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Is it Possible to Learn Two Languages at the Same Time?

jason-oxenham-ceo August 31, 2016, 1:50 am
Maybe you've been studying German for years but are now required to study Spanish for an upcoming business trip to Mexico. Perhaps you're a college student with a minor in French but an interesting Arabic class has caught your eye. Or maybe you're simply impatient and would like to learn both Chinese and Japanese as quickly as possible because you're looking for a challenge.
Either way, you've been faced with an interesting situation: You want to learn two languages... at the same time.

Learning one language is hard enough, and the very idea of learning two languages at once is enough to make most language learning tremble. For the more adventurous, however, learning two languages at the same time sounds like the perfect way to satisfy their voracious language-learning appetite.

In this post, we'll look at whether or not it's really possible to learn two languages at the same time and, if so, the best way to do it.

Learning two languages at once

My French ESL students often ask me if I recommend that they take Spanish classes while taking English classes. Since their companies offer them classes in both languages for free, they want to know if it's possible for them to learn both Spanish and English at the same time.

My answer is always the same: Learning two languages at the same time is definitely possible, but it is not recommendable.

In general, learning two languages at once is a lot like needing to give two speeches on the same day: by practicing one, you're automatically taking away from your time to practice the other, and any similarities between the two can just be confusing.

In the end, you risk either giving one good speech and one bad speech or two mediocre speeches. If your goal is to give two excellent speeches, the best option is to focus on one at a time or start working on them both well in advance and with plenty of patience. The time needed to prepare two good speeches at the same time will, in the end, exceed the time needed to learn and perfect one at a time.

The same can be said for learning two languages at once.

Our 21st-century need for instant gratification is harmful to language learning. The first few months of language learning is a slow, meticulous process that requires patience and dedication. If this process occurs for two difficult languages simultaneously, learners risk not being able to dedicate the necessary time and energy that each language requires. They jeopardize getting the basic grammar and vocabulary foundation that's needed for future progress.

This can become even more difficult if you're learning two languages from the same family at the same time. A language family is a group of languages that can be proven to be genetically related to one another (and by genetically, I mean linguistically, of course!). The Latin-based languages sometimes referred to as Romantic languages are a great example of a language family. This family is made up of Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Catalan, among others.
While these languages have some similarities that can make learning several of them easier, they also are just different enough to cause confusion, especially if you're studying two at the same time. When I started studying Italian after just a few years of high school Spanish, I found myself using many Spanish words unconsciously as I spoke Italian. This is one of the major disadvantages to learning two similar languages at the same time.

While there are many challenges and disadvantages to learning two languages at once, there are also several advantages.

Learning two languages at the same can be a uniquely rewarding experience when done correctly. It involves many of the benefits of language learning and teaches you to be more alert, flexible, organized and proactive in your language learning approach. It hones your language learning skills in a way that will make learning future languages even easier.

If you feel that the advantages of learning two languages at once outweigh the disadvantages, you're looking for a challenge or you're required to learn two languages at the same time, have no fear.

It is possible to learn two languages at the same time, and we're here to give you a few helpful tips.

How to Learn Two Languages at the Same Time: 10 Helpful Tips

1.    Choose a maximum of two languages at any given time. While it is theoretically possible to learn more than two at the same time, this amplifies the difficulty of learning each of those languages and negatively impacts your languages learning success.

2.    Try to choose two very different languages. Languages that come from the same linguistic family often overlap in terms of vocabulary, grammar, associations and other factors, so they can be confusing to learn at the same time. Therefore learning Spanish and Italian or Dutch and German at the same time is not a good idea.

3.    Try to choose an easy language and a difficult language. This will help you to further differentiate between the two.

4.    Set a priority language. Even if your positive that you want to become fluent in both languages, make one language slightly more of a priority and dedicate a little bit more time to that language. This will help you to better see your progress and avoid becoming discouraged.

5.    Stay organized. Set realistic goals, make feasible plans, and manage your time wisely.

6.    Dedicate your time according to language difficulty. If one of the languages you are learning is more difficult than the other, dedicate 70-80% of your budgeted language learning time to the difficult language and 20-30% to the easy language.

7.    If possible, try to reach a survival level (A1) in one language first. This well help prevent confusion when it comes to learning the most fundamental vocabulary and grammar for basic communication and travel.

8.    Study both languages every day or as much as possible.

9.    Study each language in a different location and with different tools to help you to differentiate between the two. For example, try to always study one language in your living room and another in your bedroom using different notebooks and different colored pens and flashcards.

10.    Use a different methodology to study each language to help you to further differentiate between the two. You can, for example, study one using a cell phone application and flash cards, and the other using your computer and a notebook.

All of these tips can help you to successfully study two languages at the same time and to avoid confusing the two languages.

Overall, learning multiple languages at once takes serious dedication, time and motivation. However, it is definitely possible. These tips can help to make it a little bit easier for you, and Rocket Languages would love to help!

Are you learning multiple languages at the same time? Did you find these tips helpful? Do you have any other tips? Let us know in the comments!

By Andrea Reisenauer, guest blogger. Andrea Reisenauer is a language lover, ESL teacher Rocket Languages fan with a Master's degree in Translation. She speaks Spanish, Catalan, and Italian and is currently studying French.
Is it Possible to Learn Two Languages at the Same Time?
trutenor August 31, 2016, 3:32 am
These are all great tips.  Out of the rules listed though, I find it easier for myself to do the exact opposite of what is stated for some of them.

For example, learning two similar languages seems to help me to learn both of them quicker and more efficently. Like the character for water: 水

In both Chinese and Japanese, that is the exact same character, and they both mean the exact same thing.  Because of this, I don't have to work as hard memorizing vocabulary since Chinese and Japanese share some of the same characters and meanings.  In addition, one of the ways to say the Japanese kanji (onyomi) is the Chinese reading of the word, so I am actually learning a bit of Chinese without even trying.  Now this obviously doesn't work with every character, but for the ones it does, it helps...Read More
These are all great tips.  Out of the rules listed though, I find it easier for myself to do the exact opposite of what is stated for some of them.

For example, learning two similar languages seems to help me to learn both of them quicker and more efficently. Like the character for water: 水

In both Chinese and Japanese, that is the exact same character, and they both mean the exact same thing.  Because of this, I don't have to work as hard memorizing vocabulary since Chinese and Japanese share some of the same characters and meanings.  In addition, one of the ways to say the Japanese kanji (onyomi) is the Chinese reading of the word, so I am actually learning a bit of Chinese without even trying.  Now this obviously doesn't work with every character, but for the ones it does, it helps.  I've also noticed a trend of being able to understand a bit of Italian and Porteguese because I know some Spanish.  I can't say that it will work for everyone, but it seems to work for me...

I'm currently studying Spanish and Japanese at the same time.  The Japanese I study using Rocket and whatever other tools I can scavenge off of the internet or books/media that I own, while my Spanish is a combination of what I studied in high school, along with real life immersion.  My neighborhood is about 90% Hispanic/Latino, and I also get a lot of customers at my job (my "day job" is customer relations) that only speak Spanish or very little English.  Because of that, I get lots of practice working on my conversational Spanish.  

Out of both langauges, I consider my Japanese to be superior in reading, writing, and vocabulary, due to studying it every day for several hours.  My Spanish on the other hand I consider to be superior from a conversational aspect, due to having more opportunities to practice speaking it at work or in my neighborhood.  My goal is to reach fluency in Japanese, then go back and do the same thing in Spanish before picking up a couple more languages.

One thing that I can suggest for practicing speaking another language is to go to businesses that tend to have natives of the langauge you wish to learn.  There is a grocery store a block away from my house that mostly caters to Spanish speaking customers, so whenever I visit, I only speak in Spanish to get extra practice in.  I also know of a Japanese store with an owner who is originally from Japan, so whenever I go there, I switch to Japanese.  The benefit of practicing inside businesses is that it also prepares you for visiting other countries and conducting transactions in that specific language.  It can help to build confidence, and usually the owners/employees will help you out with vocabulary and appreciate you trying to reach out to them in their own language.
Is it Possible to Learn Two Languages at the Same Time?
jason-oxenham-ceo September 1, 2016, 1:28 am
Hi Truetenor - It is certainly "different strokes for different folks"! Thanks for your feedback and suggestions!
Is it Possible to Learn Two Languages at the Same Time?
David K September 2, 2016, 11:08 pm
Hi Jason, I read this article thinking it was by you and then at the end found, "
By Andrea Reisenauer, guest blogger. Andrea Reisenauer is a language lover, ESL teacher Rocket Languages fan with a Master's degree in Translation. She speaks Spanish, Catalan, and Italian and is currently studying French.


Did she write the whole thing or part?  It would be helpful if you prefaced guest articles by an intro paragraoph "We are pleased today to bring you thing article by ..."   and then put some line across the  page where the guest article starts. 

Or, even better, give Andrea her own account. 

Thanks.
Is it Possible to Learn Two Languages at the Same Time?
David K September 4, 2016, 2:14 am
How many languages one might study depends on one's learning goals. If you need to become proficient in one particular language ASAP for professional or some other reasons, then, by all means, focus on just that one language.

I notice that Adrea Reisenauer is currently studying French.  I strongly suspect, however, that  she is still learning, or advancing her skills in Spanish, Catalan, and Italian as well, perhaps not with the same fervor.

In High School I had three years of both German, and Latin at the same time , as well as a year of Spanish, with no confusion at all.  In retrospect, I wish I had taken even more languages.

Now 40 plus years later I've spent the last  year studying German, and just started learning Chinese a month ago...Read More
How many languages one might study depends on one's learning goals. If you need to become proficient in one particular language ASAP for professional or some other reasons, then, by all means, focus on just that one language.

I notice that Adrea Reisenauer is currently studying French.  I strongly suspect, however, that  she is still learning, or advancing her skills in Spanish, Catalan, and Italian as well, perhaps not with the same fervor.

In High School I had three years of both German, and Latin at the same time , as well as a year of Spanish, with no confusion at all.  In retrospect, I wish I had taken even more languages.

Now 40 plus years later I've spent the last  year studying German, and just started learning Chinese a month ago.  I'm lucky to have a few months here where I can spend as much time as I like on language and other studies and have been doing so rather intensively. For example, in 63 days  since purchasing the Rocket German courses, I've earned 229,240 points becoming a Black Star Master in German, and in just under 30 days, at the same time, have earned about 85,000 points in Chinese becoming a Two Star Gold Master, although this most certainly overstates my limited proficiency.  I mention these only a data points for other students about what "intense" means for me.

I've also dabbled with many of the free courses, like Duolingo, Memrise, Vocabulix,  Latin, in Esperanto, Hebrew, and Spanish, and plan to take the course in "Vulcan" just for fun when it is finally released after years in development.

One delightful discovery for me is how much mental stimulation and focus this kind of intensive language study has on my concentration, mood, and focus.

During the first two weeks, adding Chinese to half my study time did slow down my progress in German, and even diluted my focus, and gave me a few days of start-up issues with word retrieval where while studying Chinese,  the prompt English phrases would cause German phrases to come up instead.  So there have been negative impacts well beyond cutting my German study time in half.

Another problem was after studying Chinese for 4 or 5 hours in the morning when starting my late afternoon German studies I did not have the highly focused sharpness in German I've become used to.  A few times drawing "blanks" on phrases I knew before.  Cognitive psychologists tells us that just outside of our fairly  limited sphere of "conscious knowledge" we have vast networks of "pre-conscious" registers that can be loaded up for quick access during high performance taks.  This is related to comments Jason has made about "chunking theories - or 7 active cognitive slots" at any one moment in time.  But, those 7 registers can apparently quickly "swoop in" to change to other "pre-conscious" registers nearby creating the ability for the human mind to effectly deal with vastly more complex topics than 7 parts.  So I think trying to study two languages does fill up some of these "pre-conscious" registers with the "wrong language."

But, on the plus side, recent cognitive research has also shown that poly-lingual speakers have more highly developed neural development and activity in the inhibition control structures of the frontal cortex that enable polyglots to keep their languages separate.  

My original goal for this last year of German study was just to gain an understanding of all the declension and conjugation challenges I didn't learn in third year German.  We used the old fashion technique of memorizing vocabulary lists and grammar rules, so gain few skills in sentence construction or real-time comprehension and expression.  Levels 1 and 2 of the Rocket German courses have been excellent in bringing me to the level I wanted to be.  I've continued study partly out of habit, partly because it is fun.  But, I'm thinking now that one I finish Level 2 of the current German course, which I hope to do in about 3 weeks, I may switch to bringing my Spanish skill up to a similar level instead of proceeding onto Level 3 in German.  Or perhaps, I might got back and refresh and extending my 3 years of Latin.

I am not proficient in German and have much more to learn, however, I've been feeling that my last few modules of German study may be reaching a point of "diminishing marginal returns,"  By which I mean that for every additional week I study, I may be improving my Germans by a small fraction of 1% while by contrast for these first few weeks, of Chinese I've doubled my knowledge each week.  So the idea of studying the additional 5,000 to 10,000 German sentences I would probably need to even approach "Proficiency"  doesn't seem as exciting to me now as I imagined it would be a year ago despite the fact that I feel quite happy about succeeding, and even exceeding my study goals this year.  I only wish I had started using the Rocket system last year.  I highly recommend it to students who may be considering a similar path with similar goals to my own.

So by studying both Chinese and German, I've been able to sustain 6 to 8 hours a day. If I hadn't started Chinese I probably would have reduced my language study to 2 hours a day, or less, and started up math, music, or programming courses instead. 

So I plan to  continue Chinese up to at least the completion of Level 1 or perhaps 2.   My ambition for Chinese have been increasing to the point  that I'm planning on taking the HSK-1 and potentially HSK-2 exams just to have a concrete goal.  I'll probably take as many of the German  A1, A2, etc. exams as I can pass as well. 

But, at 61 years old,  my real goal now is keeping my brain and mind as fit, plastic, and growing as possible and having fun.  I've also been studying  math, music computer programming, and simulation. 

So coming back to my opening point about different kinds of learners with diverse learning goals arriving at different answers to the question of how many languages to study at the same time, I agree with trutenor that studying two languages at a time can be a great choice, and not be problematic.  

Or as Jason states so much more succinctly "different strokes for different folks."   lol   (Hey Jason, maybe your Rocket Team can develop a course for "Succinct Communication" I'll sign up as your first remedial student. 

Cheers.

 
Is it Possible to Learn Two Languages at the Same Time?
paul-e2 September 4, 2016, 5:59 pm
This actually interests me because I've been bad at studying languages previously but I always wanted to learn multiple languages. the last month I have worked harder and got online tutors to go over the lessons in rocket french and it has helped me cover basically a lesson a week. on the 4th lesson/unit now.

I figured about 5 to 6 months I would be done with the rocket french and that is when I will have to decide how to move forward. i want to learn my wifes language tagalog next and that will be harder since I have to use different tools and its not as available. the question is how to maintain my current french studies and increase my ability but also balance learning a second language.
I'm thinking a year to learn tagalog then

I probably will go to rocket spanish after that if I am proficent enough in french and tagalog...Read More
This actually interests me because I've been bad at studying languages previously but I always wanted to learn multiple languages. the last month I have worked harder and got online tutors to go over the lessons in rocket french and it has helped me cover basically a lesson a week. on the 4th lesson/unit now.

I figured about 5 to 6 months I would be done with the rocket french and that is when I will have to decide how to move forward. i want to learn my wifes language tagalog next and that will be harder since I have to use different tools and its not as available. the question is how to maintain my current french studies and increase my ability but also balance learning a second language.
I'm thinking a year to learn tagalog then

I probably will go to rocket spanish after that if I am proficent enough in french and tagalog.

question is how much time to balance and that's not what I'm sure of until I reach the point where I'm about to learn something  new and how I plan on doing it.
Is it Possible to Learn Two Languages at the Same Time?
trutenor September 4, 2016, 6:26 pm
One other thing that I wanted to mention as well when trying to learn more then one language concurrently.

One tip that I use for learning both languages is trying to translate something from one language to another.  The only rule is that you don't use your native language whenever possible.  Its a fun little game that tests your skill level in both languages.

For example, my two langauges are Spanish and Japanese.  So I'll start with something simple like, "Hello."  In Spanish, its "Hola!".  So then I ask myself, "How do I say this in Japanese?  And the basic answer is "Konnichiwa!"  Then, I might do other things such as food.  In Spanish, eggs are "huevos", while in Japanese its "tamago".  And here is something else interesting that I discovered...Read More
One other thing that I wanted to mention as well when trying to learn more then one language concurrently.

One tip that I use for learning both languages is trying to translate something from one language to another.  The only rule is that you don't use your native language whenever possible.  Its a fun little game that tests your skill level in both languages.

For example, my two langauges are Spanish and Japanese.  So I'll start with something simple like, "Hello."  In Spanish, its "Hola!".  So then I ask myself, "How do I say this in Japanese?  And the basic answer is "Konnichiwa!"  Then, I might do other things such as food.  In Spanish, eggs are "huevos", while in Japanese its "tamago".  And here is something else interesting that I discovered.  Bread in Spanish is "pan".  But how do you say bread in Japanese?  "Pan."  That's right!  Two different languages that have nothing to do with each other have the exact same word and definition for bread!  Its little things like that that makes learning multiple languages interesting.

To answer your question paul, the correct answer is that there isn't a correct answer, as its all subjective.  In other words, you have to decide for yourself what will work.  As a suggestion, keep doing what you are doing with your french studies and then try to add a small bit of tagalog learning.  If you feel like you are able to balance both and you aren't straining yourself, then keep it up.  If you feel like you aren't learning enough tagalog, then pull back on the french.  If you feel like you are forgetting too much french, then add some french back. 

Basically you have to adjust until you are at a comfortable level for yourself.
Is it Possible to Learn Two Languages at the Same Time?
jason-oxenham-ceo September 4, 2016, 7:21 pm
Hi Trutenor - That's a great tip! It is surprising how often unrelated languages have what seem like cognates.
Is it Possible to Learn Two Languages at the Same Time?
aggo1997 September 8, 2016, 5:41 pm
I have learned French, German and Spanish at different times.

I learned a lot of French at school and used it when traveling, during my 20's and 30's. I started learning Spanish in my early 50's, thanks to Rocket Spanish. I now live in México and use it every day. I find many Spanish words seem to have replaced French ones. Even if I now try to speak French, Spanish words come out!
Is it Possible to Learn Two Languages at the Same Time?
zeldagt September 11, 2016, 6:29 pm
I speak Spanish but I studied English and Italian at the same time. However, with the Italian I had a little problem at the beginning, because I recently had returned from Mozambique where Portuguese is spoken, and sometimes I made mistakes mainly when I tried to speak in Italian, I had a confusion in some words and pronunciation.  Over the time, I have learned to separate one language from another. Moreover, some sounds, words, and Portuguese grammar helped me with my Italian, because in Spanish  did not exist some tenses that Italian has. 
Is it Possible to Learn Two Languages at the Same Time?
KelllaurBailar September 12, 2016, 4:40 pm
Hello people!
       I'm one of those who is learning two languages at one time. For me it is Spanish primarily (as my "priority" language) and some Japanese. I want to travel to Japan in a few years, so that has been my motivation for learning the latter. Also I think it's really cute. The Spanish-speaking population in the South (US) is rapidly increasing, so I thought that would be the most useful language to learn as for where I am and the people I encounter daily. I was so happy when I saw this article, because I've always wondered if learning two languages at the same time was detrimental. Thank you so much!  Once I'm fluent in Spanish I may try some Russian or probably Italian, because I find similarities between Italian and Spanish to be common...Read More
Hello people!
       I'm one of those who is learning two languages at one time. For me it is Spanish primarily (as my "priority" language) and some Japanese. I want to travel to Japan in a few years, so that has been my motivation for learning the latter. Also I think it's really cute. The Spanish-speaking population in the South (US) is rapidly increasing, so I thought that would be the most useful language to learn as for where I am and the people I encounter daily. I was so happy when I saw this article, because I've always wondered if learning two languages at the same time was detrimental. Thank you so much!  Once I'm fluent in Spanish I may try some Russian or probably Italian, because I find similarities between Italian and Spanish to be common.  I think if someone is going to study two languages at once as their second and third languages, they should pick ones that are as different as possible. It would be really hard in my opinion for someone to learn Spanish and Italian at the same time. I find it easy to mix up pronunciations and words like Gracias and Grazie :-0. I quit dabbling in more than two when I realized this! 
Is it Possible to Learn Two Languages at the Same Time?

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