A short while ago, my good friend Kerstin Cable posted a question in her Facebook group. She asked, “if you could only study one language for the next five years, what would it be?”
I began to type, thinking it would be an easy answer. Chinese – duh! It’s not my native language and it’s the language I speak with Little Linguist, so I need to always stay ahead of him. In five years, he’ll be quite the conversationalist, so that would definitely need to be my one language.
But then my fingers grew still on the keyboard as I began to imagine an entire five years with just one language.
I hit delete.
It wasn’t a question I could answer because even if it’s just an imaginary scenario, it’s something that’s not easy for me to imagine.
Shortly after, I received a question from someone about what my thoughts were on learning more than one language at once.
Recently, I’ve discovered the value of focusing on one language.
But here’s where I’m going to be completely honest with you. Even when I have a focus language, I don’t completely set my other languages aside. Yup, I’m unfaithful to my focus languages.
There. I said it. It’s out there.
I’m just not a one language at a time kind of person.
Outside of the last three months or so of preparing for the HSK exam, I don’t think I’ve ever just studied one language.
And here’s why I don’t think I ever will.
1. I can take a break from language learning without really taking a break.
If I get frustrated, overwhelmed or bored with my main language, I can hit pause and look at a different language. That way I get a break from my focus language, but don’t have to take a break from language completely.
This allows me to come back to my main language refreshed without losing the habit of language study that I’ve established.
2. Sometimes working on a different language helps me understand a problem I’m having in my focus language.
When you learn a different language, sometimes certain aspects of that language are explained in a way that help you understand parts of another language.
For example, I didn’t understand how Russian cases even remotely until I began to study them intensely for Croatian. In doing this, I gained the ability to better use Croatian cases and an understanding of what I needed to do to learn them for Russian.
The same was true of particles. When I studied Korean, particles were completely new to me. I wasn’t really sure how to use them or which to use. When I began to study them for Japanese, I had already been introduced to their function and was able to more quickly learn them. When I go back to Korean, I’ll have a stronger foundation to look at them once again.
3. I don’t want to lose too much of my languages by taking an extended break.
The longer you step away from the language, the more you forget. That means the next time you pick it up, the more review you’ll have to do.
I prefer to learn new material and spend less time reviewing, so I try not to let too much time lapse when I take a break from a language.
4. I love languages too much to not dabble in more than one.
And even though I’ve settled on my forever languages, there are still a few others that I had to – very reluctantly – cut from the final list.
To maintain and improve the languages that I’ve committed to, I need to work on more than one at once.
5. At the moment, I don’t have a job or anything else that requires me to attain and maintain an extremely high level in one or two languages so I’m okay with being decent or even okay at several.
If this changes, how I study will change too. But, I’m happy with the way that my learning is going and I’m happy when I’m learning more than one language.
Learning Just One Language at a Time is a Good Thing for Some Language Learners
On the other end of the spectrum, here is why I think it’s good to study one language at a time:
1. You get a lot farther, a lot faster with a language when you focus on it.
When you study just one language at a time, all of your time and attention go to that one language. And that means you get better at it faster. If you want to learn a language quickly, learning just one at a time is the way to go.
2. You’re less likely to confuse your languages.
When you learn more than one language at the same time, the chances that you’ll confuse them is higher. Even when they’re unrelated.
If you decide to learn more than one language (even if it’s not at the same time), this mixing is something that happens. There’s really no avoiding it. Learning only one language at a time, however, does decrease the amount it happens.
So now that I’ve shared why I study more than one language at a time and the benefits of studying just one language at a time, I want to talk about my process for learning more than one language at once.
3. You aren’t yet an experienced language learner.
If you’re trying to learn how to learn languages at the same time you’re learning more than one language, it might be too much. In my experience, it’s best to have at least one language under your belt before you add in more languages. It’s good to have gone through the process of learning a language (even if it’s to an intermediate level) before you add something new to the mix.
How I Learn More Than One Language at a Time
My process for learning more than one language at once has gone through some significant changes over the past few years.
In the past, I was pretty unorganized. Today, I’m much more selective.
Here is what I do:
1. At any given time, I have a focus language.
This means that it gets the bulk of my study time. If my day is full, I make sure I get to this language and skip looking at the others until my schedule permits it.
2. I do short-term language projects.
Much like Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months, I’ve grown fond of doing three-month long intensive projects. Doing this has given me the chance to revive my Croatian and take on Japanese. But I’ve also done much shorter projects like my three day Italian refresh.
This gives me focused time for my main language, but isn’t long enough that I can get distracted by other new and exciting languages or resources. I know that I can add them to my “want to try” list and that in a very short time, will get to do just that.
3. I only have two or three side languages at a time even though I work on eight total languages.
And sometimes just one. These are my break or “need to maintain” languages, so I sometimes hang on to them for more than three months. Other times, I only need to work on them briefly for a specific project. Once that project is over, I can swap them out with another side language.
4. I use language laddering.
Language laddering is when you use one of your stronger languages to learn a new language or improve a weaker language. I often use French to learn Croatian, Croatian to learn Russian, and sometimes use Chinese to learn Japanese.
Doing this also allows me to deliberately practice switching between similar languages so that I’m less likely to confuse them.
5. I don’t start learning more than one new language at a time.
With the exception of when I was at university and had to study both Italian and German at the same time, I don’t start learning more than one new language at a time. Instead, I start one, give it some attention, get somewhat comfortable with it, *and then* pick up a new one.
When you start a new language, *everything* is new and so it can be pretty overwhelming. When you try to do this with more than one language, you’re doubling or tripling that sense of overwhelm.
6. I find and commit to a tutor for my focus language asap.
Doing so makes me even more committed to the language because I don’t want to waste my tutor’s time. I make sure that I’m doing the work between sessions so that we have something new to work on each session.
And once I commit to a tutor, I usually keep up my lessons even when I have a new focus language. (i’ll write about my system for this in another post soon)
7. I accept that sometimes I’m going to feel guilty about not spending time with certain languages.
My time is limited and I don’t spend it all learning languages. This means that I won’t get to study every single language every single day. And sometimes I don’t spend time with them for months. And I also know there are languages that I want to learn that I won’t learn. Before I let this guilt take over and I spread myself to thin in an attempt to study all the languages all the time.
Now I accept that it’s part of the process and it’s a comprise I needed to make to achieve my long-term goals.
I won’t ever be able to erase the guilt I feel when I realize it’s been a year since I’ve studied Korean or that I’ve let my Italian slide yet again. And I don’t want to. It’s what brings me back to those languages when I finally do have time for them.
I don’t, however, let that guilt take over any more. I know that if I stick to the system I’ve worked so hard at, that I’ll get the results I’m aiming for.
For me personally, learning more than one language at a time just works. I stay fascinated by languages, get to try out a lot of different and interesting methods and resources, and have the opportunity to learn about tons of different places and cultures.
Every learner is different, so there is no right or wrong. Learning more than one language at a time may be the right choice for you. But maybe learning one language at a time is more your style.
You won’t know until you try.
What about you?
Do you commit to one language when you study or do you like to work on more than one at once?
I look forward to hearing from you in the comments below.
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.