Should You Try Learning Two Languages At Once?

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.

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.

11 comments on “Should You Try Learning Two Languages At Once?

Kyle Fitzgibbons

Hi Steve,

We’ve talked over GoogleHangouts in the past as a warm up for your talk with Krashen and I try to check in on the forums once a week or so. I love your website and get inspiration from your videos all the time and subscribe to your channel.

I’m commenting today because this video really resonated with me. I recently attempted to write my first book and the topic was exactly what you are talking about in this video. The idea of intensity being key to long term adaptations. In the video you say habits, but I feel adaptations in the biological sense of the word is a better choice, especially as you yourself mentioned the link to the idea of workouts.

Anyway, my point is that I agree 100% and would love to get some feedback from you on my ideas. I could email you what I’ve written in the GoogleDoc format or if you don’t mind the $9.99 price on Amazon Kindle, you could check it out there as well. This is NOT a sales pitch and I hope you don’t take it that way. I simply would value your feedback more than just about anyone else on this subject and it just so happens that I finished the book yesterday on the same day you posted this video. It seems serendipitous to me!

The can be found at that link. Again I can email you the GoogleDoc instead if you’d like. Also, it is my first attempt at writing something of this length and format, so if you do read it, please take that into consideration!

Julio

Hi Steve,

How do you know when you have reached a good enough level in your major target language, so you are ready to move on to learning a new language?

I believe you have covered in other posts that ‘fluency’ is a relatively loose concept, and there isn’t a good definition of what a good level of fluency or proficiency necessarily is.

Also as you have pointed out, even after someone reaches a relatively good command of a language, there is always more vocabulary that could be acquired in order to achieve a higher level of proficiency or literacy.

I would think it all depends on people’s goals and the use they are going to have for the language. But I would be interested on hearing more about your thoughts and experiences regarding this.

Cheers from Brazil,
Julio

Мария

Стив, спасибо большое за Вашу работу, за Вашу любовь к вашему делу и за ту позитивную энергию, которая идёт от вас, от ваших видео и от вашего сайта. Вы даёте ту поддержку в изучении языка, которая так необходима и вселяете веру в себя!

Kingsly Sun

Dear Steve,
My name is Kingsly, one of your learners, I also live in Vancouver just as you. Recently I often whatched your videos to learn English through internet. It is pretty helpful to me, I apprecriate you very much.
But I was wonderedthat if the subtitles of your videos are translated by automatic software?because the subtitles sometime showed some strange words or phrases.
could you kindly please tell me how can I to find the complete transcrips for your series of videos?
great sincerely,
Kingsly Sun

Interesting read Steve. How do you cope with learning new languages when you have lots of languages that you need to maintain as well? Do you just not worry about get rusty in those languages and then fine tune them again in the future when you want to use them again?

I personally found it really difficult to start learning a new language while maintaining one already.

Cheers,
Matt

Name *Ernest Rodgers

I firmly believe North American communities need to establish before & after school and day care programs that are conducted in languages other than English. Preferably in a language that would be significant to the student. Kids experiencing daily interaction with staff and other kids (who are learning English as a second language) speaking a second language everyday would be far superior to, as you stated, the poor way languages are taught in schools.

Elementary and middle school aged students could then speak their acquired second (or third) language in classes that are taught in that language such as art, history, science; not just language class.

High school age students would be ready for complete immersive classes, language clubs and participation in exchange student programs as highly capable or fully fluent participants.

The current political climate in the lower 48 States (2018) may not be conducive to this strategy, but Canada may have better luck.

Name *Danièle Heinen

I know Steve and have no problem learning 2 languages at the same time. I am refreshing German long gone as 3rd foreign language in high school in Europe, some 50 years ago (I am 66) and learning Chinese in which I am NOT enough disciplined for the daily dose (so I am going to spend 6 weeks in China at the end of this month). No possible confusion. I fast tracked Portuguese on the basis of my Spanish at biz school in the US in 1986/87 (Thunderbird) then you tend to speak “portunol”(missing the tilde on the n) as the 2 languages are very close. When I hear in Quebec peopel complsingin that the kids are going to get confused if you start English in primary school that is a lot of bollocks.

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