Learn to Speak Multiple Languages (Without Burning Out)
Language learning is addictive, no doubt about it.
Chatting with new friends from another country in a language that’s not your own is a special thrill that few other experiences can match. Even ordering a meal, reading a newspaper or watching a movie in a new language can feel exciting and put a new spin on “ordinary” life.
It’s likely you’ll want to pursue this feeling again and again, over the course of your life.
There are many perks to knowing just one other language, let alone multiple languages.
So, what’s holding you back?
How can you break through these barriers?
By developing a method of learning languages that works for you – one that you can come back to time and time again.
Before I delve into the methods you can use to put such a practice into place, there’s a question I want you to ask yourself:
Why Do I Want to Learn a Language?
People start learning languages for all kinds of reasons. Maybe you:
- Have moved overseas for work or family, and you want to make friends with the locals.
- Want to learn a language to give yourself more opportunities in the job market.
- Are fascinated by a particular country or culture, and want to get an inside view by learning the native tongue.
What’s your reason for wanting to learn a language?
My language journey began as a young adult, while living in Spain. I was taking part in an International Exchange programme for engineers and architects when I met a Brazilian guy who spoke not only Portuguese and English, but also Spanish and French.
I had been trying (and largely failing) to learn Spanish myself at the time. I was so inspired by my new Brazilian friend that I gave up on my plan of returning to Ireland to complete a Masters degree. Instead, I decided to devote myself to learning languages.
Since that decision, I’ve never looked back.
Language learning quickly became the cornerstone of my life – leading me to start Fluent in 3 Months (Fi3M), write a book and become a professional speaker.
Better yet, over the course of the last decade and then some, I have lived all over the globe and met many different people from all walks of life. Learning their languages has allowed me to connect with them in ways no ordinary traveller could ever achieve. I’ve discovered where to eat the best food, the most desirable (and cheapest) places to live in a city and I’ve been able to get to know people on a far more personal level than I would if I only spoke English.
I couldn’t have predicted any of this at the tender age of 21 and I certainly don’t regret a second of it.
What’s my secret recipe? It’s not really a secret – or at least not for much longer! Here’s the techniques I’ve used to learn multiple languages without burning out.
1. Find Your Big Why for Learning a Language
You’ll achieve the greatest levels of success in if your intentions are pure. Language learning should never be about bragging rights. I always prioritise quality over quantity, which is one of the reasons why I tend to come back to the same languages again and again.
As you start out, I strongly advise you consider your reasons for learning this particular language in the first place. Achieving fluency is not hard but it does require a big time investment.
However, if you’re learning for the right reasons, you’ll be able to come back to that one core reason again and again – even when you feel like quitting (and everyone does at times).
How can you find the reason behind your desire to learn a language?
Put your thinking cap on and grab a pen and a paper. I want you to ask yourself two questions:
- Why am I learning this language?
- What am I hoping to achieve?
For each question, write down the first three answers that come to mind.
Stick this piece of paper on your wall, your fridge or put it on your bedside table or desk at work. It doesn’t matter where, as long as it’s somewhere that you’ll see it every day.
This is going to be your motivation – that which you’ll come back to, whenever you become distracted or feel yourself slipping. These honest reasons, why you truly wish to become fluent in more than one language, will help spur you on, again and again.
What if you can’t think of something, or your reasons seem trite? If you’ve got a desire to learn languages, I suggest you pursue it even if you can’t pin down a specific reason. Learning languages is a journey of discovery. It may be that you can only discover why you’re taking that journey by walking the path. Trust your desire and that you’ll find your reasons along the way.
2. Keep Your Focus Narrow: One Language at a Time
One of the reasons I’ve had so much success with language hacking is that I only focus on one language at a time. That’s what inspired the title of this site. I’d visit a country and get a three month tourist visa. For that three months, I’d focus completely on learning the local language.
Czech was one of the first languages I began learning out of curiosity and for fun. In fact, I started Fi3M to encourage myself in language learning while living in Prague! I gave myself the summer of 2009 to achieve fluency in Czech. With that as my time frame, I gave the language my all.
I spent the better part of two months learning Czech part time and achieved a pretty good level of fluency before running out of money. I may not have reached fluency, but the intensity and focus for those two months made a world of difference.
I’ve learned some languages with the intention of maintaining fluency in them for the rest of my life. Other missions I’ve undertaken have been situational, for a bit of fun, or just to prove that anyone can learn languages that are considered “difficult”.
Whatever my reason, I concentrate solely on the one language at a time. It’s only when I’ve reached a level I’m satisfied with that I move on.
3. Put Yourself Under Pressure: Set a Deadline
People sometimes fail at learning languages because they don’t give themselves an achievable timeframe in which to reach fluency.
That means avoiding phrases such as: ”One day I’ll be able to speak my target language”. By framing your goal in that way, you’re reducing your incentive to learn.
Instead, give yourself a specific goal with a specific deadline (If you’re just starting out, here’s the goal I recommend you set).
When I first started learning languages, I often only had three months in whichever country I was living in due to visa restrictions. Being an Irish national, I was generally only allowed to spend a maximum of three months on a tourist visa in countries outside of the EU.
As a result, I typically had just three months to immerse myself in the local language. So, I gave myself the goal of reaching fluency in three months. This is a really lofty goal, so I’d only have it if I could potentially work on the language half to full time.
Of course, when you set a timeframe for your learning, it can be more or less than three months. I only had one hour to study Polish before attempting to have a Polish conversation on iTalki. I ended up practising two hours in total, before arriving in Poland and having a chat in Polish with a native speaker!
You don’t have to be living in a country where the language you are learning is spoken to be able to speak it yourself. I dispelled this myth when I learned Egyptian Arabic while living in Brazil.
Up until that point I had only ever learned the languages of countries I had been living in at the time. By learning Arabic in advance of my trip to Egypt, I was able to properly enjoy my time spent living there. Knowing the language meant I could easily explore local sites and immerse myself in the country’s rich and ancient culture. Learning a language before travelling works so well that I employed the same technique when living in Valencia, learning Japanese before a trip to Japan.
4. Surround Yourself with a Likeminded Community
Procrastination is the enemy of language learning.
You really want to speak multiple languages? Then you must entrench the habit of language learning in your everyday life. You’ll need to set up rituals that’ll allow you to integrate language learning into your daily routine.
What’s the secret to a persistent, daily habit? Accountability.
Rally a community around you – either of people who personally want you to succeed, or are working towards a similar goal themselves – and you’ll find that you push yourself, even when your willpower is flagging. Your community will encourage you to stay on task when you’re feeling disheartened or distracted.
One way of keeping yourself accountable is to start a blog and tell everyone you know about it. Write regularly about your language learning – the highs and lows, what’s working and what isn’t. Likewise, you can always find help and guidance within the Fi3M forum.
Another option worth considering is the Add1Challange (now the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge). Brian Kwong, founded the Add1Challenge after he recognised the merit in being part of community of learners that could support one another in working towards a common language goal. The Add1Challenge gives you 90 days to reach a level where you can have a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker of your target language. It includes a public accountability tracking sheet and community support to help motivate you to reach fluency as quickly as possible.
5. Refresh the Languages You Don’t Want to Forget
After investing months of valuable time in a language project, the last thing you’d want to do is forget how to speak the language you learned entirely.
There are a few languages – such as Tagalog and Catalan that I have largely forgotten since my initial attempt to become fluent in them. For me, longterm fluency in these languages wasn’t an end goal. I wasn’t too bothered by letting these languages fade in my mind.
What about the languages I want to hold onto? I keep them consistently fresh in my mind. You can do this by listening to podcasts, reading books, and looking for native speakers to practice with online.
It’s All Down to You
Learning multiple languages can be done – no matter what your background, work schedule or personal goals may be.
Make sure you have a thriving support network, give yourself an achievable timeframe in which to learn and above all, always make sure that you’re doing what you’re doing for the right reasons.