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.
Multiple Langauges At Once? 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.
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 a language just to get a sense of what is involved. I will also occasionally revisit an old friend, a language I learned before at LingQ, like Korean or Ukrainian. I won’t spend much time doing that, however, because learning another language is a lot of work. I’m certainly finding that now as I devote myself to Arabic. It is a big commitment.
You can’t have two full-time jobs. So if my full-time job is now Arabic, as it has been Korean, or Czech, or Greek or other languages in the past. Whichever language I am trying to learn, I try to give it at least an hour a day of attention. I may spend a little time on other languages, but no more than 10-15% of my language learning time.
Training Your Brain
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 but first you have to enable your brain to get used to the language. This takes time and happens naturally with enough exposure. 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. Mostly I trust that my concentrated exposure to the new language will enable me to accumulate vocabulary, improve my comprehension, and eventually be able to speak.
At some point, and this point will depend on many factors, you have to start speaking. When you speak you improve your ability to notice because you remember those things that you weren’t able to before. So speaking actually improves the effectiveness of your listening and reading activities. As you progress you will naturally want to speak more and more, and this is essential if you want to become genuinely fluent. Here again, though, I prefer to focus my speaking activities, that is deliberate online tutor exchanges, on one language at a time.
If I travel to a country where another language I know is spoken, then I will put the language I was studying on hold. I will immerse myself in the language of my surroundings. But I also hope to create an opportunity for sustained intense immersion, surround by the language, in the main language I am studying. I know that ultimately, only by speaking the language, and speaking a lot, can I see the rewards of my efforts.
In my experience, after a period of concentrated listening and reading and some online tutoring, when I go to where the language is spoken, my ability to speak advances by leaps and bounds. But sometimes, if our speaking ability is still a little weak, and we really want to take full advantage of being surrounded by the language, we have to plan ahead.
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, and a certain amount of online discussion with a tutor, I was finally able to spend five days in Prague. I arranged ahead of time to meet Czech speaking tutors, and LingQ members, so that I would be assured 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. Had I simply arrived in Prague unprepared, in the hope of finding people to talk to, my experience would have been limited to the occasional random encounter in the language.
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.