Should you learn two languages at once?
Let’s talk about the common question, “Can I learn two languages at once?” or, “Should I learn multiple languages at once?”
I am asked this question regularly from my YouTube viewers. Pelle from Sweden, if I remember correctly, is studying Russian, and hasn’t been at it very long, but would also like to start studying German. So he asked what do I think, would recommend it or not.
(Check out my Tips for learning Russian and Tips for Learning German)
Well, I have a number of thoughts on the subject.
First of all, a person who is learning one language and wants to learn another language or even a third language is something that I fully understand and fully endorse. Once we discover the pleasure of learning a language, of discovering a language, even before we’re able to speak it the pleasure of exploring a new world of different culture, different history, different ways of expressing things, is very, very rewarding, enchanting, pleasurable and so now we want to explore some other language.
It is true that once we have mastered or become relatively good at communicating in a new language, we feel more confident and we’re better able then to learn a third, a fourth and a fifth language. In fact, I guess in Europe it’s more common that people speak two, three or four languages because there are so many different languages in Europe in a relatively limited area. It’s far less common in North America.
If I take the example of Canada, kids who study French in school mostly don’t end up speaking French, so even learning one language is a major achievement. All kinds of people I meet here in Vancouver say “wow, Steve, you speak all those languages? I would love to learn French or Spanish or something.” Of course, they don’t do much about it or they might have taken a course and have given up. So here in North America we have all kinds of people who can’t even speak one foreign language, but in Europe speaking several languages is quite common.
I don’t think it takes any special talent to learn two languages at once. I mean some people may do better than others, but everyone can do it. Some may pronounce better, some may have a larger vocabulary, different people have different interests, but everyone is capable of doing it and it’s a rewarding thing to do for everyone so I encourage it.
I’ve often said that the way French is taught here in Canada makes no sense because we’re teaching kids how to say certain basic things in French, hopefully correctly, when in fact the kids know that they will probably never have a chance to use French and certainly not in those specific scenarios that they like to teach in school. I’ve often felt that language instruction in our schools should be more a matter of discovery, learning to understand, building up vocabulary, exploring languages, even more than one language.
So exploring languages, even if it’s only sort of passively in order to understand the language and understand more about the countries, to learn about the countries through the language, learn about their history and culture, all that stuff is great, multiple languages, great. That’s part one of my answer.
Part two of my answer is while I know that there are some polyglots — and I’ve seen their videos — who can learn two languages at once or study two, three, four, five languages simultaneously, I prefer not to. So that suggests that there are some people who can learn two languages at once and some people who can’t. So some people like doing it and others don’t. I prefer to concentrate on one language because I find it so absorbing studying one language. It ties me up. I’m committed. I just can’t get enough of the language.
I know from experience that the more intensive, the greater degree of concentration on that language, the better I will do. In other words, I spent five years learning Russian an hour a day. I spent nine months learning Chinese seven hours a day. I did a better job on Chinese. The more intensive the experience, the better you’re going to learn, the more often you’re going to meet the same words again, the more your brain is going to get. It’s sort of that greater heat of intensity that is helping the brain absorb the new language, so my preference is always for a high degree of concentration.
I also like to explore, so at LingQ I’ll go and have a look at Dutch and discover that I can decipher quite a few of the Dutch lessons or Polish, which is a little similar to Czech. So I’ll do a little bit of exploring, but I won’t spend much time because learning another language is a lot of work. So it’s one thing to go and explore. I’ve explored Arabic, I’ve explored Turkish, all at LingQ, but it’s another to take on learning two languages at once. I know that if I were to engage in committing myself to learn any of those languages it would be a lot of work, a full-time job.
You can’t have two full-time jobs. So if my full-time job is Czech, the Czech language, then I’m going to be totally on to Czech. I might have 20% to spend on languages that I already speak to a fairly good level, so with my Czech I would occasionally listen to Russian so that I could maintain my Russian. When I went to learn Portuguese, even though I spoke Spanish and the vocabulary is 85-95% the same, it wasn’t as easy as I thought. It was difficult and I bought a book, for example, How Spanish Words Convert into Portuguese. Well, it’s not a matter of reading a list here and this Spanish word becomes this in Portuguese. No sooner have you gone through the list that you’ve forgotten it.
If you want to learn two languages at once you have to create habits in the brain and to create these habits, the greater the intensity of the exposure, of the workout, in my view the sooner you’re going to get a real good control of that language, even for relatively similar languages like Spanish and Portuguese, not to mention difficult languages or languages that are quite different from each other like Russian and German. What you can do is focus on one language for six months maybe 80% and then 20% exploring the other language. Then you can turn it around and go 80% on language two, say German in the case of our friend from Sweden, than just a little 20% on Russian and you can flip flop back and forth if you want.
I tend to get totally absorbed. If I look back at some situations that have occurred to me, I spent a year on Czech leading up to going to Prague. And, of course, eventually to be good at a language you have to speak a lot. You build up your potential through a lot of intensive listening and reading. You build up your familiarity with the language. You build up your vocabulary. You’re not too concerned about grammar; although, you refer to it from time to time because it helps you notice things. Then you have to start speaking and when you speak not only do you improve your ability to speak, but you also improve your ability to notice because you remember and you notice those things that you weren’t able to do when you were speaking and so you step up your speaking. So it’s all intense work.
In my case with Czech, it led up to me going to the Czech Republic and I spent five days there in Prague speaking seven-eight hours of Czech a day and I was very happy with what I had achieved. Then I said okay, now I’m going to work on Korean. So I worked on Korean for four or five months, not quite as intensely. Then I had a business trip to Romania, so I spent two months working on Romanian and I got the Romanian up to a level where I could kind of communicate and speak and talk about a variety of subjects and understand newscasts and so forth. Bear in mind that Romanian is 70% similar vocabulary to Italian.
When I was in the midst of talking to all these Romanians, there was a fellow there who was Czech and so I wanted to speak to him in Czech. I couldn’t find one word, nothing, gone, whoosh. Even though my Romanian is nowhere near as good as my Czech, because I had been focusing on Romanian my Czech was gone. Now, that would not happen to stronger languages like Japanese, even German, even Russian, but for Czech, which was not yet at that level where it was solidly anchored, I couldn’t speak a word.
Now because I visited the Czech Republic and Slovakia over Christmas and New Year with my son and his family who live in England, I’m back on Czech. Well, my Romanian is gone. I can’t say anything in Romanian. I understand, I can read and it wouldn’t take me a day or two to get back onto it. What I’m trying to say is that there is real advantage in focusing very intensively.
You can always revive your languages. I do this regularly, you go back to them. If you were to spend six months or a year on Russian, which is a full-time job, then you were to spend six months on German, during that six-month period you might want to spend 20% of your time just keeping the Russian on the back burner simmering there so you don’t fall back too far.
I never worry about what I might have forgotten or lost in Korean, Romanian or Czech because I know that in a day or two I’ve gotten it back, or even less. But on the fly like that, bingo, today you say you speak language X, go for it. I can do that in most of my languages, but I can’t do it in Czech, Romanian, Korean and so forth.
So, to summarize, by all means study more than one language, I think it’s a good thing. I think that our language instruction in our schools should be more of an exploration, discover more languages and cultures through language and stuff like that, rather than getting people to speak correctly. Obviously, where the language is required for work and that’s typically the case with English, that’s not the correct strategy there. You have to focus on enabling people to communicate.
So, yes, if you want to learn two languages at once that’s ok. Insofar as what I like to do when I study languages, I like to concentrate on one at a time, but that is me. I know there are other excellent polyglots who have a different approach with advice that’s different from mine.
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