How To Learn Two Languages At The Same Time

how to learn 2 languages at the same timeIt’s the language learning question I get asked most often…

It comes up again and again on the podcast

And no matter how often we discuss it, it keeps coming back…

“Can you learn two languages at the same time?”

There’s something about the romance of studying two languages at once that people seem unwilling to let go of.

So, in this article, I’m going to share my thoughts on the topic, and give you some advice for taking on more than one language in as effective a way as possible.

Why You Want To Learn Lots Of Languages

You probably remember a time in your life when you thought learning a foreign language was too hard.

But one day, things changed.

Things didn’t look as bleak anymore.

You had a breakthrough in your language learning and saw how it was possible to learn not only one language but many more, should you wish.

We’ve all caught the language bug at some point, and quickly started to entertain fantasies of learning multiple languages.

If I work hard, I can learn as many languages as I want!

Learning lots of languages is a noble aspiration, and can enhance your life beyond anything you thought possible. (It certainly did for me.)

So, what’s the secret?

Success is Sequential

One of the first things we have to do in order to untangle this question is to separate out the ideas of:

  • Being able to speak multiple languages
  • Learning multiple languages at the same time

Of my many multilingual friends, in every case I can think of, they learnt their languages sequentially – one after the other.

Usually over many years.

They did not learn their languages at the same time.

This can be a sobering thought if you’re just getting started and have the aspiration to learn many languages, but it’s important to understand for your future success.

Those who have learnt many languages will typically have…

It does not happen by accident.

So appearances may be deceptive, and speaking multiple languages does not necessarily mean learning them at the same time.

Indeed, when I ask successful languages learners if they recommend learning two languages at once, the answer is almost always an emphatic: “No.”

But why?

Why do successful language learners tend to advise against learning two languages concurrently?

After all – it is clearly possible to study two (or three, or four) languages at once – you could go down to your local bookshop, buy some books, and dedicate 30 minutes each a day to four languages.

Well, the basis of the argument against learning multiple languages at once is that it will ultimately be quicker to learn them sequentially.

So the first thing we need to understand is: What are the key elements to learning one language efficiently?

Learning A Language Quickly

At the Hokkaido Ice Festival in Japan

There are many factors that help you learn a language quickly, but the areas most relevant to this discussion are:

1) Depth of focus

The process of acquiring a new language is unpredictable.

You never know how steep the learning curve will be, or what difficulties you might run up against.

The best you can do is to create the right conditions for you to learn, and that involves creating a state of deep focus, over a period of many months.

With deep focus, and many hours of exposure, your brain begins to make sense of the language in an instinctive way, and it makes it more likely for “epiphanies” to happen.

2) Routine

Creating a regular study routine is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.

With consistency, you can overcome any language problem, and your brain gets used to your pattern of learning.

With a haphazard (or non-existent) routine, you’re constantly battling the clock and elevating your stress levels, which are horrible conditions for learning.

3) Willpower

Life is never simple, and your motivation to study every day goes in ebbs and flows.

Everyone has bad days (even bad weeks), but when you have one single purpose, or object of study (e.g. to learn French), at least you know what you have to do to get back on the horse after an unproductive period.

4) Immersion

You can’t just study a language, you have to get used to it.

That takes time – a lot of time.

Many hours spent with the language.

The more you can immerse yourself in the language in your downtime with TV, radio, books etc, the faster you will learn as your brain simply has more opportunities to form connections.

5) Developing a persona

Learning to speak a language well involves developing a persona in the language, which comes both from a lot of listening and interacting extensively with native speakers.

This can take a long time but ultimately manifests itself in a persona, body language, and an accent in the language that makes native speakers comfortable to be around you.

Learning how to control these factors is what leads to the ability to learn a new language efficiently.

But as you can see, it’s not easy!

So, what happens when you introduce a second language into the mix?

Running a language workshop in London

Adding Language #2 Into The Mix

When you decide to learn two languages at the same time, the most obvious effect is that you will have less time to study overall.

It’s so obvious that it barely needs pointing out.

However, it’s relevant here because it’s actually not the main issue.

The main effect of learning more than one language at once is that you immediately compromise all the factors we just talked about, that are essential parts of the language learning process.

This means that, although you may well be able to find the time to learn both languages, you will most likely lose all the key ingredients that would have allowed you to learn either of them effectively on their own:

  • Depth of focus – When you divide your attention between two languages, you lose the crucial depth of focus that allows you to learn quickly.
  • Routine – That daily routine, which is so hard to get right at the best of times, suddenly got twice as hard. Keeping up an effective study schedule with multiple languages over the long term is extremely hard.
  • Willpower – When you inevitably lose your way, or suffer from a loss of motivation, the task of getting back on the horse is twice as hard. When the going gets tough with one language, you’ll probably find yourself making excuses to spend more time with the other. “Not a problem,” you may say, but jumping from one language to the other can quickly become a way of avoiding dealing with the real hard work that’s necessary to make progress.
  • Immersion – With two languages to contend with, immersing yourself in either becomes less effective.
  • Developing a persona – The process of developing a persona in another language – a consequence of all your other efforts around focus and immersion – is made that much harder with two!

If learning a foreign language were just a question of memorising words and putting them together with grammar rules, it might be straightforward enough to learn many languages at the same time.

But it’s not.

Your success in learning a language over the long-term is accounted for just as much by your emotional intelligence, self-control, interpersonal skills, etc, as by your aptitude for language, or your ability to learn rules.

You can’t have one without the other.

Now, it is certainly true that expert language learners develop strategies for coping with more than one language.

But it’s only once they have such a strong command of the learning process that they can start to control it with a degree of dexterity, and also recognise the danger signs when they emerge and correct course without wasting months in the process.

How Can I Maximise My Chances?

I get it.

You’ve fallen in love with two languages, and really can’t bear the thought of abandoning either of them.

Or maybe “life happened”… and you suddenly have the need to learn a new language, through choice or necessity.

In fact, it happened to me recently.

In August, despite my long-term project to learn Cantonese, I had a strong desire to travel and do something new.

(It can be very constructive to take a break from a language for the right reasons.)

big-buddha

Visiting the big Buddha in Bangkok

I went to Thailand for two weeks and studied Thai intensively. I even documented the experience with daily videos.

Although I thought it would be a short diversion – a bit of fun – I ended up falling for the language more than I expected, and wasn’t willing to let it go when I returned to London.

So, as I speak, I’m actively learning two languages at the same time: Thai and Cantonese, and thinking deeply about making the process as efficient as possible.

Based on this experience, and many other years of experimentation, here is my advice for overcoming all the drawbacks of learning two languages at the same time, and making the most of the experience:

Make One Language Your Primary Focus

  • Aim to spend 80% of your time on one language – yes, this means you have to choose!

For all intents and purposes, this will be your primary language where you will spend most of your time, place your focus, and prioritise over the other.

Make the other language secondary

  • Aim to spend 20% of your time on the other language.

You’ll be spending much less time on this language, in order to create focus and depth for your primary language.

Let me illustrate this with an example.

In my case, Cantonese is currently my primary language. It’s what I study every morning in my core study time, it’s what I listen to in my dead time, it’s what I practise reading and writing, the language I watch on TV and practise speaking whenever I can.

It’s a good 80% of my week and my main focus.

However, I also keep up my Thai, but in a very controlled way:

  • I have a 1-hour lesson every Friday
  • My teacher sets homework, which I complete once or twice a week

That’s basically it.

I don’t currently have many opportunities to speak Thai, but if I do, I might throw the odd language exchange into the mix.

The two strategies serve different purposes:

  1. With the Cantonese, I’m playing the “study hard” game. I’m actively working hard on it, trying to push it forward as much as possible on a daily basis.
  2. I feel like I’m learning it in some depth, and with focus. With the Thai, I’m playing the “long game.”

I know that time does so much of the work in a language, and simply by keeping it up over many months, albeit a small number of hours weekly, I will end up making slow but steady progress, and most importantly, not lose it.

The hardest part of this combination is knowing that I’m not doing much Thai, but I try to remember lessons learnt in the past about the importance of time, and a low-stress environment, and I try as hard as I can to enjoy the experience of learning in a “no-pressure way.” (Makes a nice change!)

It’s also no coincidence that the proportions of this language mix follow the 80-20 rule, which I’ve written about before.

Here are some more important ideas to bear in mind:

  • Reverse the 80/20 mix periodically – In order to satisfy your desire to learn both languages, you can swap the two over from time to time to make the other language your primary. How often should you do this? It’s very hard to say, but I quite like time frames of 3-4 months.
  • Choose two languages from different families – To the extent that you have a choice in the matter (your heart often doesn’t allow it!), you’ll be doing yourself a favour if you choose to study languages from different families. Spanish and Italian, for example, are so close that you will often find yourself confusing the two. (See here for how to avoid confusing similar languages.) Far from helping, you’ll find the proximity between the two languages prevents you from learning either with any clarity. You would probably find the pairing of Spanish and Japanese, for example, far easier, as it would help you compartmentalise the two languages in your separate study time.
  • Try different study methods – This is a less important point, but something I’m experimenting with. In Cantonese, I’m focusing on speaking, reading, and listening. In Thai, however, I’m trying something different, and focusing mostly on reading. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, the small amount of time I have available for Thai is probably better spent with a narrow focus. Secondly, it’s a totally different mode of studying than with Cantonese. Lastly, not being in Thailand, I’ll probably have more opportunities to read than to speak in the near future, so it’s a good bet to learn to read. Either way, separating my study methods between the two languages is a further way of keeping them separate, and I’m quite enjoying it.

Conclusion

Learning two languages at the same time is certainly a challenge.

I believe that, for the most part, success in language learning comes from learning one language at a time, but when all is said and done, it’s not about “collecting” languages.

It’s about enjoying and enriching your life.

And if two languages are the path to enrichment for you, then go for it!

Follow the advice in this article and I believe you’ll be putting yourself in the best position to move further and faster in your two languages.

I’m also interested in hearing from you if you have thoughts on this… I’d love you to prove me wrong!

For two related podcast episodes, you might like to check out the following:

  • IWTYAL 004: Can you learn 3 languages at the same time?
  • IWTYAL 047: How do you maintain your level in multiple languages?
  • IWTYAL 061: Should you REALLY not learn 2 languages?

If you’ve been learning multipile languages, what are your tips and tricks? Leave a note in the comments below!

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  • Great post Olly. You give a lot insight into your approach. I’ve found that it’s much more efficient for me when I focus on one language but that little exercises to explore new languages or unfreeze old ones can be good. At the moment that means actively learning Russian and dabbling in little experiments with other languages just for fin. But I’m still using my Spanish every day because its become part of my life. I’m curious about how/if you’re still maintaining your other languages while learning Cantonese and Thai and how that part fits in?

    • I see that as “maintenance” rather than “learning”, and I think it’s a key difference. Other languages I just use them with friends whenever I get the chance. Because they’re pretty strong, I don’t worry much about losing them.

  • Fear_eile

    One facet of learning languages not mentioned is that they may not be related but still share a persona, for example if a major language like German is the main focus but Sorbian is the secondary language. So where minority languages are linked socially to the other language being learned, learning both might still be a sensible option.

  • dandiprat

    I’ve basically followed this approach with Cantonese and Vietnamese although the primary language switched after a certain point.
    Years earlier I distributed Mandarin and Japanese more equally for many years, but I don’t think I’d be able to pull that off at this stage in my life.

  • LuKe Aguiar

    Currently I’m learning more than 8 languages at once, I practice each language at least 2 days a week for about 2 hours each one. Every Sunday I spend 6 hours just for reviewing all languages’ content I’ve learned so far, and it is working, so if you want to learn more than one language at the same time I think you can, you just need to give it a try.

    • 40+ hours a week on language learning… wow!

    • Cilka

      Hi, Luke! How long have you been doing this for? / Are you still keeping it up?

  • TyLean Polley

    There is no end to studying language. I could decide to study English today and easily dig up dozens of words, phrases and grammatical errors I have been making all my life. There is no such thing as a finish line…. so at what point do you say, “okay, I can move onto the next language now.”

    I have been studying Spanish as my main language (and periodically five other languages) for many years. I live in Spain, and the more I learn, the more I glimpse a vast ocean I have yet to learn. I agree that selecting from different language families makes learning a lot easier, but I am currently working on two Romance languages and not having any problems confusing them. Perhaps that means I have finally solidified my level of Spanish?

    • Yes, I think that’s exactly it. Once you reach a high level, I think the learning process is significantly different from the beginner level where you’re just trying to make sense of it all.

      For me, the benchmark always seems to be around a B2 level – at that point you will never forget the language, and can begin to learn in a more natural way.

      • flootzavut

        I’m currently studying Hebrew, and rather unexpectedly ended up having a Hebrew lesson conducted mostly in Russian. I would not have planned that, and if I’d known it would work out that way I would probably have had an all-out panic about it (because although I know my Russian is good, it used to be much better and so I tend to compare it unfairly with “how well I used to speak it), but actually it was really fun and although I slipped into a weird mix of Russian-English-Hebrew, it wasn’t hard to follow the teacher at all. It was one of those nice moments of oh, I can speak this language even if I still mess up and I’m not as fluent as I’d like to be.

        I haven’t repeated the experience (yet!), because my brain isn’t as resilient as it used to be and I was exhausted afterwards, but it was an oddly reassuring experience.

  • Alexis Van Espen

    Insightful post. I have been wondering how I possibly could study Mandarin and Spanish at the same time. My conclusion was that it was unreasonable. Your post enlarges this view. Thanks a lot.

    • It’s a tough decision, but ultimately I think it’s more fulfilling to get further in one language, than to struggle with two.

  • olliebysshe

    Hi Olly,
    Firstly, kudos for the excellent blog! It has really deepened and expanded my language learning endeavours.
    I actually tried this last year: however, with at least one somewhat important difference. I learned Brazilian Portuguese and Classical Greek at the same time. The difference is that I obviously couldn’t practice speaking in the latter language. Thus I only studied and read and wrote in Greek, and only spoke Portuguese. I also tried focusing primarily on Greek, although the ratio was more 60/40. I already spoke Italian and Spanish to an advanced and intermediate level respectively, and thus reasoned that it would be easy enough to learn Portuguese, another Romance language.
    However, I ended up learning way more Greek than Portuguese, despite the former having a vocabulary that was much more different to my native English and the other languages I had previously learned (all of which I have mentioned save for Latin). It also actually has a different alphabet, although it is not too hard to learn. In fact I have since lost a lot of my Portuguese, as I haven’t spoken it much in the past year.
    I think there are several reasons for this. Firstly, my goals in learning Portuguese were not very clearly defined, and I lacked structure in learning it. Thus, while I picked up a little by consistent speaking, my level stagnated at A1-A2 while my knowledge of Greek continually increased. I also think that you may fare better being a more experienced language learner (as I have only been seriously interested in languages for a few years now! In fact, I’m still a university student). Most importantly, I wasn’t as motivated to learn Portuguese as Greek for most of that time. I had a burning passion to learn more about Ancient Greek culture, which to an extent consumed most of my energy and focus, meaning I didn’t have many concrete and personal motives for learning Portuguese.
    Thus this experiment is something I probably won’t try again for a while, if ever. At any rate, I want to be sure I’m ready and properly motivated next time. But it was certainly fun and instructive, and I expect you will do better than I will, as it seems you have thought it through more. At least, I certainly hope you will learn much and have a lot of fun! 🙂

    • Thanks, I hope so too! Just remember that all the work you did on your Portuguese and Greek is not lost. It’s still in there, waiting to be reactivated at the right time!

  • Andy R

    I’m starting to follow Luca Lampariello’s approach: He puts the vast majority of his study time into *practicing* his intermediate languages (through conversation, reading, etc.). If he’s just a beginner in a language, he *studies* it only a little per day because he finds it mentally too taxing to focus on it. If he’s advanced, he’s just maintaining the language, so he tries to *use* it a little a day or whenever he has the opportunity. Thus, for him, the depth of focus doesn’t occur with new languages, but later in the process. This is the approach I’m taking now. With my new languages, I’m neither emotionally committed to them nor confident in them yet, so it’s counter-productive for me to focus on any of them. Also, I don’t like that I’ve put many hours over many years into some languages, but I’m not at a high-intermediate (B2) level in them yet. So mastering those languages is a higher priority to me than any new languages I’ve recently added. Currently, I try to focus on one of my stronger languages and also put some time into another, while sprinkling in my weaker languages lightly on the side. They will each have their turn later.

  • Brandon Joseph Martinez

    Hey! This is exactly what I needed, and what I’ve been trying to figure out for about a week now. Ive learned both of my languages, Spanish and Mandarin, in college. My Spanish is about a B2 level and my Mandarin is a low B1. In light of an upcoming move to China for about half a year, I’ve been focusing on Mandarin a lot. When I come back however I would like to push them both up into the advanced levels and hopefully attain fluency (before I move on to my next project, which will probably be Hindi). But thanks for the post! I’ve been racking my brains trying to figure out just how to do it. I may try an alternating days study plan. Any thoughts on that?

    • I would have streaks of a few weeks rather than a day. Helps you focus and go deeper.

  • Sharlie4

    Hi,I love your tricks ,and yes,I am learning German,Darija(Morocaan dialect of Arabic) and Italian at the same time. All my fb is writing with Morocaans. The Italian is French -based(my 2nd language) and the German course is English -Based. I like to use Micheal Thomas and Pimsleur so I can download and listen-repeat while biking or in the car. I find using a Bible is one of the easiest ways to learn.I am already familiar with the gereral text so I can pick up a Bible in German,choose a chapter and read and kind of figure out what the topic is……easy to check too!(just look at the English side :). That was the base of my French and Spanish learning. Today I read my first passage in Italian and wow! I was so surprised at how much I could understand. Also there are audio Bibles online so it is easy to hear pronociation. BBC has great programs for German and Italian and Destinos for Spanish……..the darija is the biggest challenge because it is not standardized in latin letters and yes,I do write in latin letters.I will have to force learning the arabic alphabet and put my keyboard in arabic 😛

  • Михаил Жбанков

    Hi Olly Thanks a lot for your language-studing evagelism ))) Your last article is great. I have understood your idea about choosing languages from two families…Your example is ” Spanish and Japanese” ( European + Asian ). What is your opinin about combination of the languages from Latin and German families ( ex. English + Spanish ) ? What combination could be more efficient or no matter ( if tenacity is included ) ?

    • Well in many ways it’s rather academic, I think. After all, I’d say your choice of languages should be guided by your interests rather than a specific combination that would prove easier. The way this might to be practically useful is if you were tempted to learn two similar languages (e.g. French and Portuguese), but decide not to for the reasons discussed here.

      English and Spanish are somewhat similar.

  • Gabriela Borin Barin

    Great article! It gave me some nice tips to get my language learning more efficient! I am a brazilian girl currently living in Switzerland learning German and French while working in english. Sometimes its just so difficult to focus going around with so many different languages at the same time. But is true that being exposed to the language helps a Lot!! And I fell like Switzerland is just the right place for that 🙂 thanks a lot for your great work! Helps a lot

    • Thanks Gabriela. Very exciting opportunity for you to be surrounded by so many languages! Good luck!

  • Artie Duncanson

    When I was working in the Philippines, I was learning a local dialect called Cebuano. I unexpectedly had to move to Thailand and wanted to learn Thai, but didn’t want to abandon Cebuano altogether. I found that while trying to learn both languages, sometimes I could use those languages to reference or jumpstart my vocabulary memory. I would try to remember a word in Thai, and for some reason, I couldn’t think of it until I abandoned English momentarily and thought in Cebuano. Then the word would then click. This happened quite frequently, despite Cebuano and Thai sharing no similarities at all.

    • Very interesting. I think that might be because Thai and English are very different, so when you’re looking for associations to help you remember Thai vocabulary, you find more inspiration in Cebuano.

  • Andra Sim

    I am studying English and French at the university. I noticed that I give about 80% of my free time to English and because of that I don’t know French as well, but because of that I began using English as a intermediate language between Romanian (my native language) and French. Whenever I learn something new in English I try to translate it in French directly. It works very well with syntax and lexicology because they are quite similar in those aspects and I also need to learn how they function, not only how to speak them. This way I improve my learning in both languages. I don’t know if this is helpful to anybody else, but I also do the same thing when learning other languages, for example I compare Italian with Romanian and French and German with English and sometimes French. However, I learn those two slowly so that I learn out of pleasure and I focus on learning the other two to a “microscopic” level. So I am using comparison between languages as a way to understand another language because this way I never forget what I’ve learned. It’s a tip I recommend to new learners of any language.

  • Fear_eile

    The problems with adding languages apply just as much to learning other subjects along with a language – and, yes, there is a temptation to take on too much. The tip about a literary/oral divide is a good one, though.

  • Sarka Bernict

    I think your advice concerning spending 80 per cent of time learning one language and 20 per cent for the second language is resonable in case someone wants to learn two language. At present I learn Italian and modern Greek, my main interest is Italian with which I spend most of the time with just some small portion of learning Greek.

  • N. O.

    I’m currently learning Bulgarian & french (thought of adding German but nah too dangerous >_<) Basically i've been lazy in learning more Bg cos i get around just fine in Bulgaria but i really cant have a convo in it 🙁 . French – i studied in the past, and currently take classes once a week. but adding more to all these while learning medicine is so tough. 🙁

  • Sebastian

    Hi Olly, it was great to read this article. I’ve been applying the 80/20 rule in my language routine. I’m learning English (well, I’ve been for about 4 years now) and Russian. I spend most of my time on English, and I’ve been learning Russian for about two years too, but I feel I haven’t made much progress on it ever since. I’m still a beginner after all, well, considering the fact that I haven’t put enough time on it. It’s probably because when I use a phone to review my flashcards and listen to conversations, it’s not more than 30 minutes a day, even days…
    Anyway, I find it difficult to keep my Russian study time up. I just wanted to share the struggling time I’ve been going through. I must show up for this language journey. Thanks Olly! Great advice. Bye.

    • Hi Sebastian. Yes… that’s exactly what I’m finding with Thai! Keep going… it’s better than doing nothing at all!

  • Erik Alfkin

    I’ve noticed that I have a natural tendency to get bored after 2-3 months of focused study, so I have started switching languages on that cycle. So far it is working really well for me. My Swedish has grown by leaps and bounds and I finally made some real progress in Esperanto (after several failed attempts).

    • I find the same! And I agree that it’s more efficient. I really haven’t been very impressed with my Thai progress over the last few months.

  • Diego Cuadros

    Very interesting! Now, You mentioned immersion, and I think that is completely true, but I have a question about that… I learned to speak English as a second language almost to a native level, but I’ve never lived abroad; I consider I Immersed into English because most TV shows that I used to watch as a kid were just in English, and in the country where I live there are native English speakers all around the place, but if I wanted to learn a not common language (in my country) like japanese, what should I do to immerse into this language? Do you think is enough using online resources to get some level of immersion?

    • Andy R

      Hi, Diego. While you wait for Olly’s reply, I wanted to share a blog specifically about that (which Olly has recommended himself in a blog article on this site). It’s called “All Japanese All the Time.” You can just do a web search for AJATT to find it. (I tried including the URL, but Disqus removed my reply, thinking it was spam.) I have only glanced at the site, but it looks like maybe it could help you.

    • Good point. A lot of people fall into the trap of thinking “I learnt English just by watching TV, therefore it’s easy to learn a second language!” But what they forget is that it took them 10-15 years to do it… not exactly efficient.

      What I do to immerse myself in a new language in London is to go out and make as many friends as I can. When you’re part of a community, everything gets so much easier. Online resources can help, for sure, but without regular interaction, there’s only so far you’ll get.