Learning a Third Language: 7 Study Tips for Aspiring Trilinguals
So you want to add a third language to your arsenal but don’t know when’s the right time to start?
In this post, I’m sharing seven hacks to help you navigate the unique challenges of becoming a trilingual and how to determine if you’re ready to start learning a third language!
- How to Learn a Third Language
- 1. Avoid starting more than one new language at once
- 2. Focus on staying balanced and improving your time management
- 3. Learn languages from unrelated families
- 4. Use language immersion media
- 5. Try different learning resources
- 6. Explore language-specific learning communities
- 7. Stay consistent and patient
- When to Start Learning a Third Language?
- And One More Thing...
How to Learn a Third Language
One quick note—I’ll be referring to your second language as L2 (Language 2) and your third language as L3 (Language 3) throughout this post.
1. Avoid starting more than one new language at once
If you’re a complete beginner in a new language, whether you’re already bilingual from childhood or not, you’ll hit a bit of a learning curve when starting again as an adult.
If you take on two (or more) brand new languages at the same time, this can easily result in frustration.
You can double-check your level with the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) chart used in the European Union.
The CEFR chart is incredibly detailed and lists language levels from A1 (just beyond raw beginner) to C2 (near native fluency) in all skill areas: reading, writing, listening and speaking.
You can take exams to ascertain your true language level, but this isn’t terribly necessary. If you’re around B2 in your passive skills (reading and listening) and around B1 in active skills (speaking and writing), you can comfortably move on to your next language. This level will have you understanding most newspapers and mainstream novels, as well as most formal talk radio (like news or talk shows, but maybe not super casual shows).
Another good reason to get to an intermediate level in your L2 before starting an L3 is because high-intermediate level languages are easier to maintain with less work. The longer you learn a language, the longer it’ll take for it to deteriorate from underuse.
It will also be easier to avoid mixing up the two languages, confusing things like vocabulary, grammar pattern and accents.
You can use passive activities (like reading novels and listening to radio) to keep your L2 healthy while you focus more intensively on L3.
And since we want to be able to speak and use our languages, make sure you keep writing and speaking your L2 through sites like Lang-8 (an online journal where native speakers correct your writing), online forums and through language exchange sites.
italki is our favorite option for language exchange, especially if you want to consider going the extra mile and hiring a professional language tutor. You can use this site to participate in both!
L3 can be your priority language for things that take more energy, like textbooks and active vocab learning.
2. Focus on staying balanced and improving your time management
Languages take work. It takes hundreds to thousands of hours to learn a language to a high level, and after that you need to maintain the language if you expect to keep it active for long periods of time. If you have responsibilities outside of language learning, which you most likely do, things can get pretty busy!
This is where time management comes in. When taking on big projects like multiple languages, it’s important to know where your time is going and how you can use it more efficiently.
Timeboxing and timers
Timeboxing is a famous technique that helps you accomplish big tasks by breaking them up into small, doable blocks. This is essential when you’re working on big, amorphous projects like learning Chinese or Spanish!
If you want to get in two hours of active study each day, try breaking it up into 20 minute timeboxes to maximize your focus and mental resources. The goal is to make a block of time so small that your procrastinating subconscious will be willing to do it.
Timers are obviously essential to timeboxing efficiently. There are plenty of apps you can use, but I personally love Forest for iOS and Android. Not only does the app block all other apps on your phone for maximum productivity, but for each time block you complete, you get a little shrub or tree in your virtual garden. It seems silly, but it’s motivating!
You can also turn to language learning apps, such as FluentU or Duolingo. These apps are quite efficient at consistently keeping you on your toes with manageable but comprehensive lessons. Many of them come equipped with time management and goal-keeping features.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Micro and macro time management
This isn’t as confusing as it sounds, believe me. For micro time management, you want to keep track of the small blocks of time you spend learning L3 and maintaining L2. Think in terms of hours or even minutes. Keep track of textbook time, reading time and, to make sure both languages are active, make sure you keep track of any time spent in language exchange and doing shadowing (a technique for practicing speaking skills without a partner):
With macro time management, you’ll want to think about how often you focus on each language on a weekly or monthly basis. A great way to manage your languages is to focus on L2 one week (focus on language exchange, textbooks, etc. while you study L3 passively through listening and some reading) and then switch for the next. This way, each of your languages gets time as the priority language, and you get to use and learn both!
3. Learn languages from unrelated families
With related languages, you can “cheat” with cognates and grammar similarities. On the other hand, similar languages can be confused more easily than can those with more distant relations (or no relation whatsoever).
For example, when I started learning Spanish after French (both are Romance languages, sharing Latin as a common ancestor), I found myself inserting French words into my Spanish whenever I forgot something and vice versa. But, when I learned Dutch, the same mix-ups didn’t happen quite as often. My theory is that the grammar is dissimilar enough that my brain didn’t think that they belonged together.
Unrelated languages might require more time to learn vocabulary and grammar, but they’re easier to keep separate in your head. Unless you’re learning your fifth, sixth or seventh language, learning a third that’s unrelated to your L2 can seem just as hard as starting all over again.
Spanish, for me, seemed very easy and fast after learning French (my L2). However, with Dutch and other non-Romance languages I’ve dabbled in, I’ve found them to be just as difficult as when I started with French. The only advantage I have is that I know I can do it because I’ve done it before!
So, if you’re in the midst of choosing an L3, pay attention to language families. Research them. Compare and contrast! The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has compiled a chart of the hours it takes native English speakers to learn certain popular languages. And, to give you an idea of how languages can be related, here’s a graphic of the Indo-European language family, which includes most European and some Asian languages. Knowing how language families work can let you know ahead of time about any problems you might have.
4. Use language immersion media
When picking up an unrelated language, media-based immersion is important, especially through listening. When I decide to dabble in a language that doesn’t bear many similarities to those I already know, the first thing I do is listen to tons of music and talk radio in the language.
Sites like TuneIn Radio allow you to choose radio stations by location or, in the iOS version, by language. A few hours of listening, even if you don’t understand, provides you with a sense of the sounds and rhythms of the language. You’ll feel more familiar with the language and might even start hearing certain common words over and over again. Then, when you dive into vocabulary and grammar, you’ll already recognize quite a bit!
5. Try different learning resources
Explore learning resources beyond traditional textbooks such as online courses, language learning podcasts, and virtual language exchange meetups. In addition to music and talk radio, you can diversify your immersion experience with movies, TV shows, and online content in your third language. Platforms like Netflix and YouTube offer a wealth of options with subtitles to help you learn new words.
Engaging with various forms of media exposes you to different accents, colloquial expressions, and cultural nuances. You can also use language learning apps which offer interactive lessons and gamified challenges. Be brave and experiment with different resources to discover what resonates best with your learning style and keeps you motivated!
6. Explore language-specific learning communities
When learning a new language, chances are that you don’t have many friends who speak that language, but that’s where online forums come in. I always try to engage in language-specific forums, social media groups, or Discord channels dedicated to my third language.
Participate in virtual language meetups, where you can engage in real-time conversations with native speakers and fellow learners. These communities provide a supportive environment for sharing resources, seeking advice, and celebrating language learning achievements.
7. Stay consistent and patient
Now that you know how to manage your time and have plenty of resources to help you learn your L3, the last tip that I have for you is to establish a study routine that aligns with your schedule and personal preferences.
Consistency is key, so prioritize regular, shorter study sessions over sporadic, longer ones. Don’t be afraid of language learning setbacks, but embrace them and use as opportunities for growth, and don’t hesitate to revisit foundational concepts if needed.
Patience is a virtue in language acquisition, and maintaining a positive mindset ensures a more enjoyable and sustainable learning experience!
When to Start Learning a Third Language?
It’s recommended to start learning your third language once your skills in the second language are at the upper-beginner or intermediate level—or higher. Get into a good rhythm studying the first one. Aim for a B1 to B2 level on the CEFR chart.
This ensures a more seamless transition into a new language but also aids in maintaining the skills acquired in your second language, preventing the risk of forgetting what you have learned in your second language and confusion between the languages.
There you have it!
Now, armed with knowledge, you can get out there and learn your L3 in earnest.
But beware, the addiction doesn’t end here—you might just get a taste for language #4!
And One More Thing...
If you dig the idea of learning on your own time from the comfort of your smart device with real-life authentic language content, you'll love using FluentU.
With FluentU, you'll learn real languages—as they're spoken by native speakers. FluentU has a wide variety of videos as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn't catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU's "learn mode." Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You get a truly personalized experience.
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