Should You Learn Two Languages At The Same Time?
Learning two languages seems to be a popular topic among the language learners of the internet.
One of the communities that seems to do this the most are those that use Duolingo, as it’s easy to learn the basics of loads of new languages and show off your score to other uses.
I think the answer to the question “Should I learn two languages at the same time?” is a hard one.
If you really want to learn two languages at the same time then you can definitely do it.
Just know this.
It’s incredibly difficult.
I hate to be pessimistic but one language already takes tens of thousands of hours to reach fluency and that’s without the complications that arise when adding another language to the mix.
If you are going to give it a shot though then you are going to need to fully understand what you are up against.
You need to know how learning multiply languages at a time has an affect on all your languages, and what you can do to reduce these affects, while still keeping your sanity.
If you really want to be successful then take it slowly.
You will have a much easier time learning languages sequentially, one after the other, than you would at the same time.
Learning two languages at the same time in haste will most likely kick you in the butt, and may even cause you to quit.
Learning one language at a time may seem like it’s slower but in the end you will save yourself time, find the process easier and you will get better results.
You could master 1 language in 5 years and another in the following 5 years resulting in 10 years total study time to reach mastery in both languages.
On the other hand you can attempt learning two at the same time, but you aren’t really learning them at the same time.
You can’t actually learn two languages at the same time, you can’t read Japanese and German at the same time.
Your brain is gonna have a hard time listening to French and Korean at the same time.
What we are really saying here is “I will spend 1 day/hour/minute learning [language A] then 1 day/hour/minute learning [language B] until I reach mastery in both languages.”
Now, both options appear to get you to mastery in 2 languages after the same amount of time, the first option being slightly more favourable by getting you to mastery in 1 language slightly earlier.
Not only is learning languages sequentially a better idea, learning them at the same time comes with many complications, causing you to put even more time and effort into learning your languages.
Learning them at the same time will take longer.
However, I am not saying that it’s impossible.
If you want to challenge yourself then go for it!
The Disadvantages of Learning Two Languages at The Same Time
Olly Richards from I Will Teach You a Language wrote an article about learning two languages before, giving some great insight on this topic and I have to say, I agree with everything he has to say 100%, so go check out that article too.
He says that attempting to learn more than one language at a time will have a huge effect on the following aspects:
- Depth of focus
- Developing a persona
And it’s true.
All these items are interlinked with each other, affecting each other as well.
They are essential to becoming fluent in any second language and each of them will be affected when learning multiply languages at a time.
There’s nothing to say that you can’t be successful in both your languages though. That’s what this blog post is for, to give you an insight into the challenges you will face and just how to overcome them.
Affects on Depth of Focus
Depth of focus is essentially “how much you can pay attention to the language”.
You will have less time to notice patterns, grammar and vocabulary in both languages.
This becomes an issue as the most effective way our brains remember a piece of information takes on a certain pattern called spaced repetition.
When we learn a new piece of information we can actually only remember it for seconds to minutes, in short term memory, before forgetting it. Our brains are super efficient and like to “delete” anything they consider useless (e.g. anything that’s uncommon).
This is really annoying for us language learners who want to get as much vocab into long term memory as possible.
Now we know the issue though, we can start looking into how to counter act it.
First, let’s look at how information reaches long term memory.
If we are reminded of that same piece of information again after 1 minute, just before we are about to forget it, then it will stick in our memory for a bit longer, this time maybe 10 minutes. If we are reminded of the piece of information, and it then enters our head again just before 10 minutes is up, we will then remember it for even longer, e.g. 1 full day. If we repeat this process then it might look something like this:
1 minute -> 10 minutes -> 1 day -> 4 days -> 10 days -> 25 days -> 45 days (long term memory)
This is one of the reasons why learning 1 language at a time via immersion is way more efficient than any other method, because everyday, every minute of the day, you are being bombard with the language. You create thousands of opportunities for your brain to remember thousands of new words a day, literally.
Why is this bad news for people wanting to learn two languages at the same time?
Splitting your attention between two or more languages will cause a reduction in the quality of your depth of focus, which is what allows you to learn quickly.
It essentially comes down to disrupting all the opportunities that would arise from recognising the same words and grammar over and over again.
Here’s an example:
Say you are learning Japanese and Spanish and you switch which language you immerse in each day.
Say you learn the word 委託 on day 1.
You then see it again 10 minutes later and have it remembered in short term memory for around 24 hours.
Day 2 arrives and you switch to Spanish immersion.
You hear nothing but Spanish speakers and see nothing but Spanish text.
It comes to the time where you are about to forget 委託, and unfortunately, because you have had absolutely 0 exposure to Japanese, you aren’t reminded of its existence and completely forget it.
If you want to learn it again, you will have to entirely re-learn it.
Your brain now considers it useless information, and has just wiped it from memory.
It’s natural for this to happen with rarer words anyway, which is why Anki is amazing, but doubling the effect makes it a lot harder for you.
Without the depth of focus that comes naturally when immersing in a language, one must focus harder at listening and reading to get better quality, focused, active learning over the easy passive learning that comes from immersion. This equates to more effort, stress and time.
Compared to sequentially learning languages, you are having to forget more often, meaning more time spent learning, which means it’ll take longer to reach fluency.
The Affect on Routine – Time Management is Key
Building habits and having a regular routine is the main path to success in language learning.
If you build up a daily routine and stick with it, you will create an incredibly powerful habit.
The thing with habits is that your body remembers them, they are like muscle memory.
Even if you don’t feel like learning Japanese today, because you have that habit ingrained into you, your body automatically moves towards Japanese.
You literally can’t help yourself anymore, you will be in a state where you have no choice but to learn the language.
When you have a consistent routine like this, you will never have any issues and you will easily pick up the language.
When it comes to a routine that is very chock-a-block, or non-existent, your going to have a really hard time. Stress will be through the roof and trust me on this, one of the languages (if not both) will go out of the window.
One of the main things that Dr. Stephen Krashen has to say is that emotions play an important role when learning a language, namely that negative emotions including stress, fear, anxiety etc, can entirely block language acquisition.
Tip: Focus on reducing negative emotions and aim to build a daily routine that you can stick to with ease.
The Affect on Your Willpower and Motivation
Willpower is a must have when learning a language, especially at the beginner and intermediate stages.
During the process of learning a language you will find that each day your motivation and willpower can change drastically.
Not only this but there tends to be set periods where nearly everybody feels the exact same way about their progress.
For example, most beginners tend to have a lot of confidence. They just decided on a new goal and for the first few weeks or months they will put a lot of effort into it.
The intermediate stage. You are now able to read a lot of sentences and small paragraphs.
Most people will at some point have a dip at this stage.
The intermediate stage is a long stage. It’s very hard to see your progress during this stage. It doesn’t matter how many new words you learn, or how many J-Dramas you watch, it can seem like you are fighting a constant up hill battle.
Then you will suddenly realise just how big the language you are learning is. It’s not just a hill, its freaking Mt. Everest!
This is a dangerous stage and chucking another language in the mix will make this worse.
I can remember having this moment with Japanese.
I had learnt to read a Japanese only dictionary (that’s right, no English) and was using it along with flashcards to learn new words in the context of sentences.
I had been doing this for 3 to 4 months and started to wonder just how much longer it was going to take for me to “get good”.
I went through about a week or two of blaming myself, the language, the method etc etc. But instead of giving up, I decided to study harder to get through this stage. Whether this was a good thing or not is hard to tell, but focusing on my goals got me through it, then I went back to enjoying studying and immersion like usual.
At the advanced stage you will find that you won’t need motivation or willpower. The whole thing has become a habit and you can’t stop learning even if you wanted to. That’s not to say that you won’t have bad days, weeks or maybe months, but you will inevitably keep going.
While studying two languages, if and when you do lose your willpower, at whatever stage it might be, the effort it takes to get back into your immersion environment, or studying your Anki flashcards, becomes twice as hard.
You may even find yourself putting less effort into one language, focusing instead on the other, which will defeat the point of you wanting to learn two languages in the first place.
If this happens you will end up blaming yourself and lose your willpower entirely, eventually not wanting to do anything in either languages.
Tip: Knowing that you have to keep going is essential. The moment you stop is the moment you quit Japanese.
The Affect on Immersion
You don’t know a language, you live it. You don’t learn a language, you get used to it. – Khatzumoto From All Japanese All The Time
You can probably already tell where this is going.
Immersion doesn’t mean switching between two languages.
It means staying, immersed, in 1 and only 1 “substance” (this being your language of choice) until you have reached a comfortable level where you can swim and come up for air (fluency).
Life is short and learning a language takes a lot of time.
Most people say that it takes over 10,000 hours and based on my experience I would say it takes even more to really perfect it. I’ve spent more than 10,000 hours immersed in Japanese and I am no where near perfection.
Allow me to give you some perspective:
At 1 hour a day that’s over 27 years.
At 20 hours a day that’s just about 18 months.
However, as we know that immersion works due to the spaced repetition effect that I mentioned earlier, the 20 hours a day option is actually so much better than the 1 hour a day option.
I would edge a bet that the guy who learnt Japanese in 3 years is going to be 100 times better than the guy who took 30.
The more time you can put into listening and reading the language, without gaps, the faster you will acquire it as your brain has more opportunities to notice patterns.
If you have two languages on the go then immersing in either of them becomes less effective.
You quite simply can’t fully immerse, 24/7, in two or more languages at once.
Unfortunately there is no fix for this.
Tip: Immersion is really the only way to reach high levels of fluency in a language, so put more time into one language than the other and make the process a little faster.
The Affect on Your Japanese-Self
When you get to the higher levels of a language, through tonnes of listening, and a bit of speaking, you will start to develop a personality in the language, separate from your current personality.
This may sound a bit wacko but seriously, it’s a thing.
Not only do you pick up the language itself but you pick up the culture, body language, accent and the countries’ “way of doing things”, which are all very important in any language.
Perfecting these traits, I believe, is what leads to the proficiency and mastery levels of a language, eventually allowing you to fool natives into thinking your a native speaker.
One of the biggest things in this stage is the culture of which that language has been born from. Or the language that has been born from that culture, which ever way you want to think about it.
Language is born from the people and culture of that country and is thus molded by them.
This means that language learners are not just learning a language. They are learning to understand the “way of life” of a different group of people.
I would go as far as to say that if you can’t understand the “Japanese way of doing things” then even if you can speak it better than a native, you can’t actually speak Japanese.
Bit of a bold statement, I know, but here me out…
This essentially comes down to fully understanding the other countries’ culture.
Now you maybe asking, why is this a big issue? Surely I don’t need to go THAT deep!
Well, let’s take Japan as an example.
Japan seems to be one of the few countries where collectivism plays a massive role in society. This idea that you focus more about the other people in your group than you do about yourself. If you’ve never heard about it, Dave Trippin did a good video about it which you can find below.
This isn’t just about accents or body language – this carries across to the very language itself – which is why it is vital to understand.
If a westerner has a problem with someone about something, they will just outright say it, as to them that’s the quickest way to getting to the solution.
In the case of a Japanese person, they are more likely to take a longer route. They will phrase their speech in such a way that gives hints to the other person. This way the other person will realise that they have a problem. Or they just won’t say anything at all…
This is all to prevent hurting the other person’s feelings.
Instead of “I want ice cream.”
It’s, “There’s a slight possible chance that I feel like having some ice cream.”
See the difference?
This general way of thinking in Japan is literally the complete opposite to what it’s like here in the western world. Without understanding that, and thus not letting it affect the way you speak, you won’t ever be great at speaking Japanese.
Now that we’ve established that developing a persona in Japanese is incredibly important, what affect would learning another language have on your “Japanese-self”?
A persona is developed from the sheer time spent immersing in the language. As discussed in the previous sections, this will take a blow, causing the development of your “Japanese-self” to drastically slow down as well.
In the worst case scenario you could never develop that “persona” at all. To be honest some people may prefer that, but you will always be an outcast to Japanese people, if that is the case.
If it’s another language then this may not be such a problem, especially if they have similar mindsets to the country that you are from.
However, I still believe that this is an incredibly important part of reaching those higher levels and affecting the growth of your personality in the target language is just going to make it take longer for you to finally get used to the language, the culture and the country.
Tip: Use native material that is about their own culture to get a better understanding of the country and people, quicker.
What the Polyglots have to say
Let’s take a look at two pretty famous “polyglots”, Steve Kaufmann and Benny Lewis.
There is something interesting about what both Benny Lewis and Steve Kaufmann have to say on this topic.
For a start, both of them agree with me that this idea of learning two languages at the same time is incredibly hard, yet they both seem to do it themselves, even if they say that they don’t…
Well, they do it on a different scale. Usually they will focus on one language, reach a goal they have set, then move on to the next while maintaining their old languages. Something that is a massive issue with foreign languages is that if you don’t refresh and review your languages then you will lose them and all your work will go to waste.
From my point of view this is the same as learning multiple languages, the main reason being is that no matter how good you get, language learning never ends. There is always something new to learn.
In both cases they have learnt so many languages that they are always having to keep on top of them so they don’t forget them.
Whenever they are learning a language they aren’t just learning that language. They will be learning/reviewing languages that they already know to a certain degree as well. If they haven’t learnt these languages to fluency then they might as well be learning two or more languages at the same time, right?
Either way, you can see how having to maintain a language alone takes up a lot of time.
Now, we are talking about two hyper polyglots here so the affects may not be quite as bad on someone learning 2 languages, but you can see how the depth of which you are able to learn each language will decrease with each language you add into the mix.
For reference, their two blog posts on this topic can be found here:
Steve also has a book on language learning which you can find here on Amazon.
Neither of them are close to native fluency in all their languages, they are of course in some, and that’s simply put down to learning too many. They’ve spread themselves across 10’s of languages instead of focusing on one or two languages.
And that’s perfectly okay if that’s what your goals are.
Tip: The more languages you learn, the more maintenance you have to do. To reduce any maintenance, attempt to reach a high level of fluency (near-native) before moving on and learning a new language.
Here’s How I Would Learn Two Languages at The Same Time
Learning two languages at the same time requires a different strategy than what you would use when learning just one language.
Attempting to learning two languages the same way as you would when learning one language is going to drive you insane (worst case scenario, you give up both languages and regret it for the rest of your life).
When learning any language, there are 3 main things that will lead to your success.
These 3 key points are:
- Believing In Your Success
- Daily Action — Listening, Reading and Study
- Internalize 10,000 Native Sentences
Learning two languages at once is going to be near impossible unless you tell yourself that you will succeed. If you can do that, and commit yourself to this challenge, then there is nothing stopping you from doing it.
I also do highly recommend that you learn 10,000 native sentences with your SRS flashcards as this will allow you to easily internalize the grammar of the language.
If you are a complete beginner to Anki and making sentence flashcards then you can also find a post and a video tutorial on making sentence flashcards here: How to Make SRS Sentence Flashcards Quickly and Efficiently
Japanese version: 効率的にフラッシュカードを作る方法
I also have a post on how to turn your favourite TV shows and films into Anki flashcards: How to get Thousands of Contextual Sentences for Learning Languages (Sentence Banks)
Create Clear, Achievable Mini Goals as well as Long Term Goals
I picked up a copy of お金を稼ぐ人は何を学んでいるのか？ by 稲村徹也 (What people who earn money are learning by Inamura Tetsuya, you can get it here on Amazon) while in Japan, and let me tell you, it is one great read if you are looking to succeed at just about anything.
明確な目標を誓う。Rough translation: “Create clear goals and swear by them.”
The reason he says this is because of the words of Tony Robbins, who says that “thinking about” and “swearing by” your goals are completely different things. 「思うのと誓うのでは決定的な違いがある」
When you vow to yourself that you will succeed in reaching a goal, suddenly it is very hard to remove the idea of reaching said goal from your head. You will start imagining what it’s like to speak two new languages and thus your way of thinking begins to change to push you towards reaching that goal.
On page 38 Inamura talks about a survey that Mark Mccormack did with his students. He asked his students, “write down a clear goal about your future and along with it, can you create a plan to allow you to reach that goal?”
The outcome of this survey is as follows:
- 3% wrote down their goal and their plan
- 13% said they had a goal but didn’t write it down
- 84% didn’t have a goal
Then, 10 years later Mark tracked down the students that took this survey and gathered information about their yearly incomes.
This was the result:
The average yearly income of the students in group 3, multiplied by 2, equated to the same as the average yearly income of the 2nd group of students.
On top of that, after adding the average yearly income of both groups 2 and 3 together and multiplying it by 10, you ended with the average yearly income of the students in group 1.
That’s pretty crazy stuff if you ask me and it just goes to show that creating clear, achievable goals is incredibly important.
But remember, just thinking about them alone though will not get you anywhere. Start by swearing to yourself that you will complete them and you will be well on your way to fluency in both your languages.
As mentioned before, believing that you can do this is a major part of whether you will actually be successful or not, however, there will still be moments along the way where you will doubt yourself and question that what you are doing.
This is why I recommend not only implementing long term goals, but also short term goals.
Of course, we still need the long term goals but as they are not as testable as mini goals can be, they can often by quite useless in motivating us and can sometimes be rather daunting.
Mini goals, such as the ones I mentioned in my post: Language Learning Goals Template, are great for putting off that sense of doubting yourself. They give you real feedback, making you more motivated and less likely to jump of the bandwagon.
These mini goals will then in turn make way for the longer term goals and make them seem like less work. In most cases you will reach your long term goals without even realising it.
Focus on the language you want the most
Sure, learn two languages at the same time but try and put more effort into one over the other. I would recommend something like 80/20 or 70/30.
This is much better than trying to give 50% of your time to one language and 50% to the other.
The main reason for doing this is because even if you are absolutely certain that you will succeed in learning both your languages, you can be rest assured that you will definitely make a lot of progress in at least one of them.
You will therefore be less likely to drop both languages when the going gets tough.
If you don’t have a preference then focus on the hardest of the two languages.
This is just so that you progress at the same rate in both languages. If the second language is easier then you can pick it up with less hours than you would need for your primary language.
You can therefore focus most of your time on the harder language and then finish of the easier language quickly once you have got to a decent level of fluency in your main language.
Giving one language the priority also prevents a tonne of confusion between languages and helps you internalize the primary language easier, especially if you are studying two languages that are very similar to each other.
Then all you have to do once you have reached a high level of fluency in the primary language is simply switch the ratio and put your secondary language first instead.
You will find this to be really beneficial as once you reach this point you should just be breaking into the intermediate stage in what was your secondary language, so you will be ripe for immersing in it.
Providing you realise that you are actually making progress in your secondary language this should be perfectly fine.
Just know that even if you are spending less than a few hours a day on this language, over time this adds up and will be helpful when you finally switch them over.
Yes, doing this may not seem like you are becoming insanely fluent in both your languages but doing that is nigh impossible.
Don’t pick up other languages either. 1 is hard, 2 is insane, 3 is just ridiculous. Try and steer away from content from other countries. Don’t start watching Korean dramas when you are already trying to learn 2 languages because you could end up wanting to learn Korean too, and believe me, that would be a nightmare.
Unless you otherwise want to, focus on 1 or 2 languages and get them to a near native level. Don’t try and learn every language under the sun and not make any progress.
Create a Daily Routine, Stick to it and Optimize Your Time With the Help of Time-Boxing
If you do decide to learn two languages “at the same time”, create an easy to stick to daily routine.
Your time management skills are going to be tested so you really need to plan how much time you are going to spend on each language per day.
Make a daily plan to prevent the forgetting of words in both languages and accept that learning two languages is going to be a much greater challenge than learning a single language.
The whole process is going to take longer. Learning two languages at the same time is going to be more than twice as hard as learning one. This is something you will just have to accept.
You can, however, research and implement techniques to make yourself more efficient in your daily life. One of the best techniques I suggest implementing is time boxing and the pomodoro technique. Hacking Chinese has a great post on time boxing which can be found here, but to summarize, it’s a trick that gets you to cram as much work as possible into a certain time frame.
Essentially, us humans are incredible inefficient, especially when we have lots of time on our hands. If you think about it you will realise that this is very much the case.
Take students for example.
If they are given 2 months to complete an assignment that could take 4 hours, do you see them submitting it the next day? Of course not! Everyone waits until a few days before the deadline before even starting. Which is equally as crazy!
Having lots of time usually causes procrastination due to people being overly optimistic about their ability to get a task completed, meaning that they slack off and feel like they can do a task whenever they feel like it.
But why is it that students also do this for bigger projects and somehow manage to complete an assignment that should take a week, in less than a day?
None of them are aware of it but the answer is time boxing.
Essentially, the pressure of running against the clock forces them into full concentration mode and allows them to finish the assignment in what seems like a flash.
Okay, you sold me, how can I use time boxing to get more time?
What you do is you “box” your “time”, meaning that you give yourself a time period and use it as a goal to get the task completed by. The goal has to be possible but also a little bit difficult and therefore make you feel good about completing it.
It’s essentially turning your everyday boring work into small segmented games by timing yourself against the clock.
The way I did, and still do, this with Japanese is that I set a timer for 10 minutes, and see how many Anki flashcard reviews I can do in that time-frame. Personally, anything after 10 minutes burns me out.
If your not sold yet, try it for a day or two and you will see how you can take 2 hours worth of studying down to an hour or less.
It has allowed me to dramatically reduce my study time for university and SRSing, giving me more time to write this blog, woo!
Try Not to Multi-task
I discussed this briefly before but research into multitasking has shown that doing two or more things at the same time is incredibly counter-productive.
Essentially what I am trying to say here is that watching Anime while doing a study session of Portuguese sentence Anki reviews doesn’t mean you are being more productive.
The best situation in this case is that you get some passive listening while studying Portuguese, which is perfectly fine, but if you are trying to actively listen to the Japanese while also studying Portuguese then you aren’t going to be as productive as might think.
You could try laddering into one of the other languages which is slightly different in the respect that you will be switching between the languages every couple of minutes. An example of laddering would be learning Japanese via Portuguese.
If your aiming for a fast outcome then learning two languages definitely isn’t the way to go. Only do it if you aren’t bothered about your progress or how quickly it takes.
When you learn two at the same time, even if you have 1 language prioritized, due to lack of focus put into either language you will find that you won’t be progressing as fast. You need to bare this in mind, otherwise the lack of progress will have a huge affect on motivation.
Steer clear of learning languages that are similar to each other
This is something that a lot of the language guru’s suggest. Whether there is any merit to it or not is hard to tell, but by looking at common sense we can tell that learning two similar languages can be harder due to similarities in grammar and vocabulary.
That means that for a Chinese person learning French and English, it could be quite difficult for them as they misuse similar words when speaking or writing either language at an early stage. The best solution for this is to not output early.
It wouldn’t be so bad if all the words just carried across, e.g. if spelling and pronunciation where exactly the same. If that was the case it would make it easier, but unfortunately this isn’t true.
You don’t want to speak Frenglish, it would be a mess.
So if you must learn two languages, go for the ones that you most want to learn, of course, but if you have a selection that you want to learn from, or are yet undecided, then go for languages that are geographically distant from each other.
1) Create solid, clear goals for the long term and short time future.
2) Believe in yourself and vow that you will succeed in completing your goals.
3) Choose languages that are different from each other.
4) Choose a maximum of 2 languages at a time. Three or more is just insane.
5) Take the hardest, or the language you want to learn the most, and make that your priority language.
6) Immerse in your priority language everyday and study your minority language everyday as well.
7) Aim to build a daily routine that you can stick to and that will help with reducing negative emotions.
8) The power to keep going no matter what is essential.
9) Learn about culture by listening and reading in the target language.
10) Try to reach a high level of fluency in your language(s) before moving on to the next. This will help reduce maintenance in any foreign languages you have learned as they will be fully internalized.
Language learning is not a race.
If you treat it like one then you are going to break a few legs on the journey.
You need time, quality work, mass input and a tonne of patience.
I recommend learning just one language at a time but you are your own man/woman.
Hopefully with this post you should be more aware of the affects that learning multiple languages has on your languages and how to overcome them.
Thanks for reading.