Learning Multiple Languages at Once: Is It a Good Idea?

Learning multiple languages at once: is it a good idea?

I don’t think it takes any special talent to learn multiple languages. 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. It’s an extremely rewarding thing to do.

It’s a Matter of Preference

While I know that there are some polyglots – and I’ve seen their videos – who can study two, three, four, five languages simultaneously, I prefer not to. So that suggests that there are some people who can and some people who can’t. Some people who like doing it and others who don’t. I prefer to concentrate on one language because I find it so absorbing – I just get can’t enough of the language.

It’s been my experience that the more intensive, the greater degree of concentration on that language, the better I will do. I spent five years learning Russian an hour a day and nine months learning Chinese seven hours a day. I did a better job with Chinese.

Learning multiple languages at once - 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 take in, I find. It’s as if the greater intensity is helping the brain absorb the new language. For this reason,  my preference is always for a high degree of concentration in my language learning efforts.

I also like to explore, so at LingQ I’ll take a look at Dutch and discover that I can decipher quite a few of the lessons. I won’t spend much time there, however, because learning another language is a lot of work. I’ve explored Arabic and Turkish too, but I know that if I were to commit myself to learning any of those languages it would be a lot of work, a total commitment.

You can’t have two full-time jobs. So if my full-time job is the Korean language, then I’m going to be totally into Korean. I might have 20% to spend on languages that I already speak to a fairly good level. When I was learning Czech I would occasionally listen to Russian. However, I would not take on two new languages at the same time.

Training Your Brain

Learning multiple languages at once - brain training

You have to create habits in the brain, and to create these habits, the greater the intensity of the exposure, of the workout, the sooner you’re going to get a real good control of that language. Even for relatively similar languages like Spanish and Portuguese this is so, not to mention for difficult languages or languages that are quite different from each other, like Russian and German.

Eventually,  to be good at a language you have to speak a lot. You build up your vocabulary and familiarity with the language through a lot of intensive listening and reading. Grammar shouldn’t be the main concern,  although, you can and probably should refer to it from time to time because it helps you notice things.

Then you have to start speaking, and when you speak you improve your ability to notice because you remember those things that you weren’t able to before. If you can create an opportunity for sustained intense immersion, surround by the language, speaking the language, you will see the rewards of your efforts. Your ability will advance in leaps and bounds.

Focussed Study

Learning multiple languages at once - focussed study

Take my experience with Czech for example.  I studied for about a year an hour or so a day with the intention of eventually visiting the Czech Republic. This was my goal. So after a year of listening and reading,  I was finally able to spend five days in Prague. I arranged to meet Czech speakers so that I was speaking seven-eight hours of Czech a day. My passive knowledge of the language was activated  and I was very happy with what I had achieved.

Then I had to go on a business trip to Romania. I spent two months working on Romanian and I got up to a level where I could kind of communicate and talk about a variety of subjects and understand newscasts and so forth. Bear in mind that Romanian is 70% similar in vocabulary to Italian.

When I was in Romania, and 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 to say to him, nothing, gone. Even though my Romanian is nowhere near as good as my Czech, because I had been absorbed in a Romanian environment,  I couldn’t find my Czech when suddenly confronted by this Czech person. That would not happen to stronger languages like Japanese, even German or Russian, but for Czech, which was not yet at that level where it was solidly anchored, I couldn’t speak a word.

But this is not really a problem. I needed to dedicate myself to Romanian in preparation for my trip. I had to sacrifice my Czech for the short term. With a little effort, however, I know that I can revive my ability in any language I have learned. I do this regularly. In fact, I always find that the language comes back stronger after a period of benign neglect.

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 can get it back. So when it is time to learn a new language, I just throw myself at it, and don’t worry about maintaining my other languages. I can always come back to them later.

***

So, to summarize, by all means study more than one language. Explore the world of languages. But do it in spurts of concentrated effort, focussing on one at a time or mostly.  I happen to think that language instruction in our schools should be more of an exploration, discovering languages and cultures through listening and reading in these languages, rather than pressuring young learners to speak correctly. Even with young learners, I would have them focus on one language at a time. One year of Spanish, then a year of Chinese, etc. I think this would prepare them for learning one or more languages well later in life.

I have enjoyed exploring languages. I speak some much better than others, and I plan to learn new ones. But when I do so, I like to concentrate on one language at a time. But that is just me. I know there are excellent polyglots who have a different approach. It’s all about finding what’s right for you.

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4 comments on “Learning Multiple Languages at Once: Is It a Good Idea?

Intriguing article, but I must disagree on something you said at the outset: that everyone is capable of learning another language. This is blankly false. It’s like saying that anyone can learn to sing. From years of language learning and teaching, it is clear that some people have no ear for language. They cannot discriminate tones, cannot emulate correct pronunciation, and cannot remember even the most basic vocabulary words, much less complex grammatical constructions. It’s as if the gene for language learning fell silent after they acquired their mother tongue. I realize that, for marketing purposes, companies emphasize the “ease” of language learning “at any age.” In reality, it simply isn’t true, and homes across America are littered with Rosetta Stone courses that proved overwhelming — like the clarinets that were shoved into our hands in elementary school and now gather dust in the hall closet.

    marimorimo

    I disagree. For a lot of people, language learning certainly doesn’t come easily, but I don’t think it’s because of genetic causes. There are a myriad of possible reasons why the people who you claim cannot learn another language are doing poorly: the method of instruction isn’t right for them, lack of motivation, lack of time to study AND review, poor study habits, even psychological problems such as inferiority complex in speaking. Pronunciation in particular seems like a big hurdle but in reality nearly anything can be pronounced by anybody as long as they receive expert instruction on how to use their mouth and tongue to form the required sound. But language teachers who know how to impart this knowledge are very rare.

    I’ve encountered all of these things in my own language studies and in that of my fellow language learners. Some may be slow in picking up, but usually I notice they just require the right push to send them in the right direction.

Léo Bourdon

Your article is very interesting Steve. I’ve actually wondered how you ‘maintain’ all these languages and have a better perspective now thanks to this article. I also like to focus on one language at a time…

marimorimo

Like Léo above I’ve been wondering how polyglots maintain languages and this post enlightened me–knowing that it also takes effort for amazing polyglots like to you to maintain fluency, and the fact that you do forget and go tongue-tied on a not-often-used language brought you down to earth (in a good way!) 🙂

I also prefer focusing on one language at a time, although I tend to ignore my own advice and am now studying both French and Spanish. Fortunately I wasn’t starting Spanish from scratch as I had passed B1 many years ago but I was very rusty and in frustrated with myself for not having reached the level of fluency that I wanted (I still make many rudimentary mistakes in Spanish). I am doing better in French as I have learned from my mistakes in Spanish and have been taking intensive classes over the past year with several hours of review a week. I’ve only begun being able to speak French at a conversational level in the past 3 months, yet I feel I speak it much better than Spanish! I believe the concentrated study time I dedicated to French over the past year had a big role to play in that.

I’m planning to take the B1 French exam and the C1 in Spanish during the first half of 2017. The constant mixing of vocabulary is a challenge, although I’ve become a bit better at keeping the languages separate as time goes by…

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