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How to learn two languages at once

29 Nov 2011
Woman with textbooks on her head
How to balance your learning? Photo by Corrie

Can I learn two languages at once? Or should I only learn one at a time?

I see these questions often.

Many people have successfully learned more than one language at a time. But many, many more have failed.

Personally, I have experience both succeeding and failing!

Please read more for my advice!

My experience

I studied Spanish for six years (in grade school and high school), but I never actually managed to learn anything.

Then, as an adult, I began planning a couple international trips: one to Belarus and Russia with a friend and his family who moved to the US from Minsk, and another to eastern France with a friend who had been there once before and had some great stories.

So, I enrolled in a beginner Russian and beginner French class at the UWM School of Continuing Education (where adults, rather than college students, go for classes). I figured this would work fine because they're two very different languages, so there would be no way I could possibly mix them up! Right?

Unfortunately, that didn't turn out to be the case. I had loads of trouble with both languages, but Russian seemed to stick a lot better. I just couldn't make any headway with French and slowly learned to dislike the accent. :-)

My trip to France got canceled, so I stopped taking that class and focused on Russian. In three years, I reached a lower intermediate level.

Later, while I was still studying Russian, I began to learn Polish. While these are much closer languages (and I still confuse them a bit sometimes), I was much more successful studying Russian and Polish than I was while learning French and Russian.

Don't begin two languages at once!

My first piece of advice is to never begin two languages at once.

The beginning stages are critical and you really need to focus on only one language. Otherwise, despite how different the two languages are, you will have trouble keeping them straight!

Later, when your level improves, you can start learning an additional language. By then, the first language will be more solidified in your head, so you should find you have fewer problems.

Refresh the first language regularly

On the one hand, language learning is like riding a bike: you never truly forget.

But on the other hand, it's a lot like playing a sport: if you stop for a while, you'll get out of shape.

For every hour you study the new language, try to devote at least 15-30 minutes to reading or listening to something in the first language. This is an area I've totally failed in and now my Russian is extremely rusty.

Less related languages are easier

Russian and French are different enough that if I had known one of them to at least an intermediate level, I wouldn't have had problems learning both.

When I first started learning Polish, I would accidentally use Russian words in my Polish (usually because I didn't know the Polish word). Now, I do the opposite. :-) But it's not that bad.

Choosing something in a different language family will help reduce this problem. But, of course, learning something in the same language family will give you a head start! So, it depends on what you want more.

Have you tried learning two languages at once? Were you successful? What helped and what hindered your progress? Write a comment below!

Anonymous's picture

I've been learning Polish now for nearly 3 years, and a few weeks ago I started learning Spanish.

I've spent so long getting used to the grammar of Polish that I found it very difficult to adjust to the "simple" grammar of Spanish. Initially I found it very difficult to start using definite/indefinite articles, even though it comes naturally to me in English. I also couldn't believe how simple numbers are, when saying things like "Tengo dos hermanos" I found myself trying to work out the correct form to use for "dos" :P. I had to reassure myself that "Yes, really it's always dos, no matter what"

I even found myself saying such gems as "no tengo perrego" instead of "no tengo un perro".

In time, I will separate the languages out in my head. When speaking, it helps if you get into the 'rhythm" of the language. Both languages have a very different feel to how they are pronounced, and it's like switching the radio tuner in your head. However, I'm still in awe when I hear people switch between two non-native languages without hesitation.

Posted by: Tony (not verified) | Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - 03:17
David Snopek's picture

It's simply amazing how easy it is to mix up languages! Even though Polish and Spanish aren't related, I'm not surprised at all. :-)

But over time I know it'll get better. I think it's particularly hard when it's only your 2nd foreign language. At least it seemed that way to me! People I know who already speak several languages seem to have much less trouble adding another.

I have similar problems switching quickly. It takes me a lot of warm to get into the flow in the first place. For example, if I haven't read/listened/spoke Polish for a while, I'm not that great for the first 30 minutes or so. Then I get going and it's much better.

But then switching to another is hard! Even if it's just switching back to English. My thoughts continue to come to me in Polish for awhile.

Anyway, thanks for the comment!

Best regards,

Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - 10:40
David Snopek's picture

Dzięki za linka. :-) Inni już polecali ten serial ale jeszcze nie miałem czasu go oglądać. Pozdrawiam, David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Thursday, December 1, 2011 - 07:39
Anonymous's picture

W związku z nadchodzącą rocznicą wprowadzenia stanu wojennego w Polsce (13 grudnia 1981r.) chcę ci polecić film Czarny Czwartek. Janek Wiśniewski padł, tutaj masz więcej informacji o nim

Posted by: dg (not verified) | Thursday, December 1, 2011 - 15:38
David Snopek's picture

Dziękuję bardzo za linka! To wygląda na interesujący film. Pozdrawiam, David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Friday, December 2, 2011 - 13:27
Anonymous's picture

Polecam do zapoznania się z twórczością Mickiewicza Reduta Ordona w filmie Syzyfowe Prace Oda do młodości (po angielsku) (po polsku)
Polecam też film "Pan Tadeusz" na podstawie książki pod takim samym tytułem oraz "Lawa. Opowieść o Dziadach Adama Mickiewicza"

Piękny jest też wiersz "Hymn" Juliusza Słowackiego

Posted by: poezja (not verified) | Monday, December 5, 2011 - 15:08
David Snopek's picture

Dziękuję bardzo za linki. :-) Do tej pory nie czytałem zbyt dużo poezji w języku polskim. Ale już zobaczyłem film "Pan Tadeuz"!

Pozdrawiam serdecznie,

Posted by: David Snopek | Friday, December 9, 2011 - 15:02
Anonymous's picture

Khem, khem; może to tylko ja, ale wydaje mi się to nieuprzejmym zarzucanie obcokrajowca polską dumą.
Oczywiście - wiele z wierszy Mickiewicza czy Słowackiego to rzeczy ładne, filmy być może też są ciekawe, ale mam brzydkie podejrzenie, że dobór odbywał się podług kryterium "Jakby tu mu pokazać, że to Polacy są lepsi od innych".
Polska kultura ma do zaoferowania dużo więcej niż przechwałki samą sobą.

Posted by: Noqa (not verified) | Monday, December 5, 2011 - 18:08
Anonymous's picture

Opowiem swoją historię, najpierw zaczęłam naukę angielskiego, chwilę potem niemieckiego, doszlifowałam je na bardzo wysoki poziom. Następnie wzięłam francuski, japoński, chiński i hiszpański.
Powiem tak, wszystko jest możliwe, nikt mi nie musi wierzyć ale mnie osobiście języki wchodzą do głowy bardzo prosto :) i uważam że każdy się ich może nauczyć, bo głupich ludzi nie ma tylko beznadziejne metody nauczania ;)

Oto moje rezultaty :)

Angielski - poziom C1
Niemiecki - poziom C1
Francuski - poziom C1
Japoński - odpowiednik europejski poziom C1
Hiszpański - poziom C1
Chiński - poziom B2

Oglądam codziennie w tych językach, rozmawiam, czytam i piszę coś tam sobie :) oraz słucham radia :)

Posted by: Anonymous (not verified) | Thursday, September 20, 2012 - 09:20
Anonymous's picture

My stepdaughter wants to learn Hungarian because her father is a first generation American. I'm bilingual in Spanish, and she's starting her third year of Spanish. We'll be studying Hungarian together. Based on what you've said, we should plan for two sessions of Spanish a day and one session of Hungarian? I've seen elsewhere that each language should have two sessions a day.

Posted by: Deborah (not verified) | Friday, January 24, 2014 - 23:44
Anonymous's picture

Yeah I was trying to learn the Portuguese language. I had studied the Spanish before six months. I think I need to refresh my language right. I think, as you said less related language are easier than the complicated ones.

Posted by: riccardocavalio (not verified) | Monday, December 8, 2014 - 02:33

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