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Can you learn two languages at the same time?

If you are a language enthusiast like me, then there are probably a dozen different languages that you would like to study at any given time. The world is so linguistically rich and diverse that there is always something new and interesting to discover. If you`re studying Spanish, then maybe Catalan catches your interest because you want to see how similar they are.Or maybe you look at Spain`s proximity to Morocco on a map and get swept up in the idea of learning Moroccan Arabic. But you still have a long way to go to reach your goals with Spanish. So a lot of people ask:

Can I learn two languages at the same time?

Of course you can, and your tongue will not fall out of your mouth if you do. But the question is whether it`s ideal. The two most important factors in making progress in a language are (a) focus, and (b) consistency. After numerous experiences of studying two languages simultaneously, my opinion is that studying two languages simultaneously makes you less focused, and because of time constraints and fatigue it`s hard to be consistent.

Learning an extra foreign language is at the expense of the first one.

Focus

can i study two languages - focus comes firstWhen you learn a language, the learning doesn`t only take place while you are studying at your desk or practicing with a native speaker. During those active times you make lots of new *discoveries*, but a lot of the learning and internalization takes place on a subconscious level when you are not studying. Your brain is assimilating new knowledge and putting together pieces of the puzzle when you are doing other things. Much of that happens when you sleep, but it is also happening in the background when you are doing the laundry, riding your bike, or training at the gym. How aware you are of it depends on how in-tune you are with your inner dialogue (introverts are probably more aware of it), but it`s happening.

The trick here though, is that (a) your brain only dedicates these subconscious resources to things that are important to you (which is why students who don`t give a damn about high school French never really learn it even if they study), and (b) by dedicating resources to two different subjects, you are reducing the bandwidth available to either one. Who learns any skill the most quickly and the most deeply? People who become obsessed with it. Because they basically clear the table of all its clutter and their brain has that entire space available to do its work. It`s important to them, and they cast aside all distrations that could occupy their resources.

You shouldn`t aim to be obsessed, but you should aim to be focused. By learning two languages at the same time, you are telling your brain that neither one is of central importance, and you are limiting the amount of resources available to either one. Less focus equals less learning, internalization, and retention.

Focus comes First

Consistency

Consistency is king - study everydayAbove I talked about the subconscious learning that goes on in the background. Don`t make the mistake of thinking “Awesome, I can just study occasionally because my brain will do all the studying for me on autopilot! F@*# yeah, let`s do some tequila shots!” NO. Your brain processes the information that you feed it, for a while.  Obviously you need to continuously keep feeding it, in order to leverage your brain`s processing power and maintain all those background processes on an ongoing basis.

When you study consistently, ideally everyday, you are keeping those processes going so that you are constantly reinforcing and building on what you know. This is why people say it`s better to study 15 minutes a day than it is to study a few hours once a week. The danger with learning two languages at the same time is that you will not always be able to find time for both, so you`ll likely skip one today and (intend to) do it tomorrow, or you`ll settle into a routine of irregular study binges rather than studying consistently everyday.

Consistency is king.

My recommendations

 

Focus on one language and make that your mission.

Choose a language that you have genuine passion and motivation for, and make it your mission, your main focus. That language should be your priority. By choosing a language that have genuine passion for, you are inviting your brain to dedicate subconscious resources to it.

If you have lots of time, maybe you can study two. But…

Manage your study timeI recommend you have one major project, and one minor project. Spend 80%+ of your time on the major one so that you can be sufficiently focused and achieve your goals, and treat the minor project as entertainment, or a fun reward for working hard on your main language. But your main language must come first. If you study your minor language today and skip your major language, then my hand is about to reach out through the screen and grab you by the collar.

Remember, you can leverage your brain`s background processes. But whatever resources you dedicate to an extra language are being taken away from your main language, so make an informed choice. Right now I am starting to study Tagalog as a minor project, on top of my main project of French, but I am maintaining my French study.

You shouldn`t study the basics of 2 different languages at the same.

You should wait until you have mastered the basics of one language before taking on a second language as a minor project. You need to focus and dedicate your resources to internalizing the foundational patterns of a language in the early stages, otherwise you may get stuck in a permanent state of dabbling and never really get anywhere. FOCUS.

Focusing on different language skills can give you some more leeway to study 2 languages

In my experience you can avoid some of the problems of focus if you study 2 languages but focus on different skill areas of each one (e.g. oral communication versus reading). For example, when I was studying Modern Hebrew with a focus on speaking, I was studying Aramaic with a focus on reading (because it was ancient Aramaic, so nobody speaks it). The Aramaic didn`t really make me lose much mental focus from Modern Hebrew. Similarly, more recently I was focusing on French conversation while studying Arabic with a focus on mostly reading. Again, I didn`t find that reading Arabic, or listening to Arabic tv, took my mental focus away from French. Practicing Arabic speaking, however, did take my mental focus away from French, which is why I decided to focus on reading and learn more spoken Arabic at a future date.

It`s ok to be attracted to other languages even when you`re dedicated to a main one, and it`s ok to indulge your interest. But if you do that at the expense of your main language then you will forever be dabbling and never achieve your goals in any language. Focus comes first, and consistency is kingNow you just need to decide:

What language are you passionate about to make it your mission? 🙂

 

 

  • Matthew_PL

    Fantastic article. I think you’ve defined the main principles of EFFECTIVE learning. I have one question for you: quantity or quality? Do you prefer deep knowledge of only a few languages or being a “polyglot” (I know you don’t like this term 🙂 ) even if it’s at the expense of fluency? When do you feel that you have learned “enough” and you can move on to your next goal?

  • Everett Halfman

    This was a great read and really helped me to put things in perspective. I’m currently pretty invested in French and chipping away at it for at least an hour a day. Still, I find myself also very interested in learning Mandarin. But, similar to what you’ve said here I just don’t have the time for that much intensive effort. Reading this kind of helped confirm that.

    Btw, your LangFocus channel is fantastic; I’m always learning new things from it. I look forward to the next video/artilce 🙂

  • Billy P

    I just recently found this site. I’ve been studying Japanese for the last 4 years and have not achieved even conversational fluency 🙁 I know many pieces here and there but I cannot put everything together to have a real conversation. Sure, I can ask for things in a Restaurant and many other basic “dialogues” but I want to be able to converse about everyday life with native Japanese speakers. I’ve finished several books and probably know all the grammar used in everyday life. My problem is remembering new vocabulary. I forget a word 5 seconds after seeing/reading it for the first time!!! So I shifted my focus to Kanji, learned the first 500 Kanjis and then realized I was forgetting them so now I’m reviewing them.

    A year ago I started with Korean. I dedicate only 2 days (1 hr a day) to it while I dedicate 3 days to Kanji. (only 5 days study :/ ). Should I just focus on Japanese? I feel like I will never really learn it that’s why I decided to start with Korean and get the basics.