Juggling Multiple Languages – Some practical advice

 I get a lot of questions about learning multiple languages.  Should I do it?  How do I manage the time?  What about interference?  And so on.  So, I figure that today would be as good a day as any to answer as many of those questions as I can.

Disclaimer:  All of the opinions expressed in this post are the OPINIONS of Bill Price and not of anyone else, real or imagined.  Any similarity to anyone else’s opinions is purely coincidental (and kind of cool).

Should I learn multiple languages at the same time?

Why not?  Will it be easy?  No, but nothing worth doing is ever very easy, right?  I am currently studying Mandarin and Spanish while maintaining (and maybe improving) my conversational German.  I don’t always devote equal time to each language, but I am always devoting SOME, which is the key.

Some tips:

TIP #1:  Don’t start more than one language from scratch at the same time.

Can it be done?  Yes, but I don’t recommend it.  The beginning stage of learning a language from scratch is simultaneously the most captivating, motivating, and frustrating stage you will ever encounter.  It’s captivating because it’s new and shiny and everything you learn is just so interesting.  It’s motivating because you feel like you are learning so much in those first few weeks (or months).  But it’s frustrating because you also are starting to see how much you DON’T know and how high the “hill” to fluency is.

So, why not more than one from scratch at a time?  Here’s my biggest issue:  Overlap and interference.  Why?  Because you are learning basically the same things in the beginning of any language.  “Hello”, “how are you?”, “my name is Bill”, I live in the United States”, “where is the bathroom?”, etc…  I personally find it very difficult (an honestly, very boring) to learn the same things in different languages at the same time.  My preference is to be at different stages of proficiency in all of my languages while I’m actively learning/studying them.

So, how do I know when it’s ok to start a new language?  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).  Once a language hits B2/C1, it doesn’t factor into the language “learning” equation and goes into my maintain mode (native books, movies, TV shows, etc).

TIP #2:  Choose wisely to avoid interference.
Obviously some languages are more closely related to others.  French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, for example.  All are “romance languages” and share a large amount of grammar and vocabulary.  I personally would hesitate to learn any two of these languages back to back or simultaneously.  For me, that would be begging for interference.  With languages like this, I would wait until I was a solid B2/C1 in one of them before starting another.  Again, just my opinion as I’ve seen many cases where people learn multiple languages at the same time from the same family with success.  I just know it doesn’t work for me.

Another reason I don’t learn languages from the same family at the same time is that I tend to get bored with the same old grammar structure and vocabulary.  I like to learn something new and exciting with most of my languages.  It helps keep me motivated.

TIP #3:  Make time and set goals for each language
This may seem obvious, but I’ve fallen into this trap myself by not planning my time well enough.  If you intend to study more than one language at a time, you need to make SOME time for each language.  Missing a few days or weeks really sets you back and makes all of the time you DID put in count for less.

The best way for me personally to keep myself focused on multiple languages is to set measurable and achievable short term goals in each language.  Even something as simple as “review 20 flashcards per day” or “complete one Assimil lesson per day” is enough to keep me moving.  20 flashcards?  I can do that!  At least it’s something every day, right?  You can always do more; just don’t let yourself do less.

TIP #4:  Don’t be so inflexible (The anti-#3)
You will end up preferring certain languages over certain other ones.  It WILL happen.  You will plan to devote one hour every day to each of 3 languages.  You will then try to stick to that schedule, but you will find yourself drawn to one particular language over the others and you will stretch that language’s time each day and find reasons to cut one or both of the other languages’ time just a little bit…  nobody has to know, right?  But you start to feel guilty and force yourself to pay more attention to the neglected while your heart yearns for another.  I’m here to tell you that you don’t HAVE to live like that.

Be flexible.  As long as you are doing something in each language you are learning, it’s ok.  You want to pound out a marathon 3 hour session of Mandarin?  Fine.  Just review your 20 flashcards for Spanish and call it a day.  You did SOMETHING.  That is good.  Maybe next week, you’ll want to spend the day reading Spanish and your one interaction with Mandarin will be listening to a song while following along with the lyrics for 10 minutes.  SOMETHING.

Basically, I’m saying that scheduling is good but flexibility is better in the long run.   Listen to your whims (at least somewhat).  Don’t schedule your languages like you schedule your dentist appointments.  Allow some room for fun and you’ll see the benefits.

TIP #5:  Don’t be afraid to give up a language for the greater good.
I’m not advocating a quitter’s mentality here, but if a language stops being fun and becomes a job (unless it actually IS your job, in which case ignore this tip), don’t be afraid to dump it.  Language learning is hard enough without making it a chore.  Language learning should be fun.  If it isn’t fun, find a way to make it fun.  If you can’t find a way then maybe you’re working on the wrong language.

I know it can be torture to turn your back on a language that you have put time and energy into and hopefully you figure out the right language for you before you’ve gone too deep, but for me life is too short to spend my hard earned free time on something that I don’t love doing.  If I want to be stressed out and miserable, I’ll just go to my real job.  There’s plenty of misery there to go around.

A Typical Day of Language Juggling

So, what is a typical day like for me with 3 languages?  I’m glad you asked!  Below I will outline my language activities on a normal average work day.  In fact it is a true to life record of my day yesterday:

7:30-8:00am – Drive to work – Listen to “Learn in Your Car Mandarin Chinese” lessons 4-6

8:30-12:00pm – Working while listening to German talk radio on my headphones off and on.

12:00-12:30pm – Lunch break – Listen to “Pimsleur Mandarin I lesson 11”

12:30-1:00pm – Remainder of lunch break-  Slow “ANKI” Spanish review of 60 cards

1:00-5:00pm – Working while listening to German music in headphones off and on.

5:00-5:30pm – Drive home – Listen to “Pimsleur Mandarin I lesson 11 again”

5:30- 7:00pm – Cook dinner, hang out with the family, help kids with homework

7:00-8:00pm – Skype Mandarin lesson with my favorite Chinese tutor from Italki.com

8:00-9:00pm – More family time

9:00-10:30pm – Organizing my Mandarin notes, chatting with some friends in German, Mandarin, and French on Skype and reviewing my Spanish notebook.

10:30pm – Bedtime.

This is a pretty average day for me during the week.  Weekends may have less language activities or way more depending on the weekend.  As you can see, I touched all of my languages at least once and I wasn’t afraid to devote more time to Chinese because that’s what excites me the most these days.

What’s a typical day look like for you?  Do you have any advice for studying multiple languages at once?  Let me know in the comments!  Thanks for reading.