"It depends" is the answer to most questions in language learning. Even for the same person, the circumstances, the goals, the opportunities change. They vary even more between people. Everyone is different.
Experimenting is the only way to know for sure. The worst case scenario is not spending your time efficiently enough.
If you've already made up your mind, see the article How to learn languages simultaneously.
What to consider before attempting to learn two (or more) languages at onceEdit
1.Where will the time come from?
- Time always comes at the cost of not doing something else. Even staring at the ceiling is not pointless - you're relaxing and taking a break from visual (and often aural) distractions. Are you going to spend less time with your friends, hobbies and/or other languages? (You can "conserve" some time by learning L3 through L2, using L2-L3 dictionaries and doing L2/L3 LR)
- Are you going to stick with that when you inevitably face difficulties? Language learning is a lifestyle choice - especially when it comes to simultaneous study. One language at a time can be treated more like a hobby, with occasional periods of neglect and then frantically making up for it.
- If you're trying to become more productive, disciplined (or similar), best try to make those lifestyle changes before you start a new language. Chances are that your original plan will turn out unrealistic or at least somewhat less sustainable than you expected. The natural solution may be to drop your new language.
- Be aware of the sunk cost fallacy. Don't give up too easily, but don't force yourself to continue just because of the effort you've already put in.
2. Have I reached the point of diminishing returns? If not, will it be discouraging to know that I could make faster progress by focusing on fewer languages?
3. How good am I in my "older" language when I consider taking on another? What methods will I use?
- Fluent or advanced, relying mostly on native sources now: there shouldn't be much trouble
- Intermediate: could work well, unless the new exciting adventure leads you away from the boring plateau too often :-)
- Both beginner: will you get bored by doing quite the same beginner activities in both? are you likely to mix them too much?
- Being a false beginner or brushing up will be less of a problem than if you're completely new to a language.
- "Natural" methods of learning the grammar and vocabulary are generally more sustainable and lead to less burnout than attempting to learn three or more languages with traditional coursebooks, all containing similar texts and dialogues on topics like introducing yourself, arriving in L2 country, eating out, being an exchange student, going to the doctor etc.
4. Are those two languages similar?
- closely related (for example Spanish and French; Czech and Polish):
- if the "older" language is at the intermediate or higher level, many learners find taking on a similar one much easier. Synergy is involved here: related languages can reinforce each other and "keep one another alive". Furthermore, you can use native materials from the beginning, especially if you work on the passive skills first.
- when both are at the beginner level, it tends to be confusing for many learners, although not for everyone
- more loosely related: less danger of mixing them up but fewer ways they can support each other as well
5. What goals am I pursuing?
- Working on a passive understanding of multiple languages is easier than working on the active skills, and interference is also less of a problem.
- For linguists/philologists, it's normal to study multiple languages in order to see the greater picture, and especially for global learners it can also be a good strategy.
- It's normal when travelling changes your priorities. However, always keep your long-term goals in mind. If you are prone to wanderlust, try to maintain at least some minimal contact with the languages you truly care about.
- Have you signed up for a challenge?
- With your new language: It's a great way to get started, but it shouldn't be your only reason to learn it. Don't be afraid of starting what you really want to learn.
- If you're already doing a challenge in a different language, be realistic. Is it just a fleeting passion, and will you eventually concentrate on your "old" language? Burnout is common during challenges, so keep that in mind when making long-term plans for your new language.
- Don't be embarrassed to have no goals.
6. Do I need an excuse to take a break from another language or stop learning it completely? If this seems to be your real reason, take a break immediately if possible. Lower your expectations.
Cultural expectations: Europe vs AmericaEdit
The general tendency is that Europeans learn several languages, whereas Americans tend to focus on one language. The obvious reason is that Europe has smaller countries and many national languages, while with English, Spanish, French and Portuguese you have the whole American continent covered.
There are, however, numerous other factors. For example, (Northern) Americans are generally more competitive, while in Europe learning several languages has been part of the educational curriculum for centuries (especially when it comes to the elite and the ones considered particularly gifted).
One more factor is whether people will switch to English (or your native language) if you're not convincing enough. Often it's enough to look comfortable and have a decent pronunciation, but for example multilingual environments like Montreal pose a separate challenge. In Europe this applies to Malta and possibly other places like Switzerland or Belgium.
This can be a source of peer pressure. If you persevere, you can find speakers of practically any language in seemingly monolingual places, and of course there's also Skype, bookdepository etc. Uncommon languages are valuable on the job market too. When choosing a strategy, your individual situation is more important than the overall tendency in your community/country.
Possible outcomes of learning two languages at onceEdit
- Good level of both languages, the ideal outcome.
- Good level in one but the other got put aside on the way or just doesn't stick
- Progress in both languages but far from the desired level you could have gotten had you chosen one
- Less progress in both and/or abandonment of the whole project due to burnout or because choosing two languages was just a sign of an underlying wanderlust trouble.
Resisting the urgeEdit
You may realize that the time isn't right to start a new language, but you still need a refreshing experience. Consider the following options:
- Dabbling, especially in obscure languages. Stay away from languages you've already covered the basics of, or you'll likely be tempted to restart them.
- Travel to a multilingual area, or any place where they speak a language you don't know.
- Watch subtitled movies or listen to music in a completely unfamiliar language.
- For your existing languages, make some changes to your routine or focus on a different aspect, especially the regional varieties.
Notable HTLAL postsEdit
This section is for collecting some good posts on the subject. Feel free to suggest more here, including those written by you!
The usernames are given in the sub-sections' headlines.
- My theories of multi-language learning have changed significantly over the years. The first time I had to think about your specific questions was in 2005 when I dropped Thai to study Japanese. These were my 4th and 5th languages. Back then, I wasn’t really concerned about maintaining. I thought if I wanted to use my other languages again, I’d worry about it at that time. Didn’t think it would be good to study 2 languages, because of time concerns.
- A couple years later I went to Thailand, and was shocked at how bad my Thai was. Luckily, I had a long vacation, so I worked hard and got back close to where I was before by the end of it. After that, I decided to maintain my Thai.
- Then I became a believer of another theory regarding multi-language learning. I thought time on task was by far the most important factor. This was partially due to the fact that no matter how intensely I studied, things needed time to sink in. And partially due to this Foreign Service Institute's 50 Years of Lessons Learned article. And partially due to the fact that if I ignored a language for a while, after getting reacquainted, I would be even better. My theory was that as long as I got a minimal amount of steady exposure, my mind would sort things out, and I would reach high levels in my languages after several years without having to devote too much energy. It took a long time for me to realize that this was not true, mostly because the theory calls for many years for things to happen. Well, I finally found out they didn’t happen. As an aside, this is where I believe many of the multi-language learners on this forum are now.
- Next came my Learning in Spurts revelation. This got me actively learning all my languages for at least a few weeks out of the year. It was a big improvement, and although I’ve learned a lot since then, I still use it today. It was as much a lifestyle change as anything else.
- Then came a time of great soul searching. I really wanted to know more languages, but what I was doing currently just wouldn’t allow it. I was pretty certain many others had been stopped at the 5-10 language mark because of this time management issue. It’s very rare for someone to speak more than 10 languages at a high level, I noticed; even people making such claims on this forum are rare. After much experimenting, I came to the conclusion that B1/B2 requires 30 min/day to maintain my level. Then I realized my only C1 language, Spanish, wasn’t like that. I’ve never had to maintain it. I started asking around, and found that this was the consensus. So I now believe that if you want to learn many languages to a high level and keep them there, the most efficient path is to learn one at a time to C1/C2. After that, no more studying, just doing the things that you learned the languages for in the first place.
- Of course this doesn’t apply if your goal is merely to study, don’t care about your level, etc. But I would definitely advise learners to learn a language to C1/C2 before adding another. There are so many advantages, and so few disadvantages, of learning a single language over multiple languages.
- That being said, I haven’t dropped all my languages to focus on one. Even though I’m sure I’ve found the answer, I just have this fear of losing what I’ve gained. Right now I can converse very comfortably in 7 languages; it’s a great feeling just to surf shared talk and fool native speakers for a few minutes, and speak to other multi-learners in several languages. I had a brief period last summer where I had lots of free time and almost made a video. I told myself that I would drop 4 languages after that, and focus on Russian. But I chickened out. That has to change. Give me courage, mon.
- There will never be a consensus, because people, their goals and learning strategies are too different. There are those who focus on only one language, others who like to study 3-5 simultaneously, and quite a number of cases where people deal with about twenty languages, more or less at the same time, and with remarkable success. So we are speaking not only of moderate differences in learning styles, but sometimes these are of the scope of different dimensions altogether.
- Much depends on individual goals and where we are coming from. I am sitting here at my desk in the outskirts of some unremarkable town in Germany and haven't been really abroad for almost a decade. Most of the people around me don't even know that I am interested in foreign languages, nor would they care to know, so I better don't bother them.
- But if for some reason I would have to move to Spain or Mexico, my approach to languages would probably undergo some change. I love Spanish, and in that situation I would take every opportunity to live Spanish, breathe Spanish, and practice Spanish. I would also partake in the local culture, of which language is just one part. I guess that would divert me also from most of my bookish studies; maybe I would keep one language at a time as a balance, like French or Russian. It would be similar to what kujichagulia does right now.
- But since this is not the case and in the present phase of my life language learning is more of a desktop occupation and at best virtual interaction my priorities and my overall approach are different. This can always change, one never knows what the future will bring. In my present situation I find it more motivating to expose myself to a varied spectrum of languages and build the foundation in at least some of them. It is obvious that I will not reach an advanced level in any of them for many years to come, but I can always adjust and focus on just one if I want or need to.
- Another factor, and I see that this is a frequent potential source of mutual misunderstanding, is that here where I (and a lot of other posters) live people usually have to deal with several languages already in school and become more or less proficient in one, usually English, sometimes also either French or Spanish, at a relatively young age. This is so in many countries. Learning 2, 3 or 4 languages, even at the same time, is not deemed out-of-the-way at all, nor considered a feat. It is pretty normal and part of the school curriculum, so people are used to it if they still care about languages later on. Of course there are bad students and good students, but as with Maths, Physics, Biology and Chemistry they are just treated like entirely different subjects and don't get in the way of each other.
- As for me, I agree with Iversen who once wrote that studying languages simultaneously is not that much a problem of mixing them up, but of time and focus. Either 1, 2 or 3 languages at a time are manageable, but beyond that it becomes increasingly difficult to organize them and your progress in each of them will be slowed down considerably. But then again, it depends on your capability and goals.
External blog postsEdit
- ActualFluency.com - links to several blog posts
- Juggling multiple languages - advice from HTLAL member BaronBill
- Feel free to add your own posts here, but please don't use this for promoting your blog/site.
Below you can find a list of forum members that contributed to this article, mostly via this thread. Their posts might provide an additional insight.
- Serpent, emk, Cavesa, Kronos, leosmith