Learning Several Languages at the Same Time - And Keeping Them

Learning Several Languages at the Same Time – And Keeping Them

I want to talk about learning three languages at the same time or several languages at the same time. How do we keep them, how do we not forget them and what do we do when we do forget them? 

I finished my three months of Turkish. I went from zero to the level that you’ll see in this video. I used Zoom and recorded the whole hour of my lesson with Delara. You don’t have to watch it all and you may not want to watch any of it, but it’s there if you want to look at it with all the problems that I had. Of course, I get a report back from Delara which has a number of the mistakes. You’ll see if you know Turkish that I mispronounced words, got the wrong tense or was looking for words. She then sends me a good list of many of my mistakes so that I can review and hopefully improve over time. Nevertheless, it represents what I’ve done in three months of Turkish starting from scratch. 

According to my LingQ statistics, I know now 7,741 words in Turkish. The way we count them at LingQ every form of the word is counted as a separate word. I have created 21,000 LingQs. That is, I have deliberately saved 21,000 words. Many of them are there. I half know them. I don’t yet consider them known. They’re words that I have come across. I have learned 5,000 LingQs. That means I saved these and eventually converted them to known because I felt I knew them. I have listened to 117 hours over three months. That’s almost 40 hours a month, so that’s more than an hour a day. I have read 185,000 words in Turkish. A lot of it is reading the same material over and over again. And I’ve had 15 one-hour lessons, online discussions with my tutor.

There’s no question that I am much better. You’ll see the last lesson I did with Delara, I’m far better than I was earlier. I still make a lot of mistakes. I search for words. I think about what’s the correct form. I can’t remember. I mispronounce, all these things, because learning a language is a matter of getting used to the language and I’m not yet used to it. But the more things we become comfortable with, the more things we see, the more things we discover, the more things we’re able to focus on. Of course, the bulk of my learning has been connected to the mini stories because I believe you first have to get the language pounded into you before you can sort of make sense of the grammar. 

Now, I am on an experiment here. I’ve now finished three months of Turkish from scratch and then next I’m going to go back to my Arabic for three months. After that, I do my three months of Persian and then I go back to Turkish. That’s the plan. However, because my wife and I are going to Croatia and then to Spain in the month of September, I decided I would take a month off from my Middle Eastern languages and prepare myself a little bit for Croatian. 

We have Serbian mini stories at LingQ, so I have now started listening to these Serbian mini stories. All I want to achieve is some sense of the language for when I’m there, situations where I might need it or just to be able to read and understand what people are saying. I have limited goals, but I am so much more confident now because we have the mini stories. I believe I can get to at least a situation where I can actually have a conversation after two weeks in Croatian. Time will tell. Maybe I’m a bit optimistic.

One further comment — I believe you have to first pound the language into you and the mini stories are an excellent way to do this. I believe I had a better conversation in Turkish after three months than I did in Czech after six months, even though I know Russian and therefore I was familiar with the grammar and the structure of Slavic languages. Whereas Turkish is completely different from anything I’ve experienced before, and the reason is the mini stories and the fact that LingQ is faster, better and more convenient.

So the idea with the mini stories is they pound the language into you and get you used to the language. Now you’re in a better position to observe what’s happening by say looking up grammar rules or I happen to have bought for Croatian this Assimil guide, Guide de Conversation, which is very well done and I’m going to get more of these. Once you have invested in the mini stories, in pounding the language into you, of course, that doesn’t mean that you can just turn the language on at any time. I’ve had the experience.

I’ve said I studied Ukrainian for a long time without mini stories, but listened to a lot of material in Ukrainian, then spent two weeks working on the Slovak mini stories in LingQ. When I got to the Polyglot Conference in Bratislava I couldn’t speak Ukrainian. A week later I was in Lviv speaking Ukrainian without a problem. Well, with problems, but able to communicate.

Steve Kaufmann

The Slovak effort had pushed the Ukrainian aside. I know today that if I were to meet someone who speaks Czech or Polish, even though I put a lot of effort into those languages, I can’t produce it. Given a few hours I’d be able to produce it. It’s the same even more so with Greek and Romanian, but I know that in those languages I have pounded the language into me. At one stage I did, so I’m very curious to see.

I think these little Guide de Conversations are very good because they have a lot of the basic conversational things that you would need in a variety of situations, which all by themselves would be very difficult to remember. However, if they come after you have done this massive listening and reading, then you’re able to retain them. I tried to do this for Vietnamese. I picked up a little guide, I couldn’t do a thing. However, I have the feeling because I’ve done a number of Slavic languages and I’ve listened to about 10 or 12 of the mini stories in Croatian or Serbian that this now is valuable and so I’m going to go and buy this for Greek, Romanian, Czech and Polish, the languages that I feel so tongue-tied in if I try to use them.

The goal here is I finished my Turkish, now I’m going to do Arabic starting the first of October. I’m going to try to be disciplined so that I go three months with one language, stay with that language for that month and then go to another language. Obviously, I’m going to slip. So I go back to Arabic, I will have forgotten a lot. Already now I have trouble expressing myself in Arabic or, for that matter, Persian. When I was doing my Persian I could go into the stores here in Vancouver and chat people up in Persian and have sort of limited discussions. Now I can’t do that. 

It’s kind of like cross-country skiing. The first time you plow through the trail if the snow is deep, it’s hard work. When I go back over the same material again I’ll be coasting along and I believe that I will quickly get back to where I was, maybe within a week in Arabic, then the challenge is to plow forward. Because I have a sense of the language now I can always review some of the grammar rules, but I need more words. I want to listen to podcasts, political discussions and things of that nature, so my goal with the Arabic will be to move my vocabulary along. The difficulty is finding that good content that does that. In Arabic that’s difficult because the movies produced in Egypt are not in Standard Arabic.

I don’t know how I’m going to do that, but the goal is that I will sort of go back to the language, Arabic, for three months and then after that Persian, spend a week to get back to where I was and then I have to plow forward to get to that next level. Maybe these little conversation guides can be useful for me when I need to quickly refresh for a particular situation. Of course, in Standard Arabic there’s no place where people speak naturally in that language. 

This is part of my interest in the whole polyglot thing. In schools they teach one language, typically. Well, not everywhere. In Japan they teach English, in Canadian and English language schools they teach French and vice-versa and I think we are capable of learning more than one language. Whatever we invest in learning that language stays with us. Even if we can’t remember it we have invested in that: it’s there. The mini stories are still there if I want to use them to refresh. The fact that I can’t produce it immediately doesn’t bother me. It’s a fact of life. Those languages that I know well, I can produce them. But the languages where I haven’t achieved that level, that I haven’t spoken enough, it’s very difficult for me to suddenly generate them.

This is, therefore, an experiment. Can I, over a period of let’s say two years or so working on three languages separately, get them all to a level where I feel I can comfortably speak? In other words, close to a B2 level. I don’t know if that can be done, but that’s the experiment. One of the things I think is going in my favour is every time you’re trying to learn something and you’re staying with it there comes a point where you have a sense of frustration. You have a sense that you aren’t learning anything. You’re beating your head against a brick wall. So if I go three months with one language, as much as I’m reluctant to leave my Turkish, I’m actually very much looking forward to getting back to Arabic. This element of anticipation, curiosity and novelty is not new because I was there before, but I’m going to it again.

Our brains need repetition, obviously, but there is a sort of declining efficiency in repetition, staying with one thing, trying to learn the most frequent 1,000 words of whatever language. After a while you’re not learning anything, so introducing the new language and staying there for three months and then going to another language and then back to the first language introduces novelty, freshness, curiosity. I’m wondering whether that will have advantages. Of course, the disadvantage is that I’m going to slip in each of these languages.

That’s what I wanted to say about learning more than one language. I will be at the Polyglot Conference in Fukuoka the 18th to 20th of October. If we can plan meetups in Japan, let me know.

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