Do you like living life on the edge?
Are you a person of extremes?
Do you do everything at 200%?
Then I bet you’re learning two languages at once, aren’t you?
For those of you whose appetites for language learning are so voracious that one language at a time simply isn’t enough to keep you satisfied, or those of you just looking to add some spice to your language learning, here are nine tips to help you get started learning two languages at once—without having your brain explode.
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Why Learn Two Languages at Once?
Some people might suggest that you would only ever want to learn two languages at once if you have a healthy streak of masochism in you. There is a grain of truth to this: If you approach learning two languages simultaneously the same way you’d approach learning a single language, you are asking for trouble (remember, the worst-case scenario here is that your brain explodes–not a pretty outcome).
However, if you begin with a game plan that takes advantage of the fact that you’re learning two languages at the same time, you will not only prove the skeptics wrong but actually find that learning two languages at once is a uniquely rewarding experience.
Learning two languages at once stretches your mind in a totally new way. Having to frequently switch back and forth between new languages keeps you alert and ultimately provokes you to be more proactive in the way you approach learning languages and organizing your time. And meeting the challenge of learning two languages at once head on isn’t just exhilarating in and of itself–it hones your language learning skills in a way that will make learning future languages faster and easier.
If there’s one thing that sets successful language learners apart, it’s knowing that language learning is a skill that can be developed. And nothing makes you a better language learner than tackling two languages at the same time. If learning a language makes you better at everything down the road by making you a more flexible thinker, learning two languages at once makes you doubly better at everything by making your brain downright elastic.
So the challenge of learning two languages simultaneously is a double-edged sword. It’s hard enough to figure out how to learn just one language! If you wade haphazardly into two-at-a-time language learning, you may find yourself throwing in the towel before too long. But if you tweak your language learning strategies by using some of the tips presented here and commit yourself fully to doubling down on language learning, you’ll find that you’re capable of things you never thought possible.
9 Killer Tips for Learning Two Languages at Once
1. Learn Languages That Are Different
On the surface, learning two similar languages at the same time might seem like a good idea. After all, if two languages share a lot of vocabulary and structure, isn’t learning both languages at once sort of just like learning one language?
The truth, though, is that it is never, ever, ever a good idea to study two mutually intelligible (or even moderately similar) languages at the same time unless your life depends on it—and even then, you may want to take a good look at your options. When learning two languages simultaneously, the first order of the day is to do everything you can to minimize what I’ll call the confusion factor–the chance of getting words and grammar from the two languages mixed up.
This is your mantra when learning two languages side by side: minimize the confusion factor. Most of the tips here are essentially ways to minimize the confusion factor. And learning two languages that resemble each other at once ensures that confusion is all but inevitable. Learning two highly similar languages at the same time is like dating identical twins at the same time. It’s just not a good idea.
So if you’re already learning Spanish, put the Italian on hold and go for the Finnish. Or if the two languages you’re learning use different scripts, all the better. Spanish and Chinese are a great combination–they have absolutely nothing in common, and if you learn them as an English speaker, you’ll have the world’s three most common languages at the tip of your fingers (but hopefully not the tip of your tongue).
For the same reason, learning two “easy” Romance languages at the same time generally isn’t as clever a plan as it sounds. If you go the route of learning Spanish and Portuguese together, you might find that your language learning more closely follows the five stages of grief than the ten stages of Spanish grammar learning.
But if you opt for two languages that have little in common, you’ll paradoxically be gaining a broader perspective and making your life easier at the same time.
2. Pair More and Less Familiar Languages
One way to simplify the process of learning two languages at once is by choosing one more familiar and one less familiar language to learn. If you already speak some Italian, for example, French and Russian might go well together.
The idea here is that much of the structure of Italian and some of the vocabulary will transfer over to French, so you’ll be learning Russian from scratch and learning another Romance language rather than learning two languages from scratch. Notice that this approach is different than learning Italian and French at the same time since it involves building off of a language you’ve already internalized. It also helps minimize the confusion factor since the two languages you’re learning become “the one like Italian” and “the weird one” rather than just two unknowns.
If you don’t know any languages other than English and you’re choosing to study two languages simultaneously as your first go at language learning—you daredevil, you—there is a variation on this technique that involves learning one language that’s easier for English speakers to pick up and one that’s generally harder. Like Dutch and Korean, for example.
Check out this infographic to get a sense of the easiest and hardest languages for English speakers so you know what you’re getting into.
3. Choose a “Priority” Language
If you still aren’t sure about taking the leap and going for two languages at once, you can set a “priority” language. That way, you can shoot for two languages at once but know you’ll at least come away with one new language under your multilingual belt.
Even if you’re absolutely sure that you’re in it for two languages, setting a priority language is an effective way of minimizing the confusion factor—just like it’s easier to eat one entree and one dessert, you’ll find your appetite for language learning expands when you have one “priority” and one “side” language on the table. And progressing more quickly at one of the two languages you’re working on will help stave off the feeling of running in place that can occasionally creep up on two-at-a-time language learners.
4. Plan How Much Time to Spend on Each Language
Learning two languages at once is an exercise in time management. It’s a tightrope act that only works if you do some planning in advance.
The first step is to accept that if you’re taking on two languages at once, you’re in for a bigger learning curve than you would be if you were targeting a single language. Things will just take longer. Although learning a second language is definitely easier than learning a first language, learning two languages at a time really can be twice as hard as learning one.
If you have a need for speed, two languages may not be the way to go. But if your goal is to challenge yourself and expand your horizons, it’s best to preface your double shot of language learning with a healthy dose of patience so you can be prepared for and power through the times that seem like slow going.
Once you’re ready for the different pace that two-in-one language learning entails, it’s also more than worth it to plan out exactly how you’re going to divide your time between the two languages you’re tackling. If you can write out a daily schedule, all the better. And make sure you’re getting in regular practice on both languages. If you do one language for a week, then do the other language the next week, and so on, you’ll likely find yourself in a one-step-forward-one-step-back dance that ends exactly where you started!
Planning ahead can be mixed and matched with the two techniques mentioned above—pairing more/less familiar languages and choosing a priority language–in different ways. For instance, if you’re aiming for Dutch and Korean, you might set Korean as your priority language and spend 85% of your time on Korean, leaving Dutch as the cherry on top of your language learning.
Or you might opt for a more balanced approach by dividing your time 55%/45% between Dutch and Korean respectively and progressing more quickly with Dutch. However you decide to do it, you’ll want to (1) make sure you aren’t just winging your tightrope walk day-to-day and (2) have a solid idea of what your goals are and where exactly you want the tightrope walk to be taking you anyway.
5. Give the Two Languages Separate “Identities”
A big part of minimizing the confusion factor essentially boils down to giving the two languages you’re learning strong, clear identities in your mind. In the end, perhaps the best way to do this is through immersion–the more you use a given language in real-life situations, the more you internalize it as something with an identity unto itself. Putting the languages you’re learning to practical use will do wonders for helping you keep them distinct.
One way to immerse yourself online is with FluentU, an immersive language learning platform.
You can also try color coding your language learning materials to reinforce the separate identities of the two languages. For instance, if you’re learning Spanish and Chinese, try making all your Spanish flashcards red and all your Chinese flashcards blue. Then, optionally, remind yourself every day:
Spanish is red,
Chinese is blue,
I will learn both,
If it’s the last thing I do!
6. Practice Both Languages at Once by Translating Between Them
One of the best reasons to study two languages at the same time is that doing so opens up new, more efficient learning strategies. When you learn one language at a time, you run the risk of relating everything back to your native language and making the language you’re already fluent in your permanent point of reference, so the new language becomes an “extension” of the language you’re familiar with rather than something you internalize on a deep, intuitive level.
But when you’re learning two languages at the same time, you can practice translation by cutting out the middleman of English: Simply translate between the two new languages you’re learning! Besides giving you a chance to work on both languages at once, this exercise helps get you “thinking” in the languages you’re learning rather than constantly returning to your habitual language.
You can even up the ante by translating across different languages and linguistic mediums. If you’re learning Spanish and Chinese, for example, try writing a passage in Spanish and then verbally translating it into Chinese. Of course, this is a bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, but the difference is that you’ll learn a lot and probably have more fun.
7. Mix Up Your Flashcards to Learn Both Languages Simultaneously
Here’s another way to mix things up (literally) with some multilingual multitasking. If you like your language learning with a large side of flashcards, take some of your flashcards for both languages and mix them together so you’re quizzing yourself on both languages at once. Besides letting you practice the two languages simultaneously, this technique gets your brain quickly switching back and forth between the different languages you’re learning, a skill that will make you a more effective two-in-one language learner.
Now, if you’re the skeptical type, you might be thinking: But didn’t you say it’s important to minimize the confusion factor and keep the two languages separate? So aren’t exercises like mixing up flashcards and translating between the two languages bad ideas?
Well, I submit to you that although it’s important to pick two very different languages to avoid confusion, going back and forth quickly between the two languages you’ve picked paradoxically helps you keep them separate. Practicing switching from one language to the other at the drop of a dime will help you build the flexibility necessary for keeping the two languages separate and alternating back and forth without getting overwhelmed.
8. Try Learning the Same Topics in Both Languages at the Same Time
Since you’re probably already planning your two-in-one language learning schedule out in advance (if you’re not, don’t say I didn’t warn you!), experiment with taking things a step further and actually plan to do some of the same topics in both languages at once.
Why go to the trouble of doing this? The answer comes from a psychological effect known as “priming.” Priming has to do with how the things you think about now affect the things you will think about in the future. For example, if I were to say the word “cat” and then ask you to immediately list ten words that come to mind, it’s more likely that “dog” would be one of those words than “potato”—you’ve been “primed” to think about things related to cats.
Similarly, if you learn the word for “cat” in Spanish and then go to learn the same word in Chinese, you’ll find that you already have cats on the brain, so the word in Chinese “sticks” in your memory more easily. Going from Spanish “cat” to Chinese “potato,” on the other hand, requires a bit more overhead because you have to shut down the little part of your brain that thinks about cats and fire up the section of your brain that deals with potatoes. Switching from Spanish “cat” to Chinese “dog” is less work, since dogs are associated with cats.
On the other hand, if you really want to learn Spanish “cat” and Chinese “potato” at the same time, just make the two words more closely associated in your mind by taking a look at this picture (or this or this)–you’ll never again be able to think of cats without also thinking of potatoes!
9. Be Adaptable
Remember that ultimately, only you can judge how well your learning strategies are working for you. Take note of how things are going (a journal is a great way to do this) and adjust your language learning roadmap accordingly. The more adaptable you are, the easier it is to learn languages–and, happily, the more you learn languages, the more adaptable you get! This is, well, doubly true when you’re learning two languages at once.
Maybe the most exciting aspect of learning two languages at the same time is being on the cutting edge of language learning. People have often shied away from doubling down on language learning because, approaching two-in-one language learning the same way they’d approach one-at-a-time language learning. They come to the conclusion that the challenges of studying two languages at once outweigh the benefits. As a result, there is less information out there on learning two languages at the same time, simply because fewer people have done it—which means you are in an excellent position to discover interesting new language learning techniques along the way.
So take the tips listed here, go for it, and let us know if you find any cool new tricks while you’re at it!
This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you
can take anywhere.
Click here to get a copy. (Download)
And One More Thing...
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