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How to Learn Multiple Languages at the Same Time

How to Learn Multiple Languages at the Same Time

About a month and a half ago, I started studying Korean along with Lindsay Dow. This means, that as of that day, I am technically studying three languages at once (four if you count my infrequent forays back into Croatian).

Based on a lot of the advice out there on learning multiple languages at the same time, I’m a bit of a rebel in studying several languages at once. I’ve provided a few quotes from well-known language bloggers on learning more than one language at a time at the bottom of the post, but a quick search on the subject will show that there is a lot of debate amongst language bloggers and learners over whether it’s a good idea to study multiple languages simultaneously. It’s a subject that’s been covered quite in depth!

Despite it being a well-covered topic, I think that we each have different experiences, successes and failures when tackling more than one language. Because language learning is a bit different for everyone, I wanted to add my voice to the discussion and share my personal experience with studying more than one language at once (especially since it’s something that I’ve been asked about quite a bit lately, particularly after taking on Korean).

Oddly enough, this debate over whether or not one should do more than one thing [read languages] at a time, doesn’t solely exist within the language realm. It’s actually something that’s widely talked about in the music community and a debate that is just all too familiar in my experience. In fact, my first ever nationally published magazine article was on this very topic (related to music).

In music, there are musicians who specialize in performing on a single instrument, but there are also those who choose to play several instruments. We call this doubling. It parallels the language discussion quite nicely because in music, there are those who firmly believe it’s much better to focus on one instrument (one language) and there are those who believe it can be quite useful to study multiple instruments (multiple languages). Many of the techniques for doubling are also quite comparable to learning several languages, so I’d like to share my thoughts by using my experience as a doubler in music to show how I’ve worked at being a “doubler” in language.

Discover Your Why

There’s a word often used for people who like to try out a bunch of different languages (or instruments), enjoying the process of deciding which “fit” their interests and maybe even just enjoying the learning process itself. These people are often referred to as “dabblers”. In the language community, Lindsay Dow and Ellen Jovin, are fantastic examples of dabblers, each having worked with an impressive number of languages.

There are learners, on the other hand, who prefer to focus in and commit to one or two languages and then there are even those who fall somewhere in the middle, dabbling to some degree but really committing to a few languages for the long haul (which is where I think I most likely fit).

So are you a dabbler or single language learner?

What you choose to do – whether it’s to focus on one language or tackle several – and how you do it depends on what your goals for language learning are. For now, let’s talk about a few reasons why it might or might not be a good idea to study more than one language at once.

Reasons For Learning More Than One Language at a Time

When you’re feeling burnt out with one language, you can hop over to another. That way you aren’t taking a break from language learning entirely and you won’t feel too guilty for taking a break from the first language. In fact, some of what you learn while studying another language can even give you a fresh approach to another and this, in turn, might help you break through that frustration or overcome that plateau you’re experiencing (this is something that was especially true for me in music and I’ve found also applies to language learning).

You prefer to know a little in several languages over a lot in one language. While you might still achieve a decent level in several languages, you’ll never know as much in each as you could if you focused on one. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be successful at the language or that you won’t get to an “advanced” level. It just means that you won’t be AS advanced as you could be in each every time you add a new language. And that’s okay as long as it’s something that sits well with you. 

Reasons Against Learning More Than One Language at a Time

You’re better focused on the language that you’re learning and can therefore work more efficiently. You aren’t distracted by the temptation of another language (something I often struggle with).

There’s less interference from other languages when you focus on one language at a time. Interference can be a pretty significant hurdle when you’re studying multiple languages. And while it can be a bigger hurdle when those two languages are similar, languages that are vastly different can still suffer interference.

As a personal example, my Chinese learning experienced a bit of interference from French. Why? Because of the words 的 (de) and 了 (le). The latter does not serve a comparable function in French and Chinese, but the fact that a word pronounced “le” existed in both caused me to misplace 了 in my Chinese sentences far more often than other Chinese learners. The former, on the other hand, 的, can share somewhat similar function (but not entirely) in the two languages. For example: la mère de moi (my mother, awkwardly phrased, I know) and 我的妈妈 (my mother). While the order of the words is basically reversed, one is literally “the mother of me” and the other “my/me (of) mother”, the “de” word serves as a way to indicate possession in both languages. All this to say, that even unrelated languages can have interference.

Setting Goals for Korean

For me, I have had the goal of speaking 8 languages at a B2 level (minimum) as long as I can remember and it’s something that I’ve stuck with. While the 8 languages on that list have changed, I’ve had a tendency to stick to those that I’ve started to learn for the long haul. So when I decided to learn Korean, I had the goal of attaining a B2 level in mind and that has helped me keep on track with my learning.

Setting SMART goals, or goals with a specific objective in mind that are tied to a deadline are a great way to better ensure that you meet the language learning objectives you’ve set for yourself, so I’ve created a rough outline of where I’d like to be with Korean in three months, six months, and a year, and I’ve also created a plan to help me maintain and improve the languages that I’ve previously learnt.

Discover How to Use Your Time Wisely

If I’m completely honest with you, the first time I decided to study multiple languages (when I was getting ready for university and while I was at university), didn’t go so well. I tried to tackle German and Italian both from the beginning simultaneously and it just didn’t work for me. I really didn’t get very far with either language.

My second time at it, however, was a slightly different story. I had a little bit more experience and I was a somewhat farther along with the other languages I was working on, and that made a huge difference for me.

When you first take on a new language, the learning curve is pretty steep. Especially if it’s unrelated to any of the languages that you’ve previously learnt. Chinese (if you don’t count my brief foray into learning Arabic) was really the first language I seriously worked on that was vastly different from any of the languages that I had previously studied. And I really wasn’t prepared for that leap.

At the beginning, everything was just this huge jumble of new information that my brain just needed more time to sort out. I later learnt that this is totally fine, but at the time, I felt pretty disappointed at my progress. But once I gave Chinese the attention it needed and deserve, things started to change.

I really had to learn how to maximize my study time. This meant that I not only had to use the free time I had wisely, but it also meant that when I was studying, that I had to be diligent in sticking to a routine and a predetermined set of resources.

This forced me to change of things. While I may not be so much of a “dabbler” when it comes to the number of languages I study, I am absolutely in every way a “dabbler” when it comes to the resources I worked with. In the past, I bounced around from resource to resource, using whatever was available to me and whatever took my fancy at any given moment.

It was a horrible way to go about learning a language. I never really got very far with any of the resources I was using and I plateaued at that advanced beginner stage.

Of course, my immediate impulse was to think that there was something wrong with me, personally, as a learner, not with the method I was using. I took a longer-than-necessary break.

But it turns out, that break was just what I needed.

It gave me the chance to look at what I was doing from a distance and realize the mistake that I was making. There wasn’t anything wrong with me as a learner, it was what I was doing that was wrong.

When I narrowed down the number of resources I was using at a time to 3-4, I found that I started to progress much faster. Rather than hovering around the beginner level material, I started to advance into more complicated grammar and vocabulary and it resulted in my level improving significantly.

This may sound contradictory to what I’ve said several times in the past – that exposure to the same material in numerous different contexts is one of the best ways to get new information to stick. But when you really break it down and think about it, this advice doesn’t have to contradict working with a limited number of resources. Using 3-4 different resources still gives you 3-4 different contexts for the information you’re learning. And as you complete those resources, you’ll find that you cycle in new material that adds the exposure you’ve had to different words and grammar rules. When you’re in language learning for the long haul, it all ends up balancing out.

Using My Time Wisely with Korean

Prior to starting the Korean Language Challenge with Lindsay, I was actively studying Russian and Chinese. My Chinese is at a much higher level than my Russian, so I was able to spend more time with Russian, the newer language, while working with different resources (on a daily basis) to keep my Chinese fresh.

On an average day, around my work schedule and other responsibilities, I probably get anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours of study per day, spread out into shorter intervals throughout the day. For the most part, the time was divided 50/50, but there were days I dedicated more time to Russian because it was (and is) the language that needed the most attention.

When I added Korean, I had to do a bit of shifting. Did I want to sacrifice some of the time I spent learning Russian, Chinese or a bit of both to fit the new language in?

Ideally, I would just add an extra 15-30 minutes per day of study time to fit Korean in and not change the amount of time I had dedicated to either Mandarin or Russian, but I don’t have that extra 15-30 minutes everyday to tack on.

Technically, I could have stopped reading (what I do for fun) and have reallotted that time to Korean, but reading is how I relax and decompress at the end of each day. Sacrificing that time would result in burnout, fatigue and I’d probably find myself taking an unnecessary break from language learning to recover. For me, that just wasn’t an option.

When I took a look at my language learning goals, I decided to shift the bulk of my study time from Russian to Korean. This means that there are some days I don’t study Russian at all and there are others that I don’t study Korean at all. It’s a sacrifice in my progress that I needed to make to be able to fit in three languages, and I’m alright with it. I’m in this language learning thing for the long haul, so if it takes me a bit longer to learn either Russian or Korean because I’ve elected to learn both, then that’s fine by me.

Once I decided how I would divvy up my time, I then had to choose the resources that I’d work with to learn Korean.

There are four core skills when it comes to language learning: speaking, comprehension, reading, and writing. Based on my goals, the first three are the most important, so they are the three that I need to spend the most time on and the three for which I need to select learning materials.

The resources I chose to work with at this beginning stage are: Memrise (for learning new vocabulary/reading/comprehension), Pimsleur (for comprehension/speaking), Assimil (for reading/speaking/comprehension), and Practical Korean (for reading/writing/understanding the grammar). Over time these will change, but these are the four resources that I am currently working with.

In order to ensure that I’m getting the most out of my study time, I make sure that I have these four resources with me as often as possible. At the moment, I carry my Assimil and Practical Korean books around with me in a small bag almost everywhere. I also have the Assimil and Pimsleur audio stored on my phone along with the Memrise app. If five minutes or more comes up, I’m ready to jump into some Korean study.

Things That I Do That Help Me Manage Multiple Languages at Once

I’ve read that there are language learners who dedicate different days of the week to different languages. So, for example, Monday is their Spanish day, Tuesday is their French day, Wednesday is their Arabic day, etc. For me personally, this doesn’t work. I don’t want to wait for a specific day to arrive to dive into a resource that I think is exciting. I want to be able to do it right away.

But, I do still believe in separating your study time.

I avoid studying more than one language in a single sitting. Even if it’s only a fifteen minute break between languages, I make sure that I put some space between them and that I have the chance to clear my mind before switching gears.

Some language learners even suggest changing up where you study when you switch which language you’re working on. I don’t really do this, I study wherever I am with whatever I have on hand (which is usually decided upon ahead of time).

Dividing your time up based on your language learning goals takes a bit of planning in advance, especially if you want to go about it as effectively as possible, so time management skills are incredibly important when learning multiple languages.

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Become an expert at time management.

When I was at university, I was completely useless at managing my language study time. I had so many other things on my plate (recitals, dissertations, research, papers) that I just took on language study as an afterthought.

As I said earlier, I make sure that I always have something to study with me, even if it’s only Memrise or some audio on my phone. If an opportunity comes up to study, I make sure that I’m ready to take it.

Learning Multiple Languages VS Learning Multiple languages AT THE SAME TIME

Thus far, the bulk of this post has been about how to learn multiple languages at the same time. But learning several languages does not have to be something that you do simultaneously.

In fact, there is an argument for learning one language to a high level and only then, adding another. Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months is a big advocate for this approach and I have personally experienced the validity of this method in my studies.

When I first started studying Chinese, I was also studying Croatian. At the beginning of my Chinese studies, I continued with the learning two languages simultaneously for several months. I slowly progressed in each. My goal with Chinese, however, was to pass an exam after a year of study and my progress just wasn’t fast enough to meet that goal so I had to stop studying Croatian and focus solely on learning Mandarin. The result was that I progressed much more quickly in the language than I would have if I kept up Croatian.

Now that I’m studying Russian and Korean at the same time (while maintaining Chinese), my progress is back to that slower pace. But because I don’t have a test coming up, the slow pace works for me.

The Benefits of Waiting Until You’re Stronger in a Language Before You Add Another

You can use the first language to study the second. By speaking multiple languages, you have access to resources in the other languages that you speak. For example, Assimil is one of my favorite language learning resources, but the majority of their materials are available in French (not English). Using Assimil enables me to keep my French up to date while learning a new language. It’s a win-win.

You have the experience of learning one language and you can use that knowledge to more effectively learn the next. After going through the process of learning a language, you have not only learnt a new language, but a little bit about what your learning style is. You can use this knowledge to be a more efficient learner of the next language.

A Few Things to Remember About Learning Multiple Languages at the Same Time

If you study more than one language at once, your progress in each language will be much slower than if you focused on just one language at a time. There’s really no avoiding this. When you tackle more than one language, your time is divided. There are only so many hours in a day and so you have to decide just how you’re going to spend them.

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If you don’t spend the time creating a series of “next steps” for each language, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time. I can’t even tell you how much time I wasted a few years back when I aimlessly bounced from resource to resource without any clear direction.

Create distance between your languages in some way. A lot of language learners agree that you should either 1) be at completely different levels when tackling different languages or 2) learning completely unrelated languages if you attempt to study several languages at once. By doing one or both of the above, you’re less likely to confuse and muddle the languages that you’re learning.

You’re quite likely to develop a preference for one language over another and that’s okay. The moment you start forcing yourself to learn a language will likely be the moment you start finding reasons to do something else. And while a break isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s always better to just pace yourself so that you don’t necessarily have to take one to begin with.

Don’t study multiple languages at once just because you can (or because you feel like you should). Do it because you have a reason or a desire to do it.

Just because you’ve already learnt one language does not mean that you won’t make just as many mistakes and experience just as many frustrations in the next. Every language is unique and they each come with their own set of hurdles to jump over and new sounds to get your mouth used to, so don’t be surprised when the next language is (almost) as hard as the first. You do, however, have the experience of learning a language under your belt, so you can apply some of what you learned about learning languages to picking up the next one.

If you’re completely new to studying languages, I really don’t recommend learning more than one language at a time. It’s something that’s done more effectively when you have the experience of learning at least one new language already under your belt. When you’re trying to learn how to learn a language while learning more than one language, you may be biting off a bit more than you can chew. This is, of course, my personal opinion, so feel free to jump in with more than one language from the start if you really feel motivated to do so.

Advice on Learning More Than One Language from Other Language Learners

Before I close out this post, I’d like to invite you to read some of the other fantastic posts out there written by many members of the language learning community. Each of them have a slightly different take on whether or not you should learn more than one language at once and how to go about it. You can check out my favorite quote on the subject from each and click through to read more about what they have to say:

Kris Broholm, Actual Fluency

“The reason I prefer to focus is because I want to become fluent in a language fast and then I can always talk and improve that way. I also find that if I have too many “to-dos” in a day I sometimes fold and not do any of them, therefore I prefer simply just sticking to one at a time.”

Benny Lewis, Fluent in 3 Months

“Only learn ONE language at a time! A mistake I feel a lot of people are making is trying to learn both (or more) of their target languages simultaneously. This will make it much more likely that you will mix them up. I may speak several languages, but I have only ever learned one new language at a time. The trick is focusing on that until you reach fluency, and then you can start the next language and only have to worry aboutmaintaining the previous one, since you already speak it.”

Agnieszka Murdoch, 5 Minute Language

“If you’d like to be fluent in a language, I’d recommend that you stick to one language until you’ve reached a certain level of fluency – then you can just maintain that language while learning another one. Otherwise, you might risk spreading yourself too thin.”

Lindsay Dow, Lindsay Does Languages  (she also wrote this post over on Transparent Language)

“Some people may not have a choice of which languages they learn at the same time. However, if you do, then you’re lucky. Pick wisely. Some find that learning similar languages at the same time is helpful to them because they can make associations and see where things vary between languages. On the other hand, this can confuse the heck out of most people! There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s not a flaw and it certainly doesn’t make you a bad language learner.”

Bill Price, How to Languages 

“For me, a solid A2/B1 is a perfect time to introduce a new language to the mix. It is at this level that I find that I can actually start having fun in the language. I can understand some things, I can talk about myself and my interests, and I can really begin to USE the language. I love this stage. Once I hit this point in a language, my basics are down. They are stored in my muscle memory and I don’t have to think about any of the beginner stuff anymore. This is a perfect time to introduce another language (for me). “

Jennifer Wagner, IE Languages

“[…] All I’m finding is some misguided “advice” that learning two languages at once is a bad idea. Says who? Every single person learns in a different way. Maybe it’s a good idea and maybe it’s not, but you should at least try. Maybe you can learn as a beginner in two languages without confusing them, or maybe you need to be advanced in one but beginning in the other. It all depends on your learning style.”

Luca Lampariello, The Polyglot Dream

“Acquiring this language core is extremely important if one wants to keep the language alive in their head, even long after not having used it. Moreover, it takes time to build a language core, so attempting to speed through the learning process with multiple languages can cause language cores to overlap, or simply prevent even one from forming.”

Donovan Nagel, Mezzofanti Guild

“Get yourself a diary and allocate times of the day and week for language A, B and C. […] Unless you’re absolutely ruthless with your time and harshwith the people and things that distract you, you’ll fail to properly divide your time between each language.”

Ron Gullekson, Language Surfer

“What you choose is really up to you. There’s no right or wrong answer. As with anything, do what’s best for you and your situation.”

Now I’d like to turn it over to you. Have you learned more than one language? If you have, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below!

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