So You Wanna Speak 3 Languages? 3 Hacks for Aspiring Trilinguals

Some of us were initially monolingual learners, and the literature, movies and people of a second culture keep us coming back for more.

Some of us are brought up bilingual and intimately know how a second language can enrich lives.

So how do you go about adding a third language to your arsenal?

Here are three hacks to help you navigate the unique challenges of becoming a trilingual!


3 Hacks for Aspiring Trilinguals

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. Keep this in mind, and now move right on to the hacks!

1. Avoid starting more than one new language at once

As with all topics, there are different viewpoints on this, but here’s my two cents.

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. Whether you’re learning as a part of a class, through a program like FluentU or on your own, you have to learn how to learn.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Click here to check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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If you take on two (or more) brand new languages at the same time, this can easily result in frustration. Frustration could lead you to tossing out the whole enterprise altogether. That’s not very productive, huh?

I recommend starting your L3 once your skills in the L2 are at the upper-beginner or intermediate level—or higher. Get into a good rhythm studying the first one. 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. You don’t want to forget everything you’ve done with your L2, right? Of course not! 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.

Which brings me to Hack #2….

2. Focus on staying balanced and improving your time management

Think sustainability.

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 want to get in two hours of active study in each day, try breaking it up into 20 minute timeboxes to maximize your focus and mental resources. Khatzumoto from All Japanese All The Time recommends getting more extreme and breaking SRS sessions or reading sessions into 5-minute or even 1-minute stretches! 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.

In the case of FluentU, you learn a language with an extensive library of authentic videos. Each video comes with interactive captions that give you context-specific word definitions and information. By viewing a series of short clips, you can get a measurable amount of learning done in a small block of time and then test your knowledge with personalized quizzes. The built-in streak tracker will also help you follow your progress over a series of sessions.

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. Be mindful of language families

There are plenty of learning curves involved in language acquisition, but you don’t want the curve of recognizing related and unrelated languages to throw you off. Unexpected or unexplained trouble could discourage you, and we don’t want that. Knowledge is power!

Anyways, language families matter. Your L3 could be a walk in the park if it’s related to your L2, or it could be just as tricky as if you’d never learned a language before. I find that relations to your L1 don’t matter as much, since you weren’t as consciously aware while learning the rules of your native language. That being said, studying languages close to your native tongue can offer some great advantages.

Learn related languages

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.

If you decide to learn a language related to one you already know, reading novels or children’s books is a great way to get started. Related languages often look more similar in text than through speech, so you’ll be able to pick out words you recognize right away. I love to read translations of books I know really well—I’ve read the first Harry Potter book in a number of different languages!

Learn unrelated languages

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!

If you’re going to pick 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 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!

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. You don’t have to go with the most related language (I think interest and passion are far more important), but knowing how language families work can let you know ahead of time about any problems you might have.


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!

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