Is learning two languages at once a good idea? (plus big news!)

learning two languages at onceA couple of weeks ago, I got some big news.

I’m moving to Cairo !

Or to be more accurate, I’m being sent to Cairo 🙂 The organisation I work for likes to move people around every few years and you don’t get much say over where you go.

I’m really excited about Egypt, though. Although there are obviously lots of troubles there at the moment, the country is in a state of flux and it’s going to be a privilege to live there through such an exciting time.

When I got the news, however, my first thoughts were about something else, and you might have already guessed what…

Learning two languages at once!

A responsibility to learn the local language

Since last year, I’ve been steadily learning Cantonese, my new favourite language 🙂 Since finishing my master’s thesis recently, I’ve finally had some proper time to devote to language learning again. For most of the year, I’ve been doing no more than 15-20 minutes or so a day on Cantonese, and now, finally, I can start picking up the pace!

Or can I?

I’ve always believed that if you go to live in another country, you have a responsibility, almost a duty, to learn the local language.

While I’ve not made any great efforts to learn Arabic whilst I’ve been in Doha (where a staggering 94% of the labour market is made up of expats and English is the lingua franca), Egypt is a different story. I’ve heard that you can get by with English in Egypt, but different varieties of Arabic make up over 99% of language usage in the country, in particular Egyptian Arabic (68%) and Sa’idi Arabic (29%).

Now that I know I’m going to be in Egypt for a couple of years at least, I know that I have to commit to learning Arabic.

Learning two languages at once?

This puts me in a position that a lot of people find themselves in… I have very strong reasons to learn two languages at the same time.

  1. I’ve been learning Cantonese for 9 months and feel like I’m just getting started!
  2. I’m moving to Egypt and feel a responsibility to learn Arabic

What do I do?

Choose only one? If so, how? Learn both at the same time? If so, how do I do them both justice?

I asked my Facebook community this week, what they would do if they wanted to learn two languages. There was a huge range of responses.

Of course, it depends on a lot of different variables, but I’ve been thinking about my problem and I’m going to share my solution here, and specifically how I came to the decision.

Hopefully it will help anyone out there who’s wondering whether learning two languages at once is a good idea for them.

learning two languages at once

Passion, focus and drive

I have never had a successful experience learning two languages at the same time.

That’s not to say that it isn’t possible, but I need to recognise my own strengths and weaknesses. Language learning, for me, isn’t a mechanical, routine thing that I go through in order to fulfil some instrumental goal.

I’ve seen videos of people go through a daily routine of reading, writing, speaking… switching between multiple different languages in order to maintain or improve them.

I can’t imagine anything worse. Doing that would suck the life out of me.

It’s not an academic exercise for me. Every language I learn comes from a specific passion to learn that language (usually due to the people around me or the place I’m in), and I tend to maintain my motivation to study and learn by bingeing on the culture in various forms: watching movies/TV, listening to music, hanging out with people.

When people ask me how I keep up the motivation to study, it’s exactly that kind of cultural immersion and intense curiosity for everything to do with that language that keeps me on track.

My thinking

Cantonese and Arabic. Hong Kong and Egypt. Two totally different, polar-opposite cultural and linguistic worlds at the same time?

It ain’t gonna happen. I won’t be able to keep it up. Sooner or later, one of them will slip – I know myself too well. One is better than two, at least for me.

But that still didn’t help me make a decision. Instead, I looked at what’s at stake.

Arabic: I’m moving to Cairo in September (it’s May right now), so it would be great to start learning Arabic soon and have a basic level by the time I arrive. However, it’s not essential. I could just as well start learning when I arrive, and use the novelty factor of being in a new country to drive me forward.

Cantonese: I’ve been learning for 9 months or so, and I’ve made good progress. I can hold a simple conversation now and I’m well on the way to an intermediate level. I know once I arrive in Egypt, and start learning Arabic, it will be difficult to make a lot more progress in Cantonese. I won’t have the head-space. There’s a window of opportunity over the next few months to really make some good progress before it’s too late.

Now that I’ve outlined where I think I stand, the answer is becoming a bit clearer.

I’ve established that I don’t need to learn Arabic right now – I’ll have a good couple of years to learn intensively when I get there. I’m also pretty sure that this move to Egypt is going to make Cantonese pretty difficult to keep improving. I will lose it over time.

The big risk here is what’s going to happen to my Cantonese.

It’s May now, which gives me just over three months to play with. So what I’ve decided is to double-down on Cantonese right now, focus and improve as much as possible over the next three months, and try to get to a good intermediate level where I’m comfortable holding a conversation.

If I can get my Cantonese to that level, then when I arrive in Egypt I won’t need to worry so much about learning it – I can have regular Skype calls with a tutor on and just worry about maintaining it.

In other words, whilst actively studying Cantonese in Cairo will be difficult, I’m always happy to jump on Skype and spend an hour chatting. 🙂 That will leave all my study energy available for Arabic, and I can really make use of my time in Egypt to learn the local language as well as I can.

So, that’s my thinking!

The purpose of this hasn’t been to tell you what I think you should do, but to give you an insight into how I make these kinds of personal decisions.

In the past, I might have just grabbed the bull by the horns and tried to learn both languages at the same time. But knowing how my mind works helps me to make decisions that will hopefully make for more effective outcomes.

So over to you. I know you’re passionate about languages, and would learn 10 at once if you could! What are you struggling with right now, and how are you making your decisions?

Like this post on Facebook, or send out a tweet, then leave a comment below to let me know.

Image: paola

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  • Chris Broholm

    Hey Olly,

    As I said on Facebook I would really prefer (like you) to just do one at a time. To me learning one new foreign language is quite challenging but when you add another one I feel like you are putting unnecessary pressure on yourself and you are turning the process into this machine kind of thing, which I definitely do not want.

    I don’t know if you caught it but I recently posted an article on the blog that included the thoughts from many different learners, I’m not sure if you allow links here in the comment box but I’m sure you know where to look for it 🙂

    Good luck in Egypt and may Allah be with you! (I think that’s what they say)

    • Hey Chris. Yeah, I’m with you, and I guess it’s going to come down to what constitutes “pressure” for each person. For me, one is certainly enough for now 🙂

      I’ll have a look for your article!

  • Wow! I wish you much success on your upcoming move.

    I appreciate you laying out your thought process on the decision you’ve made. I’ve tried learning multiple languages at once but I find that I can’t really dedicate the required energy. It’s much easier for me to focus on learning one and maintaining the others than it is for me to pursue more than one simultaneously. Hopefully you’ll have time to continue to use Cantonese while in Cairo so you don’t “lose” it!

    • Thanks so much Shannon. I’ll have to try and track down a couple of Hong Kong’ers to keep that motivational ball rolling! There must be a few out there…

  • You’ll love Egypt, mate. Much easier to meet new friends and practise than east Asia in my experience.

    Hopefully we can meet up in Cairo. I should still be there when you arrive.

    As for learning multiple languages, it’s definitely better to focus on one. I’m trying to maintain mine at the moment and it’s tough. About to leave Russia for Italy to learn Italian where I want to keep improving Russian (my new lady doesn’t speak English which has been a great motivator and I hope to get back to see her after Egypt if I can). It’s gonna be a struggle but I’m determined.

    Good luck.

    • Thanks man. Russian in Italy? Sounds just as unlikely as Cantonese in Cairo! 😉

      Great to hear that it’s easy to meet people in Cairo, that’s definitely a major plus. Looking forward to meeting up and seeing you put me to shame in Arabic skills!

  • Damien Lee

    Greetings Olly

    I definitely think you should continue your Cantonese while in Egypt. I’m sure you’ve experienced this on several occasions while in the midst of language learning-you suddenly reach that point where you finally begin to understand more than usual, your listening comprehension and vocab have ascended that new plateau. This has been referred to as an “Ah-ha” moment in language learning i believe. My suggestion would be, if your able to recall, what particular moment or specific resource were you engaging at the time you feel you reached your personal “Ah-ha” moment in Cantonese? If it were a particular video clip or movie/tv show, then i would spend just 10-15 minutes with it each day to keep that particular fire burning. The content that resonated with me the strongest became a motivational pillar i found myself falling back on on many occasions. I look forward to all your progress with Arabic Olly, best wishes to you!

    • Great idea, Damien, thanks! That particular breakthrough moment for me actually came when I was speaking with someone. It suddenly became much easier that before. However, I’ve also got a couple of favourite Hong Kong TV dramas that I can easily be persuaded to go back and watch a few times 😉

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