Should I learn more than one language at once? This question is the bane of aspiring polyglots everywhere, myself recently included. What I thought wouldn’t be a big deal ended up making these last couple months some of the most disorganized and busy months of my life.
Here are my experiences trying to learn 3 new languages at once, why it didn’t work, and whether or not I think you should try to learn more than one language at a time.
A Tale of Three Languages
This semester at Iowa State, I began my first classes in both German and Mandarin Chinese. In addition to my independent study in Japanese that I started this year, this meant that I was actively learning 3 different languages, along with maintaining and improving my skills in Spanish and French.
This got hectic pretty quickly.
I tried dedicating several hours per week to each language so that I could balance them all and give them each the attention they deserved. Sounds reasonable, right?
Well, maybe, if I didn’t also have a job, a full school schedule, a social life, and Powlyglot. Even without those things though, that’s a lot of time.
With homework or other random life events interfering constantly, I couldn’t manage to go a single full week according to plan.
I was filling my schedule so much that there wasn’t room to breathe.
This didn’t help my language skills, motivation levels, or anything else.
I found my schedule too full so often that I ended up reworking my schedule or dropping things several times. I quit my job, started dedicating less time to each language, went to great lengths to test out of a class (okay, this one was actually pretty beneficial), cut hours of work from Powlyglot, and stopped being social on all days but Saturday.
After that, there was nothing left to cut – I couldn’t be more efficient with the time I had if I was to continue with my language studies in this way.
Once I realized that I was still being overwhelmed, I made an important decision.
What am I doing now?
I’m putting Chinese and Japanese to the side for a bit in order to focus on learning German really well. I’m still going to finish my Chinese class this semester, but I won’t be taking it next semester. I might come back to both Japanese and Chinese occasionally to make sure I don’t lose what I currently know, but I won’t be dedicating any time to studying them outside of class for now.
I’ve decided it will be much better to be really good at German than to be able to speak a little bit of German, Japanese, and Mandarin but be fluent in none of them.
Once I’ve achieved a level of German I’m happy with, I’ll pick up where I left off with either Japanese or Mandarin, and I’m sure I’ll be much more ready for it when I do.
Can you learn more than one language at once?
Definitely. But is it efficient? Definitely not. I’m confident that with enough time you could learn at least 2 languages at the same time without many problems, but I think it’s unlikely that you’ll be giving each language the attention it deserves. In most cases, I don’t advise learning more than one language at once.
Once a language starts to feel more natural to you, it might be safe to add another one. I took two years of French classes before I felt I could really take the time to dive into another language, but there isn’t a magic number – you just need to be very comfortable with the language.
Can you express most things you would want to say? Can you participate in basic conversations beyond asking about the weather? Maybe you’d rather just wait until you consider yourself fluent before moving on. No matter what you do, make sure it’s working for you, and don’t be afraid to back off of a third or fourth language if it’s too much at the moment.
Have experience with studying more than one language at the same time? How did it go? Let us know in the comments!