(Luca's note: This post is written by Kevin Morehouse, a LucaLampariello.com team member).
Do you remember what it was like when you first realized that you could learn multiple foreign languages, instead of just one or two?
For me, it was electrifying.
I had always loved languages, and for once, the possibilities seemed endless.
For a long time, I had assumed that the only way to learn languages was to study them for years in an academic setting. It was that very thought that led me to choose Italian Studies as my undergraduate major.
A couple of years into my degree, however, I accidentally stumbled upon a number of YouTubers who turned my world upside-down.
These YouTubers—Luca Lampariello among them—didn't just know two or three languages, as I had assumed was the limit. They knew five, ten, even fifteen or more, and spoke many of them to impressive levels.
Suddenly, the impossible was possible. Now that I knew that I could learn as many languages as I wanted, the rest would come easily.
Or so I thought.
Today, let me share my story of how dabbling in too many languages hurt my progress as a language learner, along with tips to help you avoid the same.
How Not to Learn Multiple Languages: A Case Study
I began with a list:
First, I wanted to learn Mandarin Chinese on my own.
Then Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, French, and German.
Then Esperanto, and Japanese. And then Welsh, Irish, Swedish, Hebrew, and even Basque too!
Next came the actual work—the learning.
From the examples I had seen online, I figured it would only take around 90 days to learn a language well, and maybe up to a year if I really needed it.
So I got started.
For Mandarin, I began with Rosetta Stone. I did well, and enjoyed it, but soon felt the material surpass my skills.
Thinking Mandarin was perhaps too hard, I switched to Brazilian Portuguese, my next language.
Again, I studied for several months, this time with a variety of resources. Though I didn't find Portuguese too hard, I soon grew bored with it, and dropped it in favor of Spanish, because it was "more practical".
Months later, Spanish was replaced with a combination of Spanish and Mandarin (again). Then both of those were replaced with Esperanto, which was then replaced by German.
And then, one day I stopped. I was exhausted. At that moment, I realized the truth:
I had become a foreign language dabbler.
Why Dabbling Can Hurt Your Language Learning Progress
In the community, dabbling is the practice of continually picking up and dropping languages before you learn any of them well.
Dabbling works just fine for some people. If, for example, you just want to know enough of a few languages to get by in your day-to-day life, then it can even be a good thing.
However, if you're like me, and really want to be a functional speaker and user of a language and reap the amazing benefits of language learning, then dabbling is usually bad.
This is usually because it is a waste of three major resources: your time, your energy, and your money.
Dabbling wastes time because it forces you to learn languages quickly and poorly. Languages abandoned before the mid-intermediate level are usually forgotten in a matter of months.
Dabbling wastes energy because it forces you to keep re-learning what you’ve already learned before. If you don't forget a language outright, you will have to keep reviewing old material just to maintain your skills at the same level.
Dabbling wastes money because language learning is rarely free. If you forget a language that you bought resources, apps, or tutoring time for, all of that expense goes to waste.
The Benefits of Focusing on One Language at a Time
By trying to study a half-dozen languages within just a few years time, I had wasted lots of time, plenty of energy, and more money than I’d like to admit.
If you're reading this article, then I have a feeling you've wasted the very same things, all in hopes of a multilingual dream that didn't quite pan out.
Fortunately, I've had enough time to reflect on my dabbling days, and I've come to an important realization: if you really want to master multiple languages, it's best to go slow, and focus on one language at a time.
I've since practiced this with a new language (Korean), and here are some of the best benefits I've encountered.
- 1Learn more, faster - Focusing on one language allows you to build learning momentum, which otherwise can be lost when moving from one language to the next.
- 2Remember more of what you learn - Learning a single language consistently will train your brain to value the language, and thus remember it better.
- 3Avoid confusing languages - If you can learn one language past the mid-intermediate (B1-B2) stage, you will be less likely to confuse it with future languages.
- 4Build long-term language learning habits - Each level of the language learning journey is different. If you never learn any language past the beginner stage, you won't develop good intermediate and advanced-level habits.
- 5Experience the joy of truly understanding a language - At the beginner level of a language, you really don't understand much at all. If you persist, and grow your skills to intermediate-level and beyond, you get to experience the wonder of really understanding what you're hearing, speaking, reading, and writing.
The Road to Never-ending Improvement
Today's language learners are probably the luckiest language enthusiasts who have ever lived. Thanks to the Internet, we can start learning nearly any language on the globe with just a click of a button.
With those benefits, however, come some serious drawbacks; if you're not careful, the temptation to dabble in new languages can keep you from ever reaching any significant learning goals.
The solution to this is to find your focus, and stick with one language long enough to actually speak and use it comfortably.
As you gain experience with a language over the long-term, you’ll notice that you’ll face new challenges and gain new capabilities, all of which will shape the way that you learn and use the language in the future. You’ll come ever closer to the top of the mountain, and be able to look back, in awe, of how far you’ve come.
So, don’t take the easy route.
Don’t let go of everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve.
Because the language learning journey never truly ends. You can always improve, every single day.
So get to it! I think you’ll find that the journey will take you places you’ve never even dreamed of.
Written by Kevin Morehouse
Kevin Morehouse is a language coach and teacher who is on a journey to make the world a more multilingual place. A member of the LucaLampariello.com team since its inception, Kevin's principal role is that of writer, editor, and content developer. He is currently learning Korean, his primary language focus since mid-2017.
Thank you, Barbara! I hope it’s helpful for you 🙂
Wow, you caught me to the point.
Loving languages, I used to learn several languages at the same time.
But now, since 2 years, I took the peek to study just 2 languages and keep on with them for at least 2 years.
After arriving at upper-intermediate level I can chose another one
Yes, I really agree that it’s much better to develop one or two languages to a high level than it is to develop many languages to a low level.
Best of luck in your two-year goal!
[…] a time. Luca Lampariello recently had a guest blog writer recommending against language dabbling: m https://www.lucalampariello.com/dont-da … languages/ m . I remember a great video by Anthony Lauder aka fluentczech on how to become a polyglot: learn […]
I’m currently struggling with this. Not because I’m a dabbler, but because I want to focus on ONE, but need another. I’ve studied Spanish for a long time and I’m at a B2 (tipping into C1) level. Realistically, I want to focus on Spanish only as I have been for a long time because then I can simply LIVE in that language and do everything in that language. BUT… My husband is Italian and in order to apply for citizenship I need a B1 level of Italian (proved by a standard exam). So I’ve started studying Italian and I have my week all scheduled out, but I miss having my brain in constant Spanish mode, but at some point I need to learn it. When do you decide when its “time” to add a second, third, fourth language? I also recently got interested in Arabic and thought hey might as well just start learning the alphabet, but thats another story and I’m trying to talking myself down from that and focus on the necessary languages at hand haha.