Efficient Multitasking: How to Learn Different Languages at Once

Quick question: What’s even better than mastering a foreign tongue?

Why, mastering two foreign languages, of course!

If you’ve ever dreamed of studying multiple languages at once, you’re not alone.

While the very concept perplexes traditional students in North America, studying different languages concurrently is a commonplace occurrence in schools across Europe and Asia.

In fact, many high schoolers across the globe are required to study two foreign languages to graduate.

If you jump into a multilingual study plan feet first right now, you might find yourself lost in a maze of conjugations, vocabulary words and grammar drills.

So before you leap, take some time to discover the benefits of studying multiple languages, prepare yourself for the inevitable challenges and get equipped with the right strategies needed to juggle multiple languages over the long-term.

Let’s get started!

Why Learn Different Languages at the Same Time?

A Faster Path to Multilingualism

Aside from the sheer fun of studying a language, learning to speak a foreign tongue provides a number of incredible professional and interpersonal benefits. Some of the cognitive benefits of language learning include improved problem-solving abilities, memorization skills and creativity. Studying multiple languages amplifies those benefits, providing your brain with plenty of stimulation and challenges.

While studying two languages together may slow down your overall learning progress in a single language, it will allow you to advance at a similar pace through two different linguistic systems. Some students find this approach more appealing than studying a single language from beginning to end, before starting on another.

Increased Challenge for Language Lovers

Scientists believe certain individuals may possess the ability to learn a new language more rapidly and efficiently than other people. If you’re one of these people, developing the capacity to speak a foreign language may not require the same amount of effort it takes some students.

Choosing to study two different languages serves as an additional challenge that will keep your brain working overtime. There have been several reported cases of ambitious polyglots teaching themselves upwards of ten languages simultaneously, so regardless of how busy you find yourself on any given day, two should prove manageable if you remain motivated.

Addressing a Need

Language skills aren’t merely an extra bonus for many students, but rather an essential component of their everyday lives. Whether you’re a travel aficionado gearing up for a big trip overseas, or you instead plan to spend long hours working on a project with foreign colleagues, learning multiple languages may serve a real need.

Some students also take on the two-language approach to complete university credits. No matter what your motivation for tackling this admitted challenge may be, sometimes concurrent studies are simply inevitable.

Choosing the Right Languages to Study at the Same Time

The Argument for Dissimilar Languages

Even if you consider yourself the Michelangelo of language learning, you will encounter obstacles as you attempt to gain proficiency in two different languages. Researchers have explored how the human brain stores different languages, with a number of factors influencing the region where linguistic information resides. Bilingual children who learn two languages concurrently often store parts of different languages in the same general area, whereas students who take on a foreign language later in life store that information in different regions of their brain.

When you learn two languages simultaneously, your brain will naturally make connections between the two. For this reason, it may be worth considering learning two languages at opposite ends of the linguistic spectrum. For example, while romance languages will share similar vocabulary words, grammatical structure and writing systems, a Germanic language and an Asian language share almost no similarities. It’s incredibly easy to trip into another foreign language when they share a similar syntax, but you’re unlikely to toss out a Japanese word or two while speaking German, for example.

Building on Previous Learning Experiences

Studying incredibly different languages may prove beneficial for some students, but others instead choose to pick a language in the same family as one they already speak. This approach helps lessen the workload for students concerned about overdoing it. Remember, regardless of which language you ultimately choose, you will want to make time to not only study your new languages, but also to continually invest in retaining your skills in other languages you speak.

Feeling stuck about where to begin? Consider this cheat sheet to learn about the specific benefits of many world languages. If you’re feeling squeamish about committing to a particular language, look for local cultural groups that offer language learning opportunities.

Meetup organizes language learning groups in many cities around the world, which can provide a starting ground for your research. If you live in a larger city, contact your nearest foreign consulate—many consuls work to promote foreign language education through various initiatives in their local communities.

Crafting a Study Strategy to Learn Different Languages at Once

Scheduling Time for Study

Even the most devoted budding linguistics often struggle to simultaneously focus on improving their skills in multiple languages. Not only is it vital to find a strategy for juggling both languages, but you’ll need to schedule time to keep both languages a priority. Some students find it beneficial to pencil language learning time onto their daily agenda, as a means of creating a lifelong habit. Even if you don’t opt to schedule your time in this way, you will need to determine what rhythm works best for your personal acquisition style.

Alternating between two languages necessitates serious time management skills. Some students alternate between different languages each week, while others spend the morning learning one language and the afternoon studying another. Choose your preferred approach and work to maximize your efforts as much as possible.

Are you familiar with the Pomodoro Technique? Developed by Francesco Cirillo, this productivity method uses short blocks of time (traditionally 25 minutes) to keep interruptions and distractions at bay. If you struggle to keep your language learning on track, use a free tool like Tomighty or Pomodairo to create these spurts of learning time. You can also get creative by exploring all of the unique ways to efficiently learn a language throughout the day.

Setting Learning Goals

Keeping your study sessions spontaneous and incorporating a myriad of learning materials will no doubt keep your language learning enjoyable, but don’t forget to set goals for yourself as you progress. Try to set defined goals and work your hardest to reach them as you improve your abilities in both languages. This will help bolster your motivation.

According to research conducted at UCLA, setting “process” goals often proves more successful than focusing on your desired outcome. For example, it might be enticing to imagine yourself chatting up your gondolier on your next trip to Rome, but you’re more likely to actually master Italian if you instead set small goals necessary to reach that dream.

Don’t simply visualize yourself speaking the language—instead, determine to master five new conjugations this week. Next week, you can focus on learning 40 new vocabulary words. Achieving these goals will provide inspiration, and each objective serves as yet another stepping stone on the way to fluency.

Immersion in Two Different Languages

Are you familiar with the expression, “Use it or lose it?” It’s hard to overstate the importance of immersing yourself in a foreign language, particularly in the beginning stages of your studies. Simple techniques like watching movies and TV offer a great starting ground, but you’ll also want to try to converse with native speakers on a regular basis.

Online Immersion with FluentU

One way to immerse yourself in a foreign language is with FluentU.

You can browse videos by difficulty (beginner to native), topic (arts and entertainment, health and lifestyle, etc.) and format (video blog, news, shows, etc.).

FluentU isn’t just watching videos—it’s about learning and actively practicing the language you hear in videos. FluentU’s unique “learn mode” will teach you all that the clip has to offer. “Learn mode” takes your learning history into account, asking questions based on what you already know, which sets you up for success.

Creating an In-depth Study Agenda

It can be hard to keep yourself from favoring one language over the other, which is why it’s beneficial to make commitments outside of your own time. Find a language exchange partner for both of the languages you’re learning and schedule meetups in advance. Volunteer for cultural events, tutor at a language institute and make friends studying the languages you enjoy. It’s one thing to skip over the 45 minutes you’ve allotted for your evening flashcards session, but chances are better than not you’ll want to keep the social engagements you have made.

Another powerful tool for ensuring you progress in multiple languages is to create an agenda for the month ahead and purposefully alternate between your chosen languages. It can feel frustrating to spend several hours mastering a certain skill in one language, only to find you need to put in time on another language. Instead, consider diverting your focus with an 80-20 approach. Devote 80% of your time for a given week on language A, before switching to language B the following week.

The Importance of Memorization Work

Ultimately, every language learner begins to grasp linguistic concepts differently, which is why it’s essential to remain flexible and experiment with various learning styles. No matter how you juggle your joint learning endeavor, however, remember to keep a keen eye on how much time you’re spending on memorization exercises.

Focus on repetition techniques to drill new vocabulary words and grammatical principles into your brain. Be careful not to neglect actual practice of your new skills, by taking the time to put them into practice. One simple way to do this is by using a combination of flashcards and writing exercises.

Take 10 new vocabulary words and spend a few days memorizing them. After you feel confident in your recall, write sentences using your new words. This helps solidify the links in your brain between your new found knowledge and its real-life application. You can also try this technique with other parts of speech, including verbs, possessive adjectives and prepositional phrases.

Studying a foreign language is perhaps one of the most fulfilling activities on the planet, but taking on two languages at the same time is no small undertaking. Carefully consider the pros and cons of learning two languages simultaneously, and make the decision that best works for you.

If you’ve got the time on your hands to make it happen, focus on creating long-term goals to keep your studies on track. With hard work and a bit of luck, you’ll be a veritable polyglot in no time.

Adam Zetterlund is a language enthusiast living in New York City. He spent five years honing his foreign language skills in Paris and London, and he currently partners with a number of international clients in a marketing capacity. Learn more by reading his blog.

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