how to learn multiple languages

Reaching New Heights: How to Learn Multiple Languages to High Levels of Fluency

So you want to be a polyglot?

It’s not exceptionally difficult to learn how to ask for the bathroom or say “I love you” in 20 different languages.

But learning multiple languages to a high level of fluency—such that you would be comfortable at a job interview or speaking in public—requires a whole different level of commitment and strategy.

Want to know what that strategy looks like? Keep reading.

Why Level of Fluency Matters When Learning Multiple Languages

Different goals require different levels of fluency

It’s always a good idea to have a goal in mind when you start learning a new skill—and languages are no exception. Do your language ambitions end with the ability to chat with people in bars in Moscow, Beijing and Paris? If so, you probably don’t need to worry too much about understanding cultural nuances and avoiding glaring grammatical mistakes—as long as your pronunciation is passable, you’ll be fine.

What if you’d actually like to become a journalist who reports stories in the Middle East and the Middle Kingdom, without using a translator or fixer? How about closing international business deals on multiple continents? Perhaps you’d like to attend a foreign university?

Those goals all require you to have a much higher level of fluency—because a lot is at stake if you make a mistake. Once you get out of informal barroom chats, you’ll start encountering more complicated and nuanced vocabulary and grammatical structures. You need to be able to both understand them and use them yourself to function appropriately in professional situations.

The higher your level of fluency, the fuller your experience with the language

When it comes to language learning, speaking a little is not necessarily just as good as speaking a lot. Even if you don’t plan to use the language professionally, it will be easier to take advantage of opportunities if you know the the language well. Let’s say, for example, that you’d like to take a course in Chinese cooking in Chengdu. You’ll need to understand the instructor’s oral instructions as well as written handouts and information scribbled on the blackboard. You’ll also get more out of the class if you’re able to banter with classmates and ask questions confidently. Those are not beginner tasks.

The ability to discuss current events, movies and even complex philosophy also allows you to become more of an active participant in any interaction with native speakers—including in barroom conversation. When you speak a language well, you’re able to interact with native speakers on the same level that they would speak with other native speakers. If your language skills are more limited, you’ll still be able to communicate. But a huge amount of potential conversation topics with native speakers will be outside of your grasp.

Higher levels of fluency are harder to achieve, but easier (and more fun!) to maintain

There’s no doubt that reaching a high level of fluency takes a lot of time and effort. On the other hand, as using your target languages becomes easier, it becomes more fun to use them and continue to improve your ability. At lower levels of fluency, an activity like watching a movie is an intellectual stretch—and it’s not relaxing at all.

Once your level improves, however, it’s fun and easy to watch a movie in your target language—and you’re able to do so without taxing your mental capacity. It’s also more likely that you’ll be using your languages as part of your career, which is important for language maintenance, especially if you’re maintaining more than one language.

How Learn Multiple Languages to Fluency

So if your goal is to reach fluency in multiple languages, here are some tips for you:

If you’re starting from zero, study two languages at a time

You’ll reach fluency in multiple languages faster if you start by learning two languages rather than proceeding one at a time. You can make a substantial amount of progress in a language with half an hour of study time per day, and most people find an hour total (half an hour for each language) a reasonable amount of time to dedicate to languages every day.

You won’t get mentally overwhelmed from two new languages at a time—but any more than that is more likely to lead to confusion, overload and burnout. Pace yourself. Reaching fluency in many languages takes time, and you’ll get better long-term mileage if you don’t take it too fast at the beginning.

Study new languages in your stronger language(s)

Once you’ve reached a certain level of comfort in one of your target languages, you can learn subsequent languages through it, solidifying both your knowledge of the stronger language and helping you get ahead in the new language. As an example, you might listen to a podcast for French speakers learning Chinese, or get a French-Chinese dictionary instead of an English-Chinese one.

If you happen to be living abroad, this is easier. When I lived in France, for example, I took both a Chinese class and an Arabic class. I learned some French in both classes. In my Chinese class, we read a story that involved magpies (pie in French, que 鹊 in Chinese). My French was pretty good, but my vocabulary did not include “magpie,” so I had to look up the word when I got home from class. I suspect if it hadn’t been for the Chinese class, I’d never have learned how to say “magpie” in French.

A quick note about laddering, or using one foreign language to learn another: It is usually only possible if both of your target languages are relatively common. Don’t expect to use Finnish to learn Bengali, for example—there just won’t be enough language material out there.

Live abroad

It’s easier to use the laddering technique if you’re living abroad—taking a class full of French speakers learning Chinese is not really possible unless you’re in a French-speaking country. Living abroad also makes practicing at least one language easier. If you’re surrounded by one of your target languages all the time, you’ll have a lot more mental energy available to focus on another two foreign languages you’re trying to improve.

Of course, the idea of living abroad can be daunting. How will you support yourself? Where will you live? How will you meet people? Here are a couple ideas for making a move abroad more manageable.

  • Connect with other people from your home country who have lived/are living in the place you’d like to move to.
  • Take a short-term trip before making a permanent move abroad. Even a week spent in the city you’d like to move to will give you an idea of how you actually like the place, what neighborhoods you might like to live in and what sorts of jobs would be open to you.
  • Figure out how you’ll make money. Maybe you’ll have saved up enough money to not work for several months or a year, in which case you don’t have to worry about this at all. Otherwise, figure out if you can teach your native language, work remotely or get a job in your field in the new country.

Cultivate equally strong relationships with each target language

Your goal should never be to “become a polyglot.” Instead, it should be to become bilingual in each individual language you intend to learn. If fluency is your goal, don’t start learning a new language just to bump up your numbers.

Instead, you should have a concrete reason for learning each language, such as:

  • Learning Spanish so that you can understand Flamenco lyrics
  • Learning Russian to communicate with your in-laws
  • Learning French because you’d like to study French cuisine in France

Having a connection to a language means a strong, emotional desire to be able to use the language. It also means that your reasons for learning the language should be constants in your life, rather than motivations that are likely to dry up after a year or two.

Create an immersion environment

An immersion environment is important for learning any language, but even more important if your goal is to learn two or more to fluency. You’ll need to maximize your time, and that means creating ways to expose yourself to your target language constantly. When learning multiple languages, it’s best to do immersion in one language at a time.

Immersion can be either physical (such as living abroad) or virtual/digital, such as watching movies, reading newspapers and listening to music exclusively in your target language. When creating a virtual immersion environment, virtual private networks (VPNs) allow you to access content like television and movies that are geoblocked—meaning that they’re restricted in certain countries.

Essentially, a VPN makes it appear as if you’re using the internet in another country rather than the United States (or wherever you currently are). By using a VPN, you can access online content as if you were in Germany, France, Japan or any other country of your choice. An easy way to set up a VPN and magically change your location is by installing HideMyAss! VPN on any of your devices—it works on your computer, smartphone and internet-enabled TVs and game systems.

FluentU is also a great way to get both language immersion and language instruction, since it turns real-world videos into personalized language lessons.

How to Take Your Fluency in Many Languages to the Next Level

Once you’re fluent in many languages, here’s how you can take it to the next level:

Live in a multilingual city

Is it possible to have immersion in more than one language at a time? If you plan correctly, yes. There are several cities where multiple language coexist—Strasbourg, France and Fribourg, Switzerland both speak French and German, and would be ideal spots for someone looking for an immersion in both languages, for example.

Alternatively, living in a multilingual city like Brussels or New York City will make opportunities to practice unrelated languages easier to come by.

Maintain a multilingual social network

Practicing your language skills should not just be about flashcards and exercises—you need to be able to have fun with the language! If you are trying to improve and maintain various languages, it’s essential to make friends who speak your target languages. This allows you to practice languages while socializing, and provides the emotional connection to the language that will make it more likely for you to continue making progress over the long haul.

Here’s some ideas for meeting (and befriending) speakers of other languages:

  • Go to language-related events organized on Meetup.com. In my experience, a fair number of native speakers attend these events.
  • Attend events at local cultural organizations like the Cervantes Institute, Confucius Institute or the Alliance Française. I’ve been to holiday celebrations at the Confucius Institute and to several events for French-speaking business people at the Alliance Française, and both have had lots of native speakers.
  • Seek out immigrant communities who speak your target languages. This might mean attending religious services in one of your target languages, doing your grocery shopping at ethnic stores and/or living in a neighborhood with a lot of people who speak your target language.

Use your languages at work

We spend a lot of time at work, and if you’re able to make your work time do double duty as language practice, you’ll have that much more time to practice. Making time for all your languages is the biggest challenge for polyglots, which is why it’s so important to multitask and use work time as yet another opportunity for language practice. Using your languages at work is generally only possible if you speak your target languages quite well.

I think it’s possible to use your target language as part of most professions, but here are some industries where you’ll be especially likely to use foreign languages:

  • Tourism. I used to work as a tour guide in New York City, and easily used all of my languages as part of work.
  • Translation and interpreting. For obvious reasons, working as a translator or interpreter requires a high level of fluency and can also let you use many languages on the job.
  • Journalism. You don’t need to speak a foreign language to work as a journalist, but writing about immigrant communities and/or foreign countries will give you a chance to practice your target languages!

There are many, many more ways to use your language skills on the job. Although being a real estate agent isn’t necessarily a language-heavy career, you could easily build a reputation as the Spanish-and-Chinese-speaking real estate agent in your area and work with immigrant communities who speak those languages.

The same goes for a lot of professions. Using languages at work requires a little creativity, but can often work with any career!

Build a multilingual family

Aside from work, though, we tend to spend a lot of time with our families. Ideally, polyglots will be able to use family time as language time, too. If you happen to marry someone who speaks one of your target languages (or all of them!), good for you. It will make it a little easier to practice that language. But it’s certainly not a requirement for multilingualism.

However, spouses are an important part of your family, and ideally polyglots are going to want a spouse that at least appreciates multilingualism. Even if your spouse speaks the same native language as you, it’s great if he or she speaks at least one other language.

Children also represent both challenges and opportunities for polyglots, and using your children to help advance your language goals doesn’t require restricting who you can marry. To take advantage of the language potential of raising children, make teaching them your target languages a priority. Here are a couple ways to do so:

  • Hire nannies who speak one of your target languages, and instruct him or her to use that language with your child(ren).
  • Read children’s books in your target languages with your kids.
  • Enroll your kids in an immersion program—they will probably be teaching you new words within a couple of years and parent-teacher conferences will suddenly become language practice opportunities.
  • If you live in a reasonably multilingual city, try to find families who speak you target languages who also have kids around the same age as yours. Encourage playdates. Chat with the parents while the kids play.

Have at least one hobby related to each language

Granted, that might add up to a lot of hobbies if you speak six or seven languages! However, a hobby related to your target language provides a crucial part of your emotional connection to the language. They are also a potent reminder that learning a language isn’t always an end in and of itself, it is a means of connecting with another culture and communicating with people.

What’s a language-related hobby? Let’s say you practice tai chi and speak Chinese. The fact that you speak Chinese opens up new opportunities for studying tai chi. The reverse is also true—attending a tai chi course in China will give you more opportunities for studying Chinese, since studying tai chi with Chinese classmates opens up otherwise inaccessible opportunities for friendship.

Here are some examples of hobbies that can be enhanced by language learning:

  • Cooking. Perhaps I think of it because I love to cook, but a love of cuisine is the perfect match for polyglots, because it can be synergistic with all of your languages. Watch cooking shows in French, study cooking in Chinese, read Russian cookbooks. All languages have a matching cuisine, and if you know the language you’ll have a lot more resources available to you when it comes to learning about the cuisine.
  • Music. Music is another relatively versatile hobby when it comes to language learning, because most cultural have some kind of musical tradition. I knew a Japanese woman in China who took erhu lessons (an erhu is a two-stringed Chinese instrument), whereas I took guitar lessons in Spain and knew several American students who took voice lessons in Russia.
  • Dance. Most serious students of Flamenco speak at least some Spanish, because Flamenco teachers in Spain almost never speak English. Arabic-speaking bellydancers will have a lot more success finding a teacher in the Middle East or just connecting with visiting teachers in their home country. Like Samba? Wouldn’t dance lessons in Brazil be great—and that much greater if the classes are in Portuguese?

Consume media—books, movies, news, music—in all your languages

Media is your best friend for maintaining and even improving your language skills! Here’s the good news about reaching a high level of fluency: Once you’re there, watching a movie or reading a book in your target language is fun, not work.

This is another time when VPNs come in handy, because many television shows are only available in the country they are produced in (but can be a source of fun and language learning!). News sites are also a fabulous way to stay current on what’s happening in countries where your target language is spoken and practice your language skills. If you’re on a budget, libraries often have a surprisingly wide selection of books in foreign languages.

 

When it comes to learning multiple languages, your level of fluency matters. The more fluent you get, the more fun you are going to have with the languages and the more likely it is that you’ll be able to stay fluent over the long haul. There are plenty of ways to both get to a high level of fluency and stay there—and you don’t need to do all of them for any one language.

If you’re learning and maintaining multiple languages, it’s best if you can do at least one of the above techniques for each of your languages—maybe use one of your target languages at work, another with your spouse and children, and go to religious services in a third language.

Before you know it, you’ll be on your way to total fluency in many languages.


Emily Liedel is a writer and polyglot. She speaks French, Spanish, Russian, German and Mandarin Chinese—her goal is to speak all of the official UN languages fluently (HINT: Arabic is the language left on her list). She writes about language learning and living abroad at www.thebabeltimes.com.

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