Should You Learn More Than One Language at Once?

Should You Learn More Than One Language at Once?

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.

Pictured: one of the worst ideas I've ever tried to execute.

Pictured: one of the worst ideas I’ve ever tried to execute.

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!

  • It’s all about the focus! More things in your schedule = less attention for each.

    It was probably more out of love for the app than love for the language, but for a while I was trying to do Spanish on Duolingo while keeping up with Japanese. The only result I got was being unmotivated to do either.

    Now that I’m just focusing on one language, it’s easier to motivate myself to study.

    I’d imagine it’d get even harder to study multiple languages if you decided to get Skype tutors for conversation practice…

    • Definitely. I should have remembered how much my French benefitted when I was focused entirely on that. I was just a tad too excited to learn everything, so I got impatient…

    • Dulchinea

      I’m fluent in English and Spanish. I have been using Duolingo for about 3 weeks learning French, German, Italian and Portuguese at the same time and so far it’s worked out great. I don’t expect to get fluent from this but have enough to speak and understand a little when I travel.

      I’ve studied French and German before. My French is at an advanced beginner and German at beginner level, but I started from the beginning on all 4 and I plan on moving through lessons at same pace. I figured since the languages are related to the ones I already know it wouldn’t be too hard. I plan on doing it for all of 2014 and then see if I should focus and drop one or a couple…

      • That’s great! Duolingo definitely makes studying more things at once simple to keep track of, and learning enough for travel purposes is a lot less daunting. Good luck in your studies!

  • Joe Longhin

    For a short period of time I attempted to learn Korean and Japanese. It turned out that, with my schedule, I couldn’t devote enough time to either and both fell off during that time. So now just focusing on Japanese i’m not confusing any of Hiragana with Hangul (Korean alphabet

    • Learning two new writing systems at once sounds pretty intense. Focusing on one at a time is definitely the way to go. Hangul is great though – I wish all writing systems were so deliberately constructed!

      Also, you got me. I have setting up RSS on my to-do list and got distracted – I’ll have to get that set up now that I’ve been called out! 😛

      • Joe Longhin

        I can imagine that setting up an RSS feed isn’t the easiest thing to do.
        Also I’ve been using Mindsnacks and it’s great!
        I can pick up more hiragana and of course adding to my vocabulary as well. So thanks for recommending it!

  • Amanda Patterson

    I’m learning a few, and It’s not too bad. I don’t have the attention span to spend too much time on one anyway.
    I already speak Spanish and Korean (I am taking online Spanish classes and live in Korea to maintain those), and I am taking some classes online to refresh my Arabic, which is no longer conversational, though it used to be.
    I have also been learning Turkish because I am moving there next month, with a goal of having a basic understanding when I arrive so I can take the not-quite beginner class at a language school.
    I have also been studying Polish and Swedish, just because they sound cool. Because I don’t have any goals for my Polish and Swedish, the bit that I am learning when I get bored with studying something else is kind of like a bonus. I will get around to studying them eventually.
    I also have a full-time job, but I am not a student anymore.


    PS I just came across your blog now, and I wish I had realised a few years ago while I was still in school how much I love languages! In my opinion, take as many languages as you can while you’re in University. The amount of time you have to dedicate to your languages is never going to go up.

    • Well it sounds like you’ve figured out how to handle quite a lot! Being able to travel and live in other countries must be great, too.

      If you can manage it, learning more than one language is really fulfilling. Recently, I prefer becoming pretty fluent in one language before moving on, but I definitely understand having your attention jump back and forth between several!

      Of course, since they tend to get easier as you learn more, I could see it getting pretty manageable in time.

      Keep up the good work 🙂

  • Barry

    what about learning languages that are close, such as spanish, portuguese and italian? or would there closeness make you jumble them up together?

    • That’s a great question! What I’ve found is that if you’re just starting both languages, it can make things pretty confusing. It’s easy to forget which word or spelling goes to which language when they’re so similar!

      But it’s mainly in those beginning stages where your brain’s not entirely used to the language yet where it’s easy to mix up words. Once you’ve gotten pretty good at one of them, it should be safe to add a similar one. At that point, you should have a pretty big advantage when learning the second language!

  • Firas Ahmad

    well, I think learning any language is depend on many things, such as age, the time you devout to learn a language, the language it self, and lastly what is the method you are using to learn a particular language, also when you are hacking a particular language, what are you learning in the language, its it a words, grammar, or writing or what?? For example I my self speak 5 language and they are Arabic (which is my native language) English, Urdu, Hindi, Chinese, and I am learning Russian language right now. What methods I use to learn language?? The answer would be, I use many ways and methods, such as i learn sentences & words so that I can use them in these sentences which I already have learned them, which means at the end of the day I will be knowing more than one sentence etc.Of course there are many methods I use them to learn any language; and of course I can learn 2 or 3 languages at the same time, because I have the ability to do so. And one more important thing is that you have to memories and practice what ever you learn, and try to create your own sentences, and don’t be afraid or shame of committing a mistake. If you are not committing a mistakes this mean you are not learning.

    • You’re certainly right about not being afraid of making mistakes – it’s easily one of the most important parts of learning a new language. Good luck with learning Russian!

  • I prefer to learn one language at a time. It’s so much easier. You avoid the risk of mixing the languages if they are too similar and you also improve more quickly. It’s a win-win! I usually try to reach a B2 level in one language before starting to study another one.

    • Definitely. I’d rather get fluent in one language quickly than two languages slowly. Also, setting a specific goal like you do with reaching a B2 level of fluency is a fantastic way to keep you moving forward at a good pace!

  • Kira

    I started off learning Spanish and took a class but recently found myself wanting to learn French. Is it a bad idea to stop learning Spanish, focus on French then come back to Spanish in a few years after I am more comfortable with French?

    • I don’t think that’s a bad idea at all! If you’re not motivated to learn Spanish right now, but you **are** motivated to learn French, then switching is a good idea, provided you don’t keep switching back and forth between languages. Forcing yourself to stick to Spanish when you don’t want to will only make learning a new language feel like a chore.

      Focus on French first, then come back in a few years to reclaim Spanish if you’re motivated to do so. But most of all, have fun doing it. 🙂

  • Anna Maria Agbemadji

    I am Afro-Italian, I speak English, Spanish, German, basic knowledge of French, Togolese and Ghanaian, basic knowledge of Latin. I am 18

  • Draupnir

    I study French, Spanish, & German every MWF. Then Italian, Japanese, Russian TTHS.
    I am 31 and have a lot of free time during weekdays. I study for 20 mins per language using a software. It doesn’t bother me if I am going at a slow pace, I got all the time in the world. As long as I know the sound how it is pronounced and can distinguish certain words, I would know which language that word came from.