarin grammar or vocabulary book.

6) Pursuing Personal Interests

I see languages as an opportunity to educate myself further and explore my own interests through the medium of another language – that way I’m learning things I’m interested about and am far more likely to stay consistent.

In Spanish I’ll be reading some literature I’ve always wanted to explore such as the novels of Jose Luis Borges.

In Mandarin I’ll be diving deeper into the world of martial arts, by watching relevant Chinese films and reading around the subject.

By applying these universal principles that have worked for me in the past and keeping myself accountable through the blog and video updates, I’m confident I can achieve the ambitious goals I’ve set myself.

There will be ups and downs, successes and failures and times where I’ll want to give up but one thing’s for sure – it’s going to be a blast and I’m looking forward to the journey.

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Cardinal MezzofantiCardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti was a 19th century polyglot who is believed to have spoken at least 39 languages!Learn more
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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Zak Davis

Zak Davis

Hi Donovan, informative article you have here. I agree that most people find it hard to learn a new language because of the structure. Some people really start from very basic, some jumped right into complex. It’s helpful too, making friends with native speakers to really get yourself into speaking any language you want to learn.

Sean Hopwood

Sean Hopwood

It is true! Organization is key when learning a new language. Even more learning 2 at the same time. Fantastic article, good luck with your initiative Nasos.
- Sean Hopwood



Nasos, it can be done! I’m currently learning Arabic (Egy) 1 hour per day with Pimsleur & Rocket Arabic, French 30 minutes with Assimil & Macedonian 30 minutes with a textbook and making steady progress in each language everyday. I have a full time job, spouse, children, play musical instruments and practice martial arts...I find it funny when single people say they don’t have time:)))). My approach is quality over quantity and I have given myself 2 years (short term goal) to reach a B2 level in all 3 languages. My motivation is simple, I like a challenge and do have friends with whom to practice those particular languages. Learning multiple languages simultaneously is only an issue if you’re in a hurry. Again, this was a motivating blog and I’m glad I found it!



Good Luck Donovan. You are a true pro so I am sure you will make it easily!!! Are you planning on using the Glossika Triangulation packages?

I am sure you have seen them since you reviewed Glossika before, but they appear to be pretty new so I thought I’d mention them.



Nasos, I know what it takes to learn two languages at once. As, I have done it by myself few years back. Though, I left learning both Japanese and Spanish that time but now I am again on track to learn Spanish first as I find the other language more complex and difficult.

Natalie K.

Natalie K.

Wow, Nasos, you’ve certainly set very lofty goals for yourself. I’m interested to see how well this works out because I feel like you may have bitten off more than you can chew! Personally, I haven’t had much luck with learning two languages at once (granted, the two I was working on were in the same language family, so maybe the similarities made it worse). Also, I find serious literature difficult to read in the original language. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I still can’t really handle Dostoevsky in the original. :)

Plus you’ve chosen Mandarin as one of your languages and the writing system scares me so much for that! Good luck--I think your idea of laddering is a good one. I’ve used Russian to (sporadically) study other languages and it’s great fun and quite an intellectual challenge.



Great post! Many interesting and accurate observations. In my opinion, learning more than one foreign language at a time is definitely possible. Go for it! And keep us updated on your progress. All the best!

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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