Some people will say, geez Steve, you used to say you should focus entirely on one language. I did used to say that, but a number of things have changed.


I have come to realize that the more you focus on one thing, you try to nail one thing, you stay with one thing, there is a point when the learning efficiency declines. I find when listening to Arabic or Persian stories that by about the second or third story I’m reading or listening to I am less focused, less curious, less hungry. I notice fewer things. That’s one thing.



I had mentioned before that I was going to study three languages over the next say year or so, three months on Arabic, three months on Persian and three months on Turkish. That was my intention. Then I saw a video where a polyglot that I greatly admire, Luca Lampariello, said he was doing three languages a day (I can’t remember which ones, I think Danish was in there) and he was spending 30 minutes on each. So I thought, well, if Luca is doing that maybe it’s something that I should try. 


The Advantages of Learning Multiple Langauges Every Day

So I’ve started doing it and the advantage is, first of all, you are introducing more variety. Before you get stale in one language you move on to another, so it’s new, it’s fresh and you’re more curious. I find since I started doing this two days ago that I do notice things more, especially when listening, but also even when reading. Now, I am working on the mini-stories, so it’s largely a matter of refreshing where I was because I was away for a month traveling and I dabbled a bit in Serbo-Croatian. Of course, the last language I did was Turkish, so now my Arabic is a little bit rusty. 


The first thing, of course, is that I find that I notice things better. The second thing is that there is less time to forget things. It is a bit annoying if I meet an Arabic speaker as I did in Spain and I have to present excuses. Yeah, I was studying Arabic, but for the last six months I was doing Persian and Turkish and now I can’t remember my Arabic. This way I can maintain them all every day because I study two or three.


As I said, I’m focusing right now on reviewing my mini-stories. I want to do two, three, four mini-stories in each language every day. I do the same ones in each language, which has the advantage that I’m aware of the context of the story because I just finished doing it in another language and that sort of helps. So I’m going to do that and we’ll see how it goes.


But Steve, You’re Contradicting Yourself

People will say, well, you’re contradicting yourself. Yes, I’m contradicting myself, but the number one rule in language learning is to enjoy it. Experimenting with different ways of learning is a way of enjoying it. You’ve got to have fun. Now, obviously this learning strategy is going to depend on your situation. 


When I was learning Chinese I worked for the Canadian Government. I had a job to learn Chinese, so I was totally focused on learning Mandarin Chinese. Yet, even there I did have variety because I had three hours a day of one-on-one classroom instruction with a lot of drills. I had to spend a fair amount of time every day on characters and on writing and then I did a lot of listening. I also scoured the bookstores of Hong Kong to find new material to listen to and read. So within my Mandarin learning activity I tried to introduce as much variety as possible. 


That’s one situation, but now I’m learning for fun. Those of us who are learning for fun, we can experiment with whatever system we want. The main objective is to enjoy it. If you enjoy the activity you will improve, I’m quite convinced of that.

Steve Kaufmann

The advantage to me is that I can do three languages a day say half an hour on each, particularly varying the listening activity if that enables me to progress. Bear in mind, probably the first month I’ll be focused on the mini-stories to get back to where I was and make sure that that’s firmer in my mind. Then as I go to explore new material I won’t have the advantage of being able to do the same story in different languages, so we’ll see how that all works. If it is successful it means that at the end of nine months rather than being six months removed from my Arabic, in fact, I will have all the three languages with me learning them all together. 


Language Learning Doesn’t Just Happen in a Classroom

I think we should experiment with language learning because, unfortunately, language learning and language instruction for too long have been the preserve of the language teachers. So the assumption is that you learn in a classroom. Well, you may learn in a classroom, but it’s also just as likely that what you do outside the classroom is more important than what you do in the classroom. 


The reason why people in Sweden and Holland or Croatia speak English well is because they have so many movies and television programs in English or in the original language for other languages. It’s not necessarily because language instruction in Croatia or Sweden is superior to language instruction say in Spain.


I also once saw a study put out by the American Center for Linguistics I believe which traced the influence of English instructional hours on how well immigrants did in learning English. While they sort of crowed about the benefits, if you looked up the results it showed that in some cases increased instructional hours meant a decline in English proficiency, which really only demonstrated that there was no direct relationship. 


There were all kinds of difficulties measuring how well people were doing. In fact, those immigrants who had friends in the United States (this was an American study) or worked where they used English obviously were going to improve more than people who only went to class. So really the instructor or the idea of focusing all language learning on the classroom and, therefore, language learning methodology or the best way to proceed has to be based on what works in a classroom, I think that’s basically wrong. I think serious language learners should experiment with different ways of learning.




This whole idea of learning more than one language, of being a polyglot is something that I wasn’t even aware of when I was studying Chinese. I just had this one task. I didn’t even know the meaning of the word polyglot, basically. Linguist is the word still in English that’s used to describe someone who speaks many languages, but as I learn more and more languages I realize the benefit of varying it. Not only varying the activities, but also varying the language. I find that it makes me more focused, more attentive to the language. And, of course, the brain likes novelty, so I’m going to continue experimenting with this and we’ll let you know how it goes.