There are so many languages and so little time to learn them. How many languages can you learn at once?
Stacking languages on top of each other isn’t easy, but with the right strategy it’s definitely possible and even has benefits over learning one at a time.
Table of Contents
- How the brain manages multiple languages
- Benefits of learning two languages at once
- Challenges of learning two languages at once
- Tips for learning two languages at once
- So…can you learn two languages at once?
How the brain manages multiple languages
Not only are there several known benefits of being bilingual, but the human brain wasn’t designed for only one language. In many countries, bilingualism is the norm. Even within the country, there are plenty of people who grow up in bilingual households or speaking a different language at home than they do outside the home.
But how does the brain keep it all straight?
Associations between words and ideas
When you first learn a new language, a word is connected to the word in your native language and not to the idea itself. Over time, your brain will learn to connect the idea itself to the word in your new language and you won’t have to think through everything you say in your native language first before you say it in your new language.
Associations Between Languages
The brain doesn’t store different languages in different parts, though it may feel that way when you switch into a different mode. All of the words and phrases you know, regardless of which language, are stored in the same region of the brain. This means your brain will make connections between words that sound alike and/or have similar meanings.
Benefits of learning two languages at once
Learning a foreign language has plenty of benefits. But did you know that the benefits increase when you learn even more?
Each foreign language you learn gets easier
Studies have shown that learning a third language is easier than learning a second one because, well, you already know how to learn a language. You have a better understanding of the building blocks that all languages have in common and you know which learning tools and strategies work for you and which ones don’t.
Learning a language also builds your memory and mental capacity, so you’ll be working with a head start. And, of course, if you’ve learned a language before you can go into it with the confidence that you can do it again. Learning two languages at once but starting one earlier than the other can speed up the process.
Better understanding of the languages you already know
Learning a third language can also make you better at your second language. While you’re learning a third language, you’re also increasing your cognitive capacity and learning more about languages as a whole. Any concepts you learn in one language can become a transferable skill to the other.
Though maintaining proficiency in a language takes work, you never forget what you learn altogether. Learning another language can help keep that part of your brain active.
The thought of waiting until you master one language to start another may not sound appealing if you have a strong desire to learn both. The knowledge of how languages work that you pick up from learning one can also allow you to skip some of the beginner stuff on the other.
At the beginning, you’ll need to keep your work on each language separate, but once you get a solid enough handle on each one you could save even more time by using one to practice the other.
Challenges of learning two languages at once
Of course, simultaneous language learning is not without its challenges. Some learners may decide these challenges are deal-breakers, but they are certainly manageable.
For most language learners, finding the time for two languages and managing it effectively is the biggest barrier. It’s better to work your language into your life than to rearrange your life around learning languages and to study when you are alert and productive. Finding those times with one language is one thing, but carving it out for two or more isn’t doable for everyone.
Learning languages isn’t a walk in the park. It takes a strong motivation to keep learning on your own. The more languages you stack on each other, the harder it gets to stay motivated. It’s rare, if not impossible, to be equally interested in two languages. Even if you start out with an equal desire to learn both, it’s likely that you’ll connect with one more than the other. Articulate a clear motivation for each language and build your language goals around it.
Getting mixed up
The way the brain stores languages is great for making connections, but it can also lead to mixing your signals. The best ways to fight that are to learn languages that don’t have a lot in common and to keep your study time separate until you have a solid grasp on the grammar of each one.
It’s extra hard if you don’t have previous foreign language experience
Learning two languages at the same time takes more time, effort, and discipline than learning one at a time. If you’re going into it as a monolingual person, chances are you’re going to have a harder time than someone who is already bilingual. Figuring out what works and doesn’t work for your language learning takes a lot of trial and error, especially if you’re learning independently. If you don’t already know how to learn a language by yourself, it’s best to choose just one.
Tips for learning two languages at once
If you decide that simultaneous language learning is for you, follow these tips to set yourself up for success in both of your target languages.
Know your internal and external resources
Effective language learning requires the tools and resources that are right for you, including both internal and external resources. Some examples of internal resources for language learning include:
- Your cognitive skills and abilities
- Your motivations
- Any prior knowledge you have
- Transferable skills
Some examples of external resources for language learning include:
- The time you have
- Study tools you use (language learning websites, books, classes, et cetera)
- The community around you
- Classroom settings
So figuring out your tools is about more than which language learning app you want to use. It also means looking inward and assessing what you’re capable of.
Double your study time
For most people the challenge of learning two languages at once isn’t mixing the two up, but finding the time to dedicate to both. If you can, double your study time instead of splitting it in half. For example, if you spend half an hour a day on Spanish and also decide to learn German, it’s better to also spend half an hour on German than to spend 15 minutes on Spanish and 15 minutes on German.
Choose a good combination
Though learning two languages at the same time is often a good idea, not all language pairings are created equal. If you choose two languages that are too similar, like Spanish and French, you might get them mixed up. If you choose two that have little in common, like Spanish and Korean, you won’t be able to benefit from as much transferable knowledge.
Stagger your start times
It’s a good idea to start your languages at different times, especially if you don’t have previous foreign language experience. Start with the easier one, then once you know the basic grammar and vocabulary, get started on another one.
Get in the zone
To keep yourself from getting confused, go into separate “modes” for each of your target languages. This could mean longer sessions or other immersion tactics. Assigning each one a different time and location for studying can also make a difference in separating them and creating different associations with each language. Especially early on in your journey, compartmentalizing is important.
Eventually practice them together
This may not be a great idea for beginners, but once you’re feeling some confidence in both of your target languages, you can start using one to practice the other. You could do this with flashcards that have the word in both languages. Or you could start a language learning app course from language A to language B if it’s available. Doing these without using your native language at all doesn’t just save time. It strengthens your associations between languages.
So…can you learn two languages at once?
Learning two languages at the same time can be smart, but it’s not a good idea for everyone. You can probably make it work if you have prior language learning experience, enough time to work on both in different sessions, and a strong motivation to learn.
For the best results use tools that work well for you, choose a pair that aren’t too similar to each other, start one earlier and add another later, and work towards using one to practice the other.
– Luca Harsh is a Chicago-based freelance content writer. They speak a lot of French and a little of whatever language they’re currently trying out on an app.