How to learn and maintain multiple languages at the same time 33


how to learn several languages at the same time

One of the things that often come up in my conversations with other language learners is the question of how to learn and maintain multiple languages at the same time.

Below, you will find my tips, as well as a summary of what other language experts think about learning and maintaining several languages simultaneously.

I’m going to start with the logistics of how to ensure you’re not mixing up the different languages you’re learning. I’ll then give you some examples of how you can structure your time to make sure you’re devoting equal amounts of time to each one of your languages. Finally, I’ll summarise tips from language experts on whether it’s a good idea at all to learn multiple languages at the same time.

Before you read the blog post, though, make sure you watch my video about learning (just!) two languages at the same time. Don’t forget to subscribe to the 5-Minute Language YouTube channel as well!

How to learn multiple languages without mixing them up

Associate each language with a different routine

Lindsay Dow at Lindsay Does Languages says it’s useful to associate each language with a different daily routine. For example, you can listen to one language when driving to work but a completely different one when having breakfast.

Use personas to avoid mixing up your languages

Benny Lewis from Fluent in 3 Months recommends using personas when practising each of the languages you’re learning. If you act/think like one person when speaking French and a completely different person when speaking Italian, you’re less likely to mix them up.

learn several languages

Photo: Stefano Montagner

Think of your target languages as something that gives you a new identity every time you speak that language. For example, when I speak German, I feel very scientific and intellectual. I don’t make many hand gestures. When I speak Spanish, on the other hand, I do make a lot of gestures and I speak in a very musical way – almost singing. Feel and think like that identity/persona and you’ll be more likely to recall the right words.

Build a language core in each language

Luca Lampariello from The Polyglot Dream recommends building a language core in each of your target languages before moving on to the next stage.

A language core is the basic understanding of your target language, including its sounds, sentence structure, basic vocabulary and grammatical concepts. Luca also says you shouldn’t rush this stage of language learning – it’s an investment for the future so rushing through it won’t pay off!

Choose languages with different levels of proficiency

Bill Price at How To Learn Languages says you should avoid starting two languages from scratch at the same time. Instead, choose different levels of proficiency to avoid overlap. Learning every language involves learning basics such as ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, ‘what is your name’. If you learn these things at the same time in more than one language, you risk becoming disengaged and mixing up the new words and phrases.

Devote fixed-time periods to each language

Donnovan Nagel at the Mezzofanti Guild says that if you’re learning more than one language at a time, it’s worth focusing on only one of the languages for a set period of time, such as a few days or weeks, and then switching. He says this way of learning is more efficient than switching between two languages throughout the day.

As with a lot of other things, multitasking in language learning is not always the best thing you can do!

9 Essential Productivity Apps Every Language Learner Needs

Change your environment when switching languages

learn several languages

Photo: Citrix Online

Lindsay at Lindsay Does Languages also recommends that you should change something about your environment when switching languages – change the room you study in or your position, as these may help your brain ‘reset’.

How to schedule your multiple language learning

Another thing you might be wondering about with regards to learning or maintaining several languages at the same time is how to ensure that all of them are on your schedule and that you find time to study them to the same extent.

This takes a little bit of planning, and it’s worth thinking carefully about how you want to do it to make sure your learning is effective.

Below, I give you some examples of things you can do if you’re learning, or trying to maintain, three foreign languages – French, German and Spanish.

  1. Watch TV shows and films in your target languages, scheduling each language for a different day of the week. You can, for example, have French Fridays, German Saturdays and Spanish Sundays.
  2. Commit to watching the news in each language at least once a week.
  3. Read in your target language – every time you want to find a recipe when cooking, look for one in French. Every time you need to look something up on Wikipedia, do it in Spanish. Read your daily news in German. If you want to pick up a novel, have a schedule of reading one in French, one in German and then one in Spanish, and then start all over again.
  4. Do regular language exchanges – at least one per month in each language.
  5. Listen to music in French, the radio in German, and podcasts in Spanish. The following month, swap the order of things.
  6. Chat to people on social media – Facebook is great for joining groups and discussions on pages. Make sure you’re involved in at least one discussion in each of your languages. Review the threads you’ve commented on at least once a week and add further comments.
  7. Have a schedule for learning new grammar and vocabulary. You can spend a whole week on one language and then move on to another one the following week. Or you can do months – January is French, February is German, March is Spanish, and so on.
  8. Check out my blogpost about living the languages you’re learning for more tips on how you can incorporate language learning into your everyday activities.

Should I learn multiple languages at the same time?

This is a good question to ask yourself before you embark on your multilingual adventure. My tip would be: it depends what your goal is. If you’d like to be fluent in a language, I’d recommend that you stick to one language until you’ve reached a certain level of fluency – then you can just maintain that language while learning another one. Otherwise, you might risk spreading yourself too thin.

Ron from the Language Surfer also has some tips on whether you should learn more than one language at a time. He says that when taking that decision, you should consider what your goals are – for example, if your goal is fluency and you want to progress as fast as possible, you should probably only focus on one.

If you’re trying to decide whether juggling two languages at a time is for you, check out his tips.

Benny from Fluent in 3 Months suggests that it’s not a good idea to choose more than two languages at a time and that the languages should be quite distinct (for example, an easy language and a difficult language). He also says it’s best to study both languages every day.

Chris from Actual Fluency also reckons that learning one language at a time is the most efficient way of approaching multilingualism. His blog also contains a number of tips from language learners on how to learn more than one language at a time.

Have you ever tried to learn multiple languages at the same time? How did it go? Share your experiences in the comments below! 

Do you need more motivation?

The Motivation Journal

If you need a little bit more motivation to keep up with the different languages you’re learning, check out the Motivation Journal. It’s a simple tool I’ve created for you guys to help you keep motivated, stay on track with your goals and celebrate your language learning achievements. It might come in handy when juggling multiple languages at the same time 🙂


Did you like this post? Now, here’s what you can do:

  • Use the form below to subscribe to my newsletter for some more language fun
  • Share this post with your friends on Facebook, Twitter or by email

Thanks for your support!

Agnieszka

Share with other language loversShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn
  • Sebastián Alarcón

    I’ve tried to learn two or three languages at the same time. It’s indeed a good exercise for your brain (you asset your capability to adapt your brain framework depending on the language). When I was in college, one semester I was learning at the same time Chinese and Russian at the courses, when I started to learn Portuguese. I reached a high proficiency for Portuguese in six months, while I was dwelving in A1 level for Russian, and I was learning Chinese for B1.

    • Maureen F Millward

      That’s interesting. I’ve heard that from some friends learning Russian before that it took them twice as long to reach the same levels as in romance or Germanic languages

    • Thanks for the comment Sebastián! I absolutely agree that it’s a great exercise for your brain and it significantly increases your ability to think laterally – not just in relation to language learning but in all sorts of areas. Are you still trying to maintain the languages you were learning in college?

  • Maureen F Millward

    I agree with your schedule idea and it’s something I am doing myself using Italki tutors. For my fluent languages, I just have one conversation session per fortnight and weekly sessions for my weaker languages and then I only actually study a maximum of 2 at a time and both are usually completely different languages so I won’t get confused. Then I also do some of the other activities you mention, films, news, reading etc. I have a spreadsheet of my Skype schedules and which languages I need to work on each day. This then changes per quarter.

    • Thanks for your comment Maureen. You seem to be a very disciplined language learner! I think having a plan is the best way to be successful at juggling multiple languages. Otherwise, you might end up not paying enough attention to one of them – whether you’re aware of it or not – and standards slip very quickly. Which languages are you learning?

      • Maureen F Millward

        At the moment I am learning Greek intensively until I reach B1 level and then I will have one session per week for maintenance. I am also learning German with one session per week on Italki and then study in between. My advanced languages are Spanish, Italian and Portuguese so I don’t need to study them now, I just maintain them with Italki conversation sessions. I am intermediate in Norwegian so I have fortnightly sessions in that too. I sometimes have to keep them to half an hour to save money.

  • Thanks for the mentions Aga! I think it’s definitely possible – and sometimes necessary. For example, the whole time I’ve been learning Spanish (12 years now!) I’ve normally had another language on the go. Sometimes because I had to study (GCSE, A level, degree) but sometimes just because I wanted to! 😉

    • You’re welcome Lindsay! It’s often inevitable to have to at least maintain several languages simultaneously. Language learning never stops so every time you pick a new one, you need to think about how you will keep the other ones going.

  • Erik Alfkin

    I waited until I finished my Swedish tree on Duolingo before I started in on Esperanto (such perfect timing for its release :). Now I’m keeping up the Swedish I learned, expanding my knowledge through other methods, while slowly absorbing Esperanto. The weird thing for me has been that, somehow, trying to also teach my brain the Esperanto words has enhanced my retention of Swedish. I have no idea why. This blog post is timely for me; I will certainly try out some of the suggestions here. BTW, the hardest thing for me has been that “ni” means “you” (plural) in Swedish but “we” in Esperanto, while “vi” means “we” in Swedish but “you” in Esperanto…

    • Jennifer Marshall

      I am also learning Swedish and have trouble remembering that “ni” is “you”, because “ni” means “we” in Welsh. (Interesting to know it’s the same in Esperanto!) I know that some people learning Welsh and French have also got a bit mixed up with “nous” (“we” in French) and “nhw” (pronounced “noo”, “they” in Welsh). I think these little words can be the easiest to mix up because we perhaps don’t pay them as much attention as the bigger words. I sometimes interchange “and” and “to” when speaking Welsh and Spanish, because in Welsh “a” means “and” and “i” means “to”, but in Spanish “a” means “to” and “y” means “and”! So easy just to slip the wrong one in whilst concentrating on the rest of what you’re saying!

      • Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. I’ve never learned Welsh before but I have heard about the similarities between this language and French. A way out of this situation could be to try and memorise words in groups (i.e. as part of an expression or a sentence) to help your brain associate them with one language and not another. Good luck with your language learning!

    • Thanks for your comment, Erik! How’s your Esperanto going and how are you finding the DuoLingo course? I’ve heard a lot about it.

      It’s interesting what you’re saying about the impact Esperanto is having on your ability to retain your Swedish skills. The more languages you learn, the easier it becomes because of the overlap. Esperanto, in particular, has a lot of words that cross over with other languages, which is incredibly useful but, as you say, may be confusing sometimes! I guess your brain also gets used to the new ways of thinking as well.

      Let me know how you’re getting on with your multiple language learning 🙂 Best wishes – Agnieszka

      • Erik Alfkin

        The Duolingo course is awesome. I had made an earlier, but brief, attempt at Esperanto earlier in the year but didn’t get very far. I love that Duolingo gives so many examples and lets you break them down; it really helps to see the patterns. I’ve been lucky enough not to run into any problems, even though it’s still in beta. I’ve only hit a few of the correlatives so far, so I’ll probably have more of an opinion after I’ve seen them all.

        I think the retention is about more than just the crossover between languages. It’s like my brain is so certain that the word for “read” is “läsa” that that’s all I can see at first when I’m trying to remember “legi” in Esperanto. It adds a touch of difficulty to Esperanto, but it pays off with the Swedish.

        The biggest help from this article is in separating out how and when I study. I focus on Swedish in the mornings and then try to avoid it later in the day. In the afternoon, I do the same with Esperanto. I also think about what I want to use each language for to keep my motivation up and so that I’m looking at particular things in Swedish (I’ve even backed a Swedish Kickstarter 🙂 ) vs Esperanto.

        I do expect to be fluent with Esperanto sooner than Swedish, though. The lack of irregularities certainly adds to my confidence when trying things out.

        • Great, Erik. I’m sure Esperanto is a little bit easier than Swedish (I imagine so – I’ve never actually learned it myself!!. Good luck with your language learning adventure!

          • Erik Alfkin

            I figured I’d check in, now that some time has passed, to say that learning two languages at the same time did not work out for me. I have temporarily dropped Esperanto until I reach my target fluency in Swedish. It was just too much for me to fit in with everything else that goes on day by day. I think it takes a lot of focus and dedication to learn two languages at once, and any other distractions are just too much, at least for me. In the future, I will set specific milestones for when I want to take a break from one language to study another.

  • dandiprat

    I’ve been learning three languages consistently for the past 18 months. I did not start these languages 18 months ago, but I’ve be consistently studying each one of them at least once a week since then. I’d say progress is slow (in my own estimation), but it helps that one is advanced, one intermediate, and one beginning. For my advanced one i can just watch TV or something (besides using it at work), for the intermediate and beginning ones I do italki classes and study textbooks and CDs. Doing three at once keeps me from getting bored and for me it’s more about the journey than the end destination.

    • Thanks for the comment! It’s true that progress is slower when you’re learning three languages than it would be if you were learning one. It’s a good point you make, though, about your motivation being in the journey rather than the destination. Good luck with your languages!

  • Jennifer Marshall

    Great post, thank you 🙂 I’ve read about this persona idea before, and would be interested to hear people’s thoughts on a couple of questions I have. One is: what if it’s a bit late, and you’ve already learned the languages WITHOUT creating separate personas for yourself? I am trying to maintain Spanish and Welsh, but I am just “me” whichever language I’m using. Is it too late to try to create a separate Spanish “me”?
    My second question is about personas in minority heritage languages. I’m Welsh, but my first language was English. It seems a bit weird to try to create a separate Welsh persona for myself, when I’m Welsh already. Does this make sense to anyone? Has anyone had experience of this?
    Thanks for all the other suggestions too. Definitely going to try some out, as I have deliberately shut out my Spanish for 4 years in order to carry out my job through the medium of Welsh without getting confused, but would really like to be able to start maintaining my Spanish again. Diolch/Gracias!

    • I’m glad you found the post interesting, Jennifer.

      I think you can try and create personas no matter what stage you’re at. You can try using your imagination to enforce the personas. For example, whenever you’re listening to music in Spanish, picture yourself in Spain or South America surrounded by images that you instinctively associate with that language. You can also use your imagination that way when practising speaking – for example, watch a Spanish film, pausing every now and then and pretending you’re a film critic on a tv show talking about the film. Imagine the studio is in the centre of Madrid, you’re sipping sangria whilst speaking, and eating tapas, etc.

      Anyway, personans work differently for everyone so you just need to find a way that works for you 🙂

  • Sarah Amstutz Le

    I’m trying to learn Vietnamese to talk to my husband’s family and Chinese for work (not required, but would be extremely helpful) right now. They are both at the beginning level so it’s been pretty difficult, but I seem to be making some progress. This seems to go against some advice here, but I feel guilty if I don’t practice both. I will try some of these tips!

    • Good luck Sarah! Let me know how you get on!

    • Gabriel

      Hi Sarah, I’m a Vietnamese native, and I’m a student from an university in Saigon, Vietnam. I would like to help you with your Vietnamese, and I also could improve my English too. I’m not a professional, but I will try my best. Contact me if you’re interested in talking with me in Vietnamese/English. Good day!
      E-mail Address: minh.tam16693@gmail.com

  • Reyna

    Currently I’m learning French, Spanish, German, and Italian. It helps that I’m at a different level in each language; I’m more advanced in French, intermediate in Spanish, and just beginning in German and Italian. Your post makes sense, though; I’m thinking of dropping Italian until I’m more proficient in the other languages. I try to prioritize them, too; while fluency is the goal in French and Spanish, German is less of a priority at this point. But I’m worried, now that I’m in the midst of learning three different languages, that if I set one (or two) aside in favor of fluency in the third, that I’ll risk losing my progress in the other two. The persona/environment change is good advice; I’ll try to be more deliberate with that in the future.

    • I found it really intriguing that you are learning 4 romance languages at the same time. How to you manage to not mix verbs conjugations, genres, tensions, etc. between then?

      • Personas is the way to go 🙂 Very tricky to keep so many of them going at the same time, though!

    • Thanks for your comment Reyna – great to hear you’re learning lots of different languages. If you’re worried about losing the one/ones you put on hold, try coming back to them regularly but less frequently than the ones you’re actively learning. For example, if your schedule for your ‘active’ languages involves studying them 3 times per week, do a quick revision of the other language/s once every fortnight (read an article, watch a film, etc. – something that’s not too active but keeps the language going). Good luck!

  • Christa Hansberry

    I have some sort of linguistic ADHD; I go at languages with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but my attention span is short, and I’m very easily sidetracked :-). I’ve studied many languages, but the only one that has so far held my attention long enough for me to become fluent is Esperanto. I’m sure it helps that due to its greater simplicity and regularity, “long enough” was not as long as it would be for other languages; it took me months rather than years (but still more than 3 months…) So, I’m always trying to learn multiple languages at once; I can’t help it. I would recommend that if you can focus on one language at a time, you should; one progresses faster that way, I think. But if you’re like me and can’t control yourself, then I’d say that learning languages that are very different from each other definitely helps to avoid mix-ups.

    • Thank you for your comment Christa! It’s so easy to get sidetracked when learning languages – I completely understand what you mean. I often get excited about learning new languages too and then I really have to remind myself to stay focused on the ones I’ve already started.

      Have you read my most recent post about staying motivated/focused when learning a language? Check it out 🙂

  • I’ve been studying Mandarin for the past 5 months, but I’m urging for more, so I’m starting German this week as well. Since they are extremely opposite languages and I am a native Brazilian-Portuguese speaker (which is a highly complex languages compared, for example, to English), I think I’ll do fine with German.

    • Hi Alfred – it’s definitely useful to study languages which are very different from each other. I’m thinking of taking up Mandarin at some point too but first focusing on German 🙂

  • Language Learner

    Thanks a lot for the post! 🙂
    Well, in my case, I’m studying Russian (by my own) and Mandarin (taking classes). Both are very hard languages; what I usually do is studying a language per day. Moreover, I really do associate learning a language with a routine, that really works! 🙂

  • Muhammad Primastri Jati

    Hey it’s a great tips! My mother tongue is Indonesia and I really wanna learn Spanish from the basic, now I’m still learning English but my English is not really bad (only lack of vocabs), have suggestion where/how should I start to learn?

  • Marie

    Hello, Many thanks for your tips. My English level is C1, however I need to get more fluent and practice more and more, as I am a lawyer, and I have to speak much faster and more fluent. Additionally, I am living in French area and I have to learn French. I started learning it one year ago and my level is A1-B1. at first, I was concentrating on French and I had a good progress but after a while, I was confusing myself. In speaking, my tongue was spelling out the English words, but my mind was trying to remember their French synonyms. So I could not speak English as good as before and I lost my confidence. Thus I stop learning French couple of months ago. But I have to resume my french learning as I need it for my new job. I have a 7-month time to learn French and become ready to teach law to Bachelor’s students. NOW I indeed wonder what to do, allocating next 2 months to English and then start French or practising the both together, or …? I do appreciate if you would let me have your advice.