A person who is learning one language and wants to learn another language, or even a third language, is something that I fully understand. Once we discover the pleasure of learning a new language, of exploring the world of a different culture, history, or ways of expressing things, we want to explore even more languages.

It is also 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.

How do we best learn more than one language? At the same time, or one after the other?


French study in Canadian schools

In Europe, it’s not  uncommon for people to 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. Kids who study French at school in Canada, for example, mostly don’t end up speaking French. For them, learning even one language, in addition to their mother tongue, is a major achievement.

All kinds of people I meet here in Vancouver say to me “wow, Steve, you speak all those languages? I would love to learn French or Spanish or some other language.”  Usually, they don’t do much about it. In some cases, they might even have taken a course, or bought a book, and then given up.

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Can we learn more than one language?

We can all learn more than one language, more than two languages, or as many languages as we want. Of that I am certain. I regularly attend polyglot conferences where people of all ages exhibit the number of languages they speak by fixing flags onto their chest. I don’t know if they learned these languages one after the other, or more than one at a time.

I don’t think learning another language takes any special talent. Some people may do better than others, but everyone can do it. Some may pronounce better, some may have larger vocabularies, different people have different interests, but everyone is capable of doing it. The key is to learn in a way that suits our interests and preferences.

I’ve often said that the way French is taught here in Canada makes no sense. We put the emphasis on teaching kids how to say certain basic things in French, correctly or according to standard usage practices, when, in fact, the kids know that they will probably never have a chance to use French. Certainly the many specific usage scenarios taught in school are unlikely to be repeated in real life. 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 without any obligation to speak, let alone correctly. With good comprehension, the speaking will come along naturally.

This means letting people do what they want with their languages, If that means music, movies, cooking, travel, history, pop culture, so be it.

If the emphasis is on passively acquiring the language, with a focus on comprehension, is that something that can enable us to study more than one language at a time?


Do what you enjoy

While I know that there are some polyglots—and I’ve seen their videos—who like learning two languages at once or study two, three, four, five languages simultaneously, I have in the past preferred not to. I guess  some people find learning two languages at once enjoyable and effective and some people don’t. Until recently, I preferred to concentrate on one language because I enjoyed being absorbed by one language, and all that comes with it. I felt committed. I just couldn’t get enough of the language.

In the past, it was my view that the more intensive the learning experience, the greater degree of concentration on one language, the better I did. I spent five years learning Russian, at the rate of an hour a day. I spent nine months learning Chinese at the rate of seven hours a day. I did a better job on Chinese. My view at that time, and it may be true, was that the more intensive the experience, the better I learned. The more often I met the same words again and again, the more my brain would get used to the language. I felt that the greater heat of intensity was helping my brain to absorb the new language. My preference was for a high degree of concentration.

Learning two languages at once

Much depends on your goals. Today I am more of an explorer of languages. Having learned a number of Western European languages, East Asian languages, and Slavic languages, I felt I wanted to explore the Middle East. So I decided to learn three languages, Arabic, Persian and Turkish. I was faced with a decision. What to do? Learn them together or separately.


Spreading yourself too thin?

On the one hand, you can’t have two full-time jobs. So if my full-time job were learning Arabic, then I should focus on Arabic. But how do I deal with my curiosity towards the other two major Middle Eastern languages, which are waiting in the wings in my brain, teasing my curiosity?

I started with Arabic, and soon realized that there were not so many Arabic speakers in Vancouver, but many Persian speakers. So I added Persian. My wife was watching a Turkish series on Netflix, so I just couldn’t resist opening up another language to explore, Turkish.

At first I tried to focus on each language for 3 months, at the end of which I produced an “exit video” (Arabic exit video below) on my YouTube channel for each of Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Then I became concerned that I would forget Arabic by the time I came back to it from, say, Turkish, so I started studying all three at the same time. I even set the ambitious goal of creating 100 LingQs (saving 100 words and phrases in each language on LingQ) every day in each language. That, it turned out, was too demanding.

Since my priority, at first, was to  achieve a high level of comprehension, this meant developing a better ability to read the Arabic script. So I decided to stay with Arabic and Persian, which use the Arabic script. I felt I could drop Turkish for the time being, since it is written in the Latin alphabet. I could go back to it later.

I found this quite practical and enjoyable. The switching from one language to the other every day kept things interesting. The brain needs repetition in order to learn. However, the brain also likes novelty, as Manfred Spitzer, German neuroscientist says.

After a while, though, I felt I was not achieving a breakthrough in either language. I was slowly improving.  By virtue of  listening to Arabic language news podcasts from Al Jazeera, and reading and studying the transcripts on LingQ, my ability to read had improved.  This was reinforced by my experience with Persian, thanks in large part to the wonderful material provided by Sahra, from Iran. For example she created an intermediate level course on the History of Iran.

My statistics at LingQ showed me that I knew more and more words. My lesson pages had fewer and fewer unknown or blue words. Yet I couldn’t just listen to a podcast and understand most of it, without working through the transcript on LingQ.

This, then, is the reason for my current 90 day challenge, where I will now focus on Arabic. My goal is to be able to understand the Arabic language podcasts on Al Jazeera and elsewhere, even without reading the transcripts. We’ll see how close I get. So, for now I am back to focusing on one language.

I am confident that what I have discovered about Persian and Turkish will allow me to easily pick them up again and make breakthroughs in those languages later.

The choice of whether to study more than one language at a time is individual. There are no hard and fast rules. Your own preferences may evolve over time, depending on circumstances. That has been my experience.