Learning Two Languages at Once? Here Are 16 Tips You’ve Gotta Use
Do you like living life on the edge and doing everything at 200%?
Then I bet you’re learning two languages at once, aren’t you?
Maybe your appetite for language learning is so voracious that one language at a time simply isn’t enough to keep you satisfied, or maybe you’re just looking to add some spice to your language learning.
Either way, here are 16 tips to help you get started learning multiple languages at once—without having your brain explode.
- Why Learn Two Languages at Once?
- 16 Killer Tips for Learning Multiple Languages at Once
- 1. Learn languages that are different
- 2. Pair more and less familiar languages
- 3. Study new languages in your stronger language(s)
- 4. Give your target languages separate “identities”
- 5. Consider choosing a “priority” language
- 6. Decide how much time to spend on each language
- 7. Cultivate equal relationships with each target language
- 8. Mix up your flashcards to learn languages simultaneously
- 9. Learn the same topics in multiple languages at the same time
- 10. Practice multiple languages at once by translating between them
- 11. Live in a place that speaks at least one of your languages
- 12. Maintain a multilingual social network
- 13. Use your languages at work
- 14. Have at least one hobby related to each language
- 15. Consume media in all your languages
- 16. Be adaptable in your language learning techniques
Why Learn Two Languages at Once?
There are many reasons you might choose to learn two (or more!) languages at the same time:
Different goals in different languages. Maybe you want the ability to chat in Paris bars, but you’re also aiming to become a journalist who reports stories on the Middle East without using a translator. Maybe you want to close international business deals on multiple continents, or attend a foreign university in a multilingual program.
Deeper cultural connections and understanding. Whatever your reasons for learning each individual language, learning multiple languages offers you a wider circle of people you can communicate with, as well as enhanced cultural and cross-cultural knowledge. You’ll also be able to consume media from vastly different regions and improve your general knowledge of the world.
Mental stimulation and continued learning. Learning two languages at once stretches your mind in a totally new way. Switching back and forth between foreign languages keeps your brain sharp and challenges you to be more proactive and organized. Even better–it hones your language learning skills in a way that will make learning future languages faster and easier.
- It’s fun! Of course, that’s not to say it’s easy to learn multiple languages at the same time. But once you start attaining higher levels of fluency, you’ll find that using your target languages is more enjoyable than it is work. It’s even better if you’re able to find ways to enjoy the process along the way, too.
Learning two languages at once is a uniquely rewarding experience. And because even one additional language gives you a host of advantages, learning two or more will more than double those benefits.
If there’s one thing that sets successful language learners apart, it’s knowing that language learning is a skill that can be developed. Nothing makes you a better language learner than tackling two or more languages at the same time!
16 Killer Tips for Learning Multiple 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 they 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 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 business is to do everything you can to minimize the confusion factor–the chance of getting words and grammar from the languages mixed up.
In fact, most of the tips here are essentially ways to minimize the confusion factor. And learning two languages that resemble each other ensures that confusion is all but inevitable. It’s just not a good idea.
So if you’re already learning Spanish, put the Italian on hold and go for Finnish.
If the two languages you’re learning use different scripts, all the better. Spanish and Chinese are a great combination–they have 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 try 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 to choose one language that’s more familiar to you and one that’s less familiar to you.
If you already speak some Italian, for example, you might choose to learn French. The idea is that much of the structure of Italian and some of the vocabulary will transfer over to French.
For your second language, you might select Russian, which is completely different from both French and Italian. That way, you’ll be learning Russian from scratch and learning another Romance language, rather than learning two languages from scratch.
Note that this approach is different than learning Italian and French at the same time, because:
- It involves building off of a language you’ve already internalized (in this example, Italian).
- It helps minimize the confusion factor for your new languages—French becomes “the one like Italian” and Russian is “the other one” (rather than two unknowns).
If you don’t know any languages other than English, you can still make use of this tip. Choose 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 site to get a sense of the easiest and hardest languages for English speakers so you know what you’re getting into.
3. Study new languages in your stronger language(s)
If you’ve already reached a higher fluency level in a second language, this tip is for you.
Once you’ve attained a certain level of comfort in a non-native language, you can learn subsequent languages through it. This will both solidify your knowledge of the stronger language and help you get ahead in the new language.
For instance, imagine you’re a native English speaker with a pretty comfortable grasp on French. To then learn Chinese, you might listen to a podcast for French speakers learning Chinese, or get a French-Chinese dictionary instead of an English-Chinese one.
This technique is called laddering, and it’s extremely useful for keeping your brain in “foreign language mode.”
Just note that it’s usually only possible if both of your 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.
4. Give your target languages separate “identities”
A big part of minimizing the confusion factor boils down to giving the two languages you’re learning strong, clear identities in your mind.
Perhaps the best way to do this is through immersion—the more you use a given language, the more you internalize it as something with an identity unto itself. We’ll talk more about this later.
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!
5. Consider choosing a “priority” language
If you still aren’t sure about taking the leap and going for two (or more) languages at once, you can set a “priority” language for which you’ll devote a larger amount of your time and energy.
That way, you can shoot for two languages but still know you’ll come away with at least one 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 entrée and one dessert, you’ll find your appetite for language learning expands when you have one “priority” and one “side” language on the table.
Plus, 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. It’s easier to stay motivated when you can see your progress.
6. Decide how much time to spend on each language
Learning multiple languages at once is an exercise in time management. It’s a tightrope act that only works if you do some planning in advance.
Before you start studying, figure out exactly how you’re going to divide your time between the languages you’re tackling. If you have a priority language, devote most of your time to that one, and choose to study it during the times you have the most energy and focus.
Tracking your hours and setting a regular study routine will help you stay organized. You want to:
- Make sure you aren’t just winging your tightrope walk day-to-day.
- Have a solid idea of your goals and where exactly you want the tightrope walk to take you.
You should also be aware that you’re in for a bigger learning curve than you would be if you were targeting a single language. Things will just take longer. If you have a need for speed, then multiple languages at one time 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 the time commitment and power through.
7. Cultivate equal relationships with each target language
Yes, even if you’ve chosen a priority language!
Your goal should not be to “become a polyglot.” Instead, it should be to become bilingual in each individual language you intend to learn. If fluency is your ultimate goal, don’t start learning new languages just to bump up your numbers.
Instead, 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 cuisine in France
Having a relationship or connection to a language means you have 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.
8. Mix up your flashcards to learn languages simultaneously
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 practicing two or more languages at the same time.
Now, you might be thinking: “But didn’t you say it’s important to minimize the confusion factor and keep my languages separate? What gives?”
Well, it is important to pick two very different languages to avoid confusion, but the act of switching quickly between the languages you’ve picked actually helps you keep them separate.
Changing from one language to the other at the drop of a dime will help you build the necessary flexibility for multilingual skills, allowing you to alternate back and forth without getting overwhelmed—a skill that will make you a more effective two-in-one language learner.
9. Learn the same topics in multiple languages at the same time
As you plan your studies, experiment with taking things a step further by learning the same thing across both or all of your languages.
Why? Because of 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 near future.
For example, if I 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,” because dogs and cats are more closely related and you’ve been primed to think about things related to cats.
Similarly, if you learn the word for “cat” in Spanish and then learn the same word in Chinese, you’ll likely find that the Chinese word for “cat” sticks in your memory more easily since you already have cats on the brain.
Going from Spanish “cat” to Chinese “potato,” on the other hand, requires a bit more effort, because you have to shut down the part of your brain that thinks about cats and fire up the section that deals with potatoes. Switching from Spanish “cat” to Chinese “dog” is less work, since, again, dogs are associated with cats.
Use this to your advantage and plan your language learning in a way that allows you to study smarter, not harder!
10. Practice multiple languages at once by translating between them
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 native language.
When learning one language at a time, you run the risk of relating everything back to your native language and thereby making that language your permanent point of reference. That means your new language becomes an “extension” of your native tongue 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 your native language. Simply translate between the two new ones you’re learning!
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 at least this way you’ll learn a lot (and probably have more fun)!
11. Live in a place that speaks at least one of your languages
Living abroad makes practicing language easier, because you’ll likely need it to do simple, daily tasks and interact with other people.
It’s also easier to use the laddering technique if you’re living abroad. When I lived in France, for example, I took both a Chinese class and an Arabic class, but I learned some French in both classes as well.
Of course, the idea of living abroad can be daunting. Here are a couple ideas for making a move abroad more manageable:
- Connect with others, especially people from your home country who have lived/are living in the place you think you’d like to move to.
- Take a short-term trip first to get an idea of how much you like the place, which neighborhoods you prefer and what sorts of jobs would be open to you.
- Figure out if you can save enough money to not work for awhile. Otherwise, determine your work situation—whether that’s teaching your native language, working remotely or getting a job in your field.
You may also consider moving to a multilingual city, either abroad or in your own country. If you plan correctly, this could immerse you in both (or several) of your target languages at once.
In Strasbourg, France and Fribourg, Switzerland, for example both French and German are spoken, and would be ideal for someone looking for immersion in both languages. Alternatively, a multilingual city like Brussels or New York will make opportunities to practice unrelated languages easier to come by.
12. Maintain a multilingual social network
Practicing your language skills should go beyond flashcards and exercises—you need to be able to have fun with each language!
If you’re trying to improve and maintain various languages, it’s essential to make friends who speak your target languages. This will allow you to practice while socializing, and it provides an emotional connection to the language that makes it more likely you’ll continue making progress in the long haul.
Here are some ideas for meeting and befriending speakers of other languages:
- Go to language-related events. You can find organized get-togethers on Meetup.com or through various Facebook groups. In my experience, a fair number of native speakers attend these events, often with similar goals of meeting others and chatting.
- Attend events at local cultural organizations. The Cervantes Institute, Confucius Institute or the Alliance Française, for example, all hold events at the local level. You’ll often find other language learners and plenty 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.
13. Use your languages at work
We spend a lot of time at work. If you’re able to make your work time do double duty as language practice, you’ll have that much more time to practice!
Of course, this is generally only possible if you speak your target languages quite well.
Here are some industries where you’d 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, but it 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 likely give you a chance to practice your target languages.
And it’s probably possible to use your target language as part of most professions, honestly. For example, 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.
Using languages at work may require a little creativity, but is definitely doable and can even benefit your career.
14. Have at least one hobby related to each language
That might add up to a lot of hobbies if you speak six or seven languages! However, a related hobby provides a crucial part of your emotional connection to the language.
Hobbies 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.
These are some examples of hobbies that can be enhanced by language learning:
- Cooking. Watch cooking shows in French, study cuisine in Chinese or read Russian cookbooks. All languages have a matching cuisine, and if you know the language, you’ll have more resources when it comes to learning about the food.
- Music. Music is another versatile hobby when it comes to language learning. You might take erhu lessons in Chinese, guitar lessons in Spanish or voice lessons in German.
- Dance. Flamenco teachers in Spain almost never speak English, so knowing Spanish will help you immensely. Arabic-speaking belly dancers will have more success finding a teacher in the Middle East than non-speakers. And wouldn’t samba lessons in Brazil be great—and that much greater if the classes were in Portuguese?
15. Consume media in all your languages
Media is your best friend for maintaining and improving your language skills. The good news about reaching a high level of fluency is that once you’re there, watching a movie or reading a book in your target language is fun, not work.
If you’re on a budget, libraries often have a surprisingly wide selection of books in other languages, too. Foreign language news sites are also a fabulous way to stay current on what’s happening in countries where your target language is spoken.
If you want both language immersion and language instruction, you can try using FluentU. This language learning program turns real-world videos into personalized language lessons.
FluentU uses authentic, engaging videos from native sources—everything from news clips to music videos to inspirational talks—to teach you how your target language functions and sounds in a natural context.
Each video features interactive captions, so you can look up unfamiliar words and phrases to increase your fluency as you go. The words can also be saved as multimedia flashcards, and you can take personalized quizzes based on what you watch.
FluentU currently features 10 different languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Russian, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and English. So if you’re learning both Spanish and Chinese, you can watch authentic media and quiz yourself on words in both languages right in the same app.
The program tracks your progress in each language you’re studying, whether you’re accessing FluentU through your browser or in the iOS or Android app.
16. Be adaptable in your language learning techniques
You can and should play around with different study methods as you’re learning multiple languages at once. Use flashcards for vocabulary, listen to podcasts and work through textbook exercises. Find language learning apps that cater to your target languages.
There’s no right or wrong way to become a polyglot. Ultimately, only you can judge how well your learning strategies are working for you.
So take note of how things are going—you could even do this in one or more of your target languages by keeping a journal. Review your notes from time to time and adjust your language learning roadmap accordingly.
The more adaptable you are, the easier it is to learn languages—and the more you learn languages, the more adaptable you get! This is, well, doubly true when you’re learning two languages at once.
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!