Fact-Check & Editorial Responsibility: Kris Broholm
Are you thinking about learning two languages at once? For many, learning a single language is a monumental feat in itself.
You want more!
Simultaneously tackling two languages–a mildly herculean task–has some exciting upsides and drawbacks.
The simple answer is yes, you can learn two languages at once. But, you'll need to be dedicated to your learning journey, choose your language pair carefully and be prepared for some bumps along the road.
Is Learning Two Languages at Once Possible?
Yes, it is possible to learn two languages at once.
Possible, however, doesn't mean easy or advisable.
Most language experts and resources agree that it's a feat best suited for the ultra-dedicated or uniquely interested; it's challenging and often leads to burnout in the less zealous.
Our brains are certainly capable of learning multiple new things in a day. Ask any 12-year-old what they learned in their Maths (essentially, another form of language) and History classes. You'll discover that the brain can quite happily adapt and store multiple kinds of information at the same time.
Of course, children's brains work somewhat differently than adults, so should you give it a go?
Let's dive into some considerations.
Pick Divergent Languages
You've probably heard that English speakers learn Spanish reasonably quickly and that Spanish and Portuguese have many similarities. From that, you might well assume that learning Spanish and Portuguese at the same time could work nicely.
You'd be wrong!
Spanish and Portuguese are so similar that your brain has a hard time separating the two. Spanish pronunciation slips into your Portuguese verb conjugations, nouns get swapped, and the whole thing quickly spirals into a frustrating mess. Burnout waits, close at hand.
Picking sufficiently divergent languages actually increases your probability of success!
Tackling German and Arabic will give you much better results than the example above. These two languages have almost nothing in common at a fundamental level, so our brains can keep them separate much more effectively.
How Much Time Can You Commit to Learning?
There's no way around it: learning a language takes a significant investment of time.
We wrote an entire article on this if you'd like to check that out!
Learning two languages means you'll need to plan out time for both, and ideally split your time evenly between the two. Everyone finds a rhythm that works best for them.
However, many find that focusing on one language in the morning and another in the evening gives the brain some time to absorb and integrate what it has learned.
No matter how you tackle learning two languages at once, you'll likely need to set a schedule and create a habit.
Committing 30-60 minutes per language each day seems like a realistic target for many. Saying that, if you can devote several hours to learn the languages, your results will accelerate, and quickly.
Triangulation: Use a Strong Language to Learn a New One
One of the most powerful ways to learn two languages at once is to take advantage of triangulation.
Triangulation means using a second language to learn a third (or a fifth to learn a sixth) and is used by polyglots and superpolyglots worldwide to solidify their base in one language while building out into a new one.
Most of us who have learned at least one foreign language will agree that learning new languages makes you much more aware of how your native tongue works. As a language learner, you can leverage this phenomenon to continue building fluency in a language you are relatively strong in while tackling a brand new one.
Also, while many languages and regional dialects may have basic resources for English speakers, sometimes good instruction beyond that level exists only in another major language.
For example, if you're looking to learn Yemeni, you'll need to learn Arabic as your base, then build from there. Learning languages like these requires triangulating!
Admittedly, this requires you to have some prior experience in the language you're triangulating from. If you're interested in learning two languages from the beginning, this may not offer the best results for you.
Still, let's say you learned a decent amount of Spanish in school. It might be worth brushing off that skill for a bit, then tackling Russian as a Spanish speaker for maximum language benefit.
Meta-Learning: Learning How to Learn a Language
As we discussed in our article on how long it takes to learn a language, each new language you learn makes learning subsequent languages easier.
Part of this traces back to the idea of meta-learning–learning. This is the process of how to learn something, not just the material itself.
Think about it this way: when you're using spaced repetition to boost your vocabulary retention in Spanish, you're also learning that spaced repetition itself is a valuable skill for learning a language. You've gained knowledge about the meta-skill as well as the vocabulary for Spanish itself.
Over time your brain rearranges itself to handle the tasks it regularly sees with maximum efficiency. In other words, you'll naturally pick up on tricks and habits that facilitate faster language learning as you learn languages. You can supercharge this by making an active study of the skills of language learning.
Studying multiple languages at once is a great way to pursue this.
What's more, studying language learning techniques themselves will make you more efficient at picking up any language. Efficiency is vital when you're tackling two at once; the brain-strain that accompanies this will necessitate efficient learning systems!
Fending Off Burnout
The biggest issue with trying to learn two languages at once?
Many people start with the best intentions and grandest of plans, but three or four weeks into their journey, discover that the workload is too much and drop out.
If you're unusually dedicated or highly motivated, you might power through this. However, the majority of people struggle and begin to falter around this mark.
Combating burnout can feel tricky, but you're not alone!
The language learning process never goes linearly, ever. The path goes over hills and down into valleys all the time, so don't get too discouraged!
Here's a handy little graphic adapted from Paul Graham's blog about Startups.
We assume that learning a language looks something like this:
That's nice, but as you might already know, also wildly simplistic. Actual language acquisition looks more like this:
I want to draw your attention to the “Trough of Sorrow.” That's where things get complicated but it doesn't subjectively feel like you're making any progress.
When learning two languages, you'll definitely feel the trough of sorrow and probably a few wiggles of false hope.
This is entirely normal and something nearly every language learner experiences as they make their way through their non-linear path towards fluency.
Knowing that this will happen makes it far easier to prepare for.
After a few weeks, it's perfectly normal to feel a slight slump, and there are many setbacks and false starts along the way. Still, anyone who has learned a new language (or, in this case, two!) will tell you it's worth it in the long run. So keep with it!
So, Will You Try Learning Two Languages at Once?
It's a tough road to travel, but if you're driven and persistent, there's no reason why you can't learn two languages at once!
Keep in mind that it's best to choose two entirely divergent languages, make time for both of them every day, and plan for the inevitable dips in your road towards fluency. If you've already got a decently strong language, consider triangulation for accelerating your learning.
If you try learning two languages at once, subscribe to our email list and send us a reply to let us know how it goes!
Kris is the founder of Actual Fluency, and has spent the last 8 years becoming an expert in language learning software, methods, and techniques.
Originally from Denmark, he now lives in Portugal and speaks 5+ languages at varying levels. His other interests are Wine, Online Marketing, and Travelling.