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Is it possible to learn two languages at once?
Yes! Learning two languages at once is certainly possible. That said, it’s not a mission I’d recommend taking on lightly.
I’ve been learning languages for over 10 years. In that time, I studied over seventeen languages and became fluent in 10. And 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.
So, if you’re serious about reaching fluency in two target languages rather than just studying them for the fun of it, I recommend you don’t study them both at the same time. Get a solid foundation in one, and then start studying the next one while gradually improving the first.
What if you don’t have a choice? Maybe you need to learn two languages for work, or because you’re traveling to multiple countries. Or maybe you’re just really keen to take on the challenge of two languages at once.
If this is you, I’ll tell you how I would approach this mission if I was in the same situation. It’s an ambitious project, and I like ambition!
My Tips for Learning Two Languages at Once
Although I’ve never personally tried learning more than one new language at the same time, I do know several accomplished polyglots and less experienced language students who have.
Those who have succeeded in reaching fluency this way have told me similar things about the best way to approach it.
1. Choose Languages that are Really Different
Passion for the language you choose is always going to be the most important factor of your success in that language. When learning two new languages, there’s another factor to consider: How similar the two languages are.
If you study two languages that are similar, you run the risk of mixing up both languages and failing to get a solid foundation in either one.
French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian are Romance languages with similar grammar and vocabulary. I can speak these languages without mixing them up in conversation, mainly because I always reached a level of intermediate or better in one Romance language before starting to learn the next.
In my view, I’d have found it really tricky if I had tried to learn two of them at the same time.
For this reason, you should pick two languages from different families to study at once. Don’t pick Spanish and Portuguese or your phrases will come out in muddled “Portuñol”. It will be very hard to remember which words are from which language. Instead, choose Portuguese and, say, Welsh or Mandarin, and save Spanish until your Portuguese is at least intermediate.
2. Study Both Languages Each Day
Studying both languages daily will make sure you maintain momentum in each one.
If you study one language for the first week, then another for the second week, you’ll find that when you return to the first language, you’ll have forgotten a lot of what you picked up. You’ll constantly be playing “catch up” in both your languages.
It’s always better to study for a shorter period of time every day rather than do longer study sessions less often. You might not feel like you’re making such fast progress this way, because it will be less noticeable. But ultimately, you’ll reach your end goal faster.
How should you divide your daily study time between the two languages? That part is your call. You don’t have to study each one exactly half of the time if you don’t want to. If you find one language harder than the other, devote more time to it than to the easier one.
On the other hand, if you simply enjoy studying one language more than the other, feel free to spend more time studying it. It doesn’t matter, as long as you study them both, even for a short time, every day.
3. Avoid Multi-tasking
Research shows that doing two (or more) things at once is the opposite of productive. This is especially true when it comes to learning two languages.
What I mean here is combining both languages into a single study session. For example, watching a Chinese soap opera while doing French flashcard drills.
When you try to do two things at the same time, you end up doing neither one of them well. Just ask anyone who’s had a near miss while trying to text and drive.
That said, once you get a solid foundation in both languages, there are a few ways that you can combine both languages into one lesson. You could watch a movie in one target language which displays subtitles in the other. Or watch a language instruction video that teaches speakers of one language how to say words and phrases in another.
This is known as “laddering” and it’s actually a really popular way of learning languages in the polyglot community. I’ve done it a lot myself on my language missions.
4. Give Each Language a Unique Study Routine
Another way to avoid mixing up your two languages is to follow a different study routine for each language.
You can do this any way you want. Pick a different place in your house to study each language. Study one language only in the morning, and the other only at night. Or colour code your notes so one language is written in blue ink, and the other red.
Choosing different habits for each language will not only keep you from mixing them up before you reach intermediate level, but developing this regular routine will also ensure that you study consistently. This makes it more likely that you’ll reach your language goal.
5. Don’t Rush!
Studying two languages at once means you won’t learn either one as quickly as you would when studying a single language.
So don’t beat yourself up if you feel progress is slow. Take it at a pace that’s right for you.
Learning Two Languages at Once Is Possible
It might take longer for two languages than one, and you might need to get a little creative about how you approach it. But if you’re committed, consistent, and passionate about studying both languages, then you will succeed.