Should You Learn More Than One Language At Once?
Should you learn two languages at the same time? Well, do you really want to? If your answer is yes, then you probably should.
Great, that’s settled then. Bye…
Ok, for real now.
The decision to learn two or more languages at the same time is a personal one and depends on a number of factors like your goals, personality, learning style, schedule and other commitments.
Personally, I do not like to divide my attention across multiple languages. While I like to dabble a bit here and there, I have been focusing solely on Mandarin Chinese for the past few years.
This is mainly because of a personality quirk; I tend to become hyper-focused (some would say obsessed) when I find something I love. I am finally ready to move on to Korean since I feel my Mandarin is strong enough to withstand a bit of competition.
Many polyglots also suggest building a solid foundation in one language before moving on to the next.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t learn two languages at once.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself when considering tackling more than one language at the same time.
Is it required?
First, let’s get the super obvious one out of the way.
If for some reason you are required to learn two languages at the same time, there’s not very much to debate here. For example, I had to take two languages at first-year level in order to fulfill the requirements for my under-graduate course. I chose English as my major and isiXhosa as an elective. In hindsight, I should have used this opportunity to explore another European language, but I was lazy.
Do what you must to meet the requirements and use it as an opportunity to ‘test drive’ these different languages. Once you graduate, you’ll have the freedom to choose what you want to focus on.
Do you have experience in learning a new language?
In order to effectively learn a new language, you’re going to need some study skills and strategies up your sleeve. As a newbie language learner, a lot of effort is spent on learning how to learn a language. Through trial and error, you’ll find out exactly what works, and what doesn’t, for you.
If you don’t have the inclination to slowly figure it out on your own, there are some courses you can take that will help you understand how languages are learned. You can take a look at this one from Udemy.
Attempting to learn two languages at the same time when you do not have these tools in place will likely be a challenge. The good news is that once you have mastered some language learning techniques it becomes easier to pick up new languages, because you’re not starting from scratch.
If you are completely new to language learning, try picking one at first and living with it for a few months. Once you have settled on an approach that you feel comfortable with, you can move on to the next.
What are your goals?
Your decision to take on two or more languages will depend a lot on what you are looking to get out of your language studies. If your goal is to have some basic communication abilities for travel or to satisfy a personal interest, then I see no problem with dabbling in more than one language.
However, if your aim is to truly master a language to a high level of proficiency, focused study will get you there faster. If there is some sense of urgency attached to the goal, like perhaps you need to reach a certain standard to enter a university course or a job, it’s better to channel your energy in one direction.
Know if you decide to split your attention, your progress in both languages will be halved.
How are your time-management skills?
I know, we’re all short on time. And time, along with a bit of elbow grease, is what it takes to learn a new language successfully. If you’re not the type of person who likes to plan and stick to a schedule, you might find it harder to maintain steady progress in two different languages.
If your schedule is already packed with all sorts of commitments, consider if you are taking on too much. Language learning should be enjoyable, not yet another thing to feel guilty about. Burn-out is a real and terrible thing. Respect your limits and look after yourself.
Are the languages closely related?
The general consensus within the language learning community seems to be that it’s easier to learn two languages from different linguistic families at the same time (like say Mandarin and Spanish) than it is to learn two similar or mutually intelligible languages. This is because there is a higher chance of confusing similar languages, preventing you from building a solid foundation in either.
That being said, everyone is different and you may find learning similar languages actually speeds up your acquisition in both.
Have you learned one of the languages before?
If you are looking to revive a language that you have already studied in the past, it could be easier to get back into the swing of things and, by extension, easier to maintain alongside another language.
You may feel like you have forgotten everything, but your brain is a very powerful machine that likes to file information neatly for later retrieval. Your skills will probably be a bit rusty, but it is not the same as starting from square one with two completely new languages.
Of course, this will depend on how well you learned the language in the first place. If you only learned a few survival phrases, this strategy may not give you a significant head start.
Do you have a distinct preference?
Sometimes you are going to find yourself favouring one language over the other.
When I was deciding on my next language after Mandarin, Dutch and Korean made the shortlist.
Once I started to explore some elementary resources in these languages, it quickly became obvious to me that I was more drawn to Korean. Dutch would be a quick win for me since I already speak Afrikaans, but it simply didn’t spark my interest as much as Korean did.
I will continue to dabble in Dutch, but it won’t be my main focus.
Sometimes it’s ok to abandon one language for another if you find you’re clicking more with one. There’s no law that says you can’t come back to the other language.
If you’d like to continue with both, you can do what I do and make your preferred language your priority.
So, what’s the verdict?
You may have guessed it from my intro, but my stance on the matter is that you must do whatever makes sense to you. Don’t let me or anyone else dampen your enthusiasm for language learning.
If you are ready to take on the challenge and happy to accept that your progress in both languages will be a bit slower, I say go for it!