The language dilemma: learning multiple languages at once or one after the other?
The process of acquiring a language is a personal pathway and unfortunately, due to its complexity, there is no one-size-fits-all type of answer to this question.
However, we will try to shed some light on the factors that may influence each individual, the possible pros and cons of simultaneous language acquisition, and how to improve your education environment.
Simultaneous learning of two foreign languages
This term refers to a person that takes lessons of two or more languages dissimilar to their mother tongue at the same time; like a native Italian speaker who would like to polish his Russian and learn Japanese at the same time to improve his work opportunities within their company.
Your reasons to learn another language
With the growth of globalization and the increase of population movement across the planet, being able to communicate emotions and ideas with one another in an effective manner seems more important than ever.
In that light, speaking more than one language is not a fad but a modern necessity!
But before embarking on any language learning project, reflect on your personal motives. Are you moving countries, are you dating a foreigner, or are you constantly traveling for work? Why do you want to learn, improve, or practice a new language?
Having a clear WHY will help you stay motivated on your own path and create time in your busy calendar for this stimulating activity.
Factors that may influence language learning
Everybody can learn a new language. Yet, it is a holistic process, unlike practicing musical instruments or training for sports.
Linguists, psychologists, sociologists, and educators provide plentiful (and sometimes polar opposite) perspectives on multilingualism and second language acquisition.
Despite the controversy, there is a consensus that numerous factors may have an impact on your language learning process:
- age and gender
- individual motivation, personality, and attitude
- learning style
- previous life experiences
- the emotional connection that you have to the community that speaks the language you are trying to learn
- teaching strategies and available learning resources
- level of immersion you are exposed to during the process
Be reassured that any adult, teenager, or kid can learn every language. The theory that the window of opportunity to grasp a new language shuts after the teenage years has been overruled!
It is just that from a neurological point of view, adults and children use different parts of their brain through the language learning process.
Learning two languages at once
If you do find yourself at the end of your rope while trying to figure out the ins and outs of two different languages, then here are a few tips to help:
Take Your Time
You have to approach language learning as a marathon and not a sprint. Imagine if I woke up one morning, put on my shoes and stood in line for the Boston Marathon. I may feel happy and ready to go but by mile marker three I would be done! If you are learning two languages at once it’s like you’ve started training for two simultaneous marathons. Give yourself plenty of time and don’t expect to master either language quickly.
Budget Your Time Unevenly
This tip might be rather surprising as one might assume that both languages should consume an equal amount of time. This is not necessarily the case for a dual language learner. A good rule of thumb is to devote 80% of your time to the language that is proving most difficult for you to learn. For my friend in Tunisia, this would be Arabic. Since French has been much easier to learn, it should only consume 20% of her time.
Practice Every Day
Unlike training for a marathon where rest days are necessary, if you are learning two languages at once try to practice a little everyday. Even on days where you feel burned out reciting a few quick phrases can keep the language fresh.
Choose Two Very Different Languages (if possible)
When learning to speak two different languages you run the risk of language interference. To avoid mixing up the languages it is best to try and learn two languages that are very different from each other (like French and Arabic or German and Mandarin Chinese). While this is not always possible it is something to consider especially if you are learning two languages at once by choice and not necessity.
Speak, Speak, Speak
As you try to master two languages, be sure to talk, talk, and talk a little bit more. Try to find language partners that will sit with you once a week and simply carry on a conversation. While reading, writing and listening are helpful, your brain needs plenty of oral communication to soak in all that language into your long-term memory.
Learning two languages at once occurs in different ways:
Simultaneous learning of two native languages:
A simultaneous bilingual is a person who is naturally exposed to their first and second language at the same time.
This would be the case of a baby whose parents address him or her in different languages, or a young child who is being raised in a community where a dissimilar language to his family at home is spoken.
This baby is likely to become a native speaker of both languages.
Conversely, a sequential bilingual develops a second language after the first (no matter the age); in which case, the second language is acquired as a foreign language and not as a native tongue.
For example, a Chinese native speaker who is learning French at high school or a British granny trying to learn Spanish because her son married a Mexican girl.
Balanced bilingualism is rarely obtained though. Usually, bilinguals are more competent in one language as a consequence of their culture, religion, economics, technology, or education.
Learning multiple languages at once
Learning multiple languages at once can be achieved under the right conditions.
Results from a study of a small group of adult Persian-speaking learners concluded that simultaneous language learning, English and French in this case, can be attained if it is scientifically programmed.
These Iranian researchers from the Tarbiat Modares University created a friendly environment to reduce anxiety and stress and used simple strategies to establish clear visual differentiators: distinct classrooms for each language, diverse color markers, and opposite teacher’s gender.
How can you do it?
- Define your motivation by recognizing your true desires.
- Make time for it, creating the energy and the mental space.
- Identify your learning style.
- Choose the right language pairing or the correct languages for you.
- Receive appropriate instruction.
To find out which are the best languages for you, seek professional advice from a qualified language school. They will be able to guide you by taking the factors previously described into account and design a personalized language learning program.
PROS and CONS of learning two languages at once
Interestingly, there is no universal criterion as to what degree of language competence is necessary to be recognized as a bilingual or a multilingual person.
In any case, learning foreign languages is a continuum process, because you move from zero knowledge to the desired competency of a native speaker.
It is common for all kinds of language learners to merge properties (such as grammar and phonetics) from their first language with their second language.
This is known as transfer and there is a hefty body of scientific literature about its positive or negative effects. Some argue that transfer has an enhancing effect, others say a debilitative effect, some even state that it has no role in the language learning process at all.
We can conclude, then, that it depends on your own cognitive skills, your level of proficiency in the languages you already speak, your chosen learning environment, and the similarities between the studied languages.
The “obvious” advantage of simultaneous language learning seems to be time but there are no guaranteed shortcuts. If you are working with a tight schedule or you are already a polyglot then it may be a good idea to pursue simultaneous learning. Otherwise, wait to attain a basic grasp of the top-priority foreign language before moving to the next one.
Succeed at learning two languages at once
A Humanistic approach to language learning advocates that a language should be taught with its cultural context; where the religious beliefs, social values, political views, customs and traditions of the linguistic group that is studied have a place in the course.
This can be done by taking language lessons with native speakers who are keen to bring their cultural insights onto the table.
In addition, new findings from neuroscience also suggest that an immersive environment is key for successfully learning a foreign language in adulthood; along with extensive repetition, practicing the language in various contexts, and attaching emotion to the lessons to enhance memory functions.
Increase your chances by improving your education environment. Choosing an immersion language school that offers personalized lessons delivered by native speakers who adapt to your cognitive style is really a smart move!