Learning Two Languages at Once? Don’t Make These 5 Mistakes
In the language learning community, you simply can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who is interested in learning two languages at once.
At first glance, the idea seems like a shortcut; a hack that can be used to get more impressive language results, faster.
How else do people actually become fluent in thirteen languages?
Learning one language at a time sounds boring, mechanical, and unsexy. Batching them together brings an element of speed, efficiency, and finesse to the conversation that so many would-be learners eagerly latch on to.
But the truth is that that’s all it is: conversation. Empty words, and idle talk. As many learners as I’ve seen try to pick up multiple languages, nearly as many have failed.
That’s not to say it’s not possible, however. It’s very difficult, but it has been done. You can do it, too. You just need to avoid the most common mistakes that nearly every language multitasker makes.
Right now, I’m here to show you what those mistakes are, and how you can avoid them, so that you can be one of the rare few that actually learns multiple languages at once.
Mistake 1. Tackling Two Languages Without Previous Language Learning Experience
In a way, learning two or more languages at once seems like the ultimate power move. At least theoretically, you get double the results or more in a fraction of the time.
When beginner learners discover that there are accomplished polyglots who speak ten, fifteen, or twenty languages a piece, they often assume that this is how it was done.
The truth, however, may surprise you. Many of the world's most famous polyglots have all weighed in on the subject over the years, and they all say the same thing: though it may be possible to learn two languages at once, not one major polyglot does it often, nor do they really recommend it.
Benny Lewis, creator of Fluent in 3 Months and speaker of 6+ languages, has this to say on the subject:
"I’ve never tried to learn two new languages at the same time. Studying two languages from scratch at the same time is a lot trickier than studying one after the other."
Steve Kaufmann, founder of LinqQ and speaker of 17 languages, doesn't advise against learning multiple languages, but avoids it himself for reasons related to focus. Specifically, he says:
"You can’t have two full-time jobs. So if my full-time job is now Arabic, as it has been Korean, or Czech, or Greek or other languages in the past, [...] I may spend a little time on other languages, but no more than 10-15% of my language learning time."
Even our very own Luca Lampariello, noted speaker of 13 languages, rarely ever picks up two new languages simultaneously. Writing of his attempt to tackle Hungarian and Greek at once, he says:
"I knew I could handle one language at a time, of course, but to tackle two at once just seemed like an exercise in futility. There’s quite a bit of information to be managed with each new language learned, and I always feared that with two, things would just start to run together."
Given the impressive results that each of these people have achieved as language learners, we can assume that if learning two languages were really all that effective, they'd all be doing it.
These are learners who know what it takes to learn a language, but still avoid juggling several new languages unless they absolutely have to. For reasons related to time, energy, or just plain focus, they all avoid it.
So, if you're a beginner, or still haven't reached fluency in your first language, I think it's safe to say that you should avoid it too.
Mistake 2. Starting a New Language Before You're Good at an Old One
While reading the last section, you may have noticed that the experts I cited didn't recommend against learning two languages outright; the truth is that many of these same polyglots are often taking on new languages while keeping up old ones.
What they're really telling you is to avoid learning two new languages at the same time.
Why is this?
To use a metaphor, languages are like plants. They require a certain amount of resources and care to grow big and strong over time.
These resources are most often your time, your energy, and your focus. Sometimes, your money can count as a resource as well.
At the beginning, your language skills are weak. Without constant supervision, your language abilities are at risk of dying out.
Luckily, when you learn one language at a time, that language has nothing to compete with. It can get as much of those coveted resources as you're willing to give it.
The constant care and feeding of that single language over time, allows it to grow more durable. Eventually, it can flourish relatively well on its own; you'll only need to spend occasional resources to maintain it. It becomes sturdy enough that your worries about it dying out are a thing of the past.
Extending this metaphor to two new languages, you may start to see the problem:
With every new language you try to learn at the same time, you're adding a brand-new, fragile “plant” to the garden.
You still have the same limited resources as you always did, but now you need to split them up. Each language gets less of the total, so it remains weaker, longer. Because of this, you'll need to be even more diligent to keep them from dying out.
Of course, none of this happens if you try to add a new language alongside one that is already big, strong, and relatively self-sufficient. Since the established language needs less resources to thrive, you can spend more time and energy on the new language, relatively worry-free.
Mistake 3. Learning Two Similar Languages at Once
Learners not ready to heed the above advice will often come up with a "shortcut" that seemingly avoids the problem of limited resources—learning two closely-related languages at once.
At the surface level, it seems like the perfect fix. Many languages in the same family (Italian and Spanish, for example), share a large number of features in common, including:
The striking similarities between closely-related languages lead some learners to assume that knowing one language will reinforce the other, so that they become stronger when learned in unison, and not weaker.
I know this because I was one of those learners, and let me tell you—spoiler alert—it's not true.
In high school, I tried to learn Italian and Spanish at the same time. I had been learning Italian for a couple of years, but I was still a low- to mid-beginner at the time. Spanish was a brand-new experience.
Initially, my knowledge of Italian boosted my ability to make sense of Spanish. I was making progress at a quick pace, and my skills eventually overtook the other learners in the class.
That boost provided by Italian didn't last long; in a year or so, I could speak both languages at similar levels.
That's when the problems began.
Eventually, I had trouble keeping Spanish words out of my Italian sentences, and Italian words out of my Spanish ones. My accents would run together, depending on my mood and energy level. I couldn't think clearly in either language, because my mind was trying to grasp both languages at the same time.
As a result of all this, I eventually stopped learning Spanish for several years, until I was truly confident in my Italian abilities. Once I picked Spanish back up again, my Italian had "solidified" enough in my mind that my growing Spanish abilities couldn't hurt it.
Closely-related languages can be a blessing and a curse. If you learn them sequentially, you'll be able to learn the second language quicker than you learned the first. However, if you learn them simultaneously, they'll interfere with each other, and you'll have a truly difficult time learning either one to fluency.
Mistake 4. Thinking You'll Make Double the Progress, in Half the Time
Perhaps the biggest reason many learners want to learn multiple languages at once is to save time and energy.
We see this in our lives every day, in the form of multitasking.
Why waste time brushing your teeth and then taking a shower, when you can just brush your teeth in the shower? By combining two tasks into one, you save time and energy.
Theoretically speaking, the same logic can be applied to languages. If you want to become a successful polyglot, why waste time learning ten languages in ten years when you can do two languages per year and instead learn them all in five? Why not learn them all in two and a half years, or one, even?
The reason why you shouldn't do all of these things is because, ultimately, languages require active learning. To learn actively, you must expend mental resources. On any given day, you have a limited amount of these resources—your time, energy, and focus, as I mentioned earlier.
Within a single day, you can't create more of these resources than you already have. Your time is capped at 24 hours, and no matter how hard you try, your energy and focus will eventually run out, too.
Every language you learn demands a share of your mental resources, without exception.
Let's say, hypothetically, that you can learn your target language to fluency in two years. To make things easy, we'll say you're able to reach 100% of your skill goals at the end of that two-year period.
If a second language is added to the mix, then the maximum skill level you can reach in each language after those two years is 50%. If you add a third language, the maximum gains for each language fall to 33.3%.
See how language multitasking doesn't actually save you any time?
Even worse, the above scenario is an idealized case. In reality, languages learned at the same time will interfere with each other, as we saw above. So three languages learned in a year won't be learned to equal levels; their levels will all be different, perhaps even wildly so.
Mistake 5. Not Knowing Why Each Language Matters to You
It's common for polyglots-in-the-making to come up with long lists of the languages they'd like to learn. Once they get the idea to double-up or triple-up on their language learning, they may just pick a few random favorites from these lists and get to work.
I'm not judging; I've done it too. I remember making lists of dozens of "dream" languages, and attempting to tackle Italian, Spanish, and French in college, and then Portuguese and Mandarin Chinese in my free time.
Apart from all of the above reasons why learning two languages at once doesn't work, one of the final major points of failure is this:
You can't be equally interested in two languages to the same degree.
There are roughly 7,000 languages in the world today. Literally every single one of these languages has its own distinct culture, native speakers, non-native speakers, grammar, syntax, lexicon, and so on. Each of these elements can influence how much you like or dislike a given language, and how much you'd like to learn it.
This is especially true for culture. The cultural products tied to a language (music, literature, art, poetry, television, films, etc.) can vary widely, and you're not going to be interested in all of it equally. For this very reason, some languages will naturally be more attractive to you than others.
I'm certain that even if you picked the two languages you most want to learn in the entire world, you'd still find that you have a preference for one over the other. Even if you're not aware of that preference now, it will only become more clear as you learn more and more about the language, its culture, and its people.
If you try to learn two languages at once, you'll find that your motivation and effort will begin to slightly favor one over the other. You'll get better at that language faster, so your skills in language #2 will lag behind. Eventually, your abilities in both languages will be so different that you won't want to learn language two, or you'll want to ignore it in favor of something else.
This doesn't always happen, sure, but it's incredibly likely, and becomes even more likely with each language you add to the mix. Language learning is challenging enough one-at-a time; if you try to balance two or more, you'll naturally be inclined to focus on the one that feels better, and less so on the others.
Are You Still Interested in Learning Two Languages at Once?
When I said it was difficult to learn two languages at the same time, I truly meant it.
Taking on the task means that you’re walking a tightrope, balancing a dozen or more factors at once, including:
If you’re interested in such high-flying feats, more power to you. However, as we’ve seen, the truth is that even the most dedicated language learners would much rather take their time, learning each individual language over a period of months or years, before moving on to the next.
If you’ve read this article, and still think the language multi-tasking life is right for you, I’ve got good news. My friend and mentor Luca Lampariello has created an in-depth course that I believe has everything you need to make learning two languages at once not only probable, but very, very possible.
Even better, Luca has permitted me to give you all an extra-special coupon code that will save you €10 on your purchase of the course. Simply enter the coupon code 2LANG2019 at checkout to receive your discount.
Check out the course here: Learn Two Languages at Once
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.