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In general, Polish doesn’t tend to be anyone’s first choice when it comes to learning a foreign language. With many more popular languages available, many learners find themselves trying to learning Polish alongside another language. If you’re learning two languages at once, this post will tell you how to learn and maintain multiple languages in the most efficient way.
Although I don’t recommend learning two languages at once, it’s still possible to see results by splitting your time between Polish and another language. How you decide to do that is up to you, whether that’s dividing your time into a 50/50 split or focusing more on one language over the other. Personally, I’d recommend focusing more on one language that the other. I always chose Polish as the main language that I was focusing on. However, I tended to lose motivation for the second language after realising that it took up time that I could be using to improve my Polish.
If you’ve got your heart set on learning two languages at once, you have to make sure that you’re spending enough time with both languages to maintain what you’ve already learned. Although I learned a lot of French with the below techniques, I eventually decided to focus solely on Polish until I hit 10,000 sentences.
Regardless of how you choose to split your time, I recommend learning one of the languages to a solid base level before taking on another. What’s a solid base level? To quantify it, I’d say 5,000 known sentences/mature notes in your Anki deck. (If you’re not using Anki, that means having the ability to make basic conversation about a variety of subjects.) It’s important to develop this language core before starting to learn a new language. After reaching that base level, your vocabulary and grammar knowledge will be so large that it will be easier to maintain it whilst learning another language later on.
Is learning two languages at once a bad idea?[alert-announce]Allison asked:
@How2SpeakPolish I’m curious. I take French in school & have been trying to learn polish on the side. Does taking French effect my learning?
— allison. (@parisobsessedd) 4 January 2017
The answer is a definitive “Yes”. The bigger question is “To what extent does learning more than one language affect languages you already know?” For example, since I’m a native speaker of English I have little concern that I’d forget how to speak it if I started learning Japanese. My English is at such a high level, it’s unlikely that it would ever be affected. However, if I started learning Japanese and Chinese at the same time, both of which I am unfamiliar with, it would be difficult for me as a beginner to tell the two apart and keep them separate in my mind. You might think that if the two languages aren’t particularly similar, you’d be less likely to mix them up. I would agree, but there’s still anecdotal evidence of even experienced language learners mixing up highly different languages.
“Two of my sisters attempted to learn Spanish and French simultaneously and got so mixed up they nixed the whole project. And after taking almost 10 straight years of French in school and then starting to learn Chinese, I started unintentionally mixing Chinese into my French and vice versa. ‘Je voudrais 一個…’ Hmm…not good.” – Khatzumoto, “How To Learn Multiple Languages Without Getting Confused: The Laddering Method”
What the science says
The reason I don’t confuse English and Polish isn’t just because of my English proficiency. My level of Polish proficiency plays an important part too. A 2010 study of Chinese language learners by Langfeng Lu revealed that “those at the intermediate and lower levels, are under strong influence of their L1 TP constitutions. However, the transfer effects gradually decrease along with the improvement of learners’ proficiency and finally disappear at the advanced level”. What’s does that mean? The more advanced you are in the language you want to learn, the less interference you’ll have from your native language.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that your second language would interfere with your third language though. However, in 2003, Shirin Murphy wrote a paper all about how third language acquisition is influenced by your first and second languages and it’s pretty conclusive. “… third language acquisition is characterized in particular by the unintentional incorporation of L2 items during speech production…”, Shirin wrote. That means as you learn to speak a third language, you’ll accidentally use words from your second language. What’s the best way to avoid mixing them up? Become advanced at one first, before taking on the next one.
Having said all that, if you are set on learning two languages at once, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of success.
Avoid mixing similar languages
You should always choose to learn a language based on your interest in learning it. However, in an ideal world, the two languages which you are learning at the same time wouldn’t be similar. Until you have a solid base in one of the languages, you may become confused and mix up words and phrases between the two languages. To avoid this, the languages which you are studying should be sufficiently different to avoid constant confusion. The more similar the languages that you’re learning are, the more likely you are to mix them up.
One way to work out how similar languages are is using EZGlot.com’s Statistics section. From there, you will be given a selection of the most similar languages to the one which you have selected. Try not to choose any of the top 5 of the most similar ones for your next challenge (or any of them, if there are 5 or less to choose from). Alternatively, a quick search for your languages on Wikipedia should bring up some information on which language families they belong to. If they’re from the same family, you’re more likely to mix them up. However, by far the coolest way to see if your languages are closely related is to look at how close they are on Minna Sundberg’s incredible drawing:
Find your two languages on the tree and see how far apart they are. Don’t look how close the languages are in a straight line. Go down one branch and then up another in order to see how far apart and therefore how different the languages are. The longer the distance between the two languages, the less likely you are to confuse them.
Mutual intelligibility – buy one language, get seven free[alert-note]TOP TIP – Avoid learning Slavic languages while learning Polish.
Serbian, Czech, Russian, Croatian and Slovak are some of the most similar languages to Polish. Avoid learning them or any other languages of Slavic origin until you have a solid vocabulary and grammar base in Polish.[/alert-note]
Learning Polish can also be of great benefit when trying to acquire other languages. Mutual intelligibility is the name given to the relationship between languages whose speakers can understand each other without any additional study or effort.
As Polish comes from the same language family as many others in Eastern Europe, you might find that you can work out what other people are saying in another Slavic language. Knowing Polish can make it a lot easier to pick up another Slavic language like Russian in the future.
Learning Polish will help you understand other Slavic languages
Due to them being part of the same Slavic language family, don’t be surprised if your Polish knowledge gives you mutual intelligibility of spoken Ukrainian, Slovak, Czech and even Russian. When written down, you might even be able to understand some Belarusian, Bulgarian and even some Serbo-Croatian too.
You may find that you can understand mutually intelligible languages when you read them easier than when you hear them. As different Slavic languages have different pronunciations, letters, and even alphabets, you might understand some of the languages better when they’re written down and others when they’re spoken.
Despite their many similarities, beware of false friends between languages – an infamous example being the Polish “Szukam was za zachodę.” (I’m looking for you in the West) sounding similar to the Czech “Šukám vás na záchodě.”(I will f**k you in the toilet.)
If you’d like to learn another Slavic language using the HowToSpeakPolish.com method, for example, Russian or Czech, I recommend starting with a Russian or Czech phrasebook before progressing to adding sentences from a Russian or Czech grammar book. Of course, you’d have to learn how to type their alphabets too. Following that, I would dive straight into native content that interested me.
Based on bestseller lists and customer reviews, here are the Russian and Czech resources that I would get:
- Lonely Planet Russian Phrasebook & Dictionary (Lonely Planet Phrasebook and Dictionary)
- Oxford Russian Grammar and Verbs (Dictionary)
- Lonely Planet Czech Phrasebook & Dictionary (Lonely Planet Phrasebook and Dictionary)
- Czech: An Essential Grammar (Routledge Essential Grammars)
Which other languages do you have mutual intelligibility with?
I once had a chat with a friend when he spoke Russian and I spoke Polish. Despite neither of us knowing each others’ language, we somehow managed to understand each other. Since then, I’ve watched the occasional YouTube video in Russian to see how much I can catch. In the future, I hope to dedicate some time to learn the language properly. Slavic or non-Slavic, which other languages can you understand? Let me know in the comments below.
How to maintain multiple languages at the same time
An easy way to maintain two languages is to use one to learn the other. For example, if you wanted to learn Polish and French (and you were better at Polish than French), you could have Polish cards with English translations on the back in one deck and you could have French cards with Polish translations on the back in another deck. If you had a greater knowledge of French than of Polish, you could have French cards with English translations on the back in one deck. In another deck, you could have Polish cards with French translations on the back. This technique, called the laddering method, allows you to reinforce your knowledge in both languages at the same time.
I will warn you though, laddering is tough! Don’t even think about doing it with a language that you don’t know to at least a high intermediate level. A few years ago, I tried to use Polish translations on the back of my French Anki cards instead of English. Although I did make progress, reviewing the cards took significantly longer than when I used English. Because I’m impatient, I changed to English translations before eventually deleting the cards altogether. I’m sure that over time I would have improved my speed as well as my Polish. Because I find English quicker to review, I tend to use exclusive English translations on my cards now. While I miss out on an easy opportunity to maintain my Polish, I gain the ability to review all of my cards quicker than I would otherwise.
If you’re not using Anki to learn, you could always just learn your new language from resources written in the other language resources. For example, using French textbooks which are written in Polish to learn French or vice versa.
What if I want to learn three languages at the same time?
The fact that some children are successfully raised trilingual shows that it is possible to learn three languages. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good idea to try and learn them all at the same time! The more languages you try and learn at the same time, the less time you’ll have to dedicate to them all. The less time you have to learn a language, the longer it’ll take you to learn it. It’s quicker to learn one language to a high level, before taking on a new language. This is especially true since you will be able to benefit from the knowledge and effective techniques that you acquired whilst learning the previous language.
Most people probably don’t have the time to effectively learn three languages at the same time. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If you know how to do it, I’d love to hear from you.[alert-warning]TL;DR: Learning two languages at once is less effective than just learning one. However, learning Polish can help you understand and communicate with speakers of other Slavic languages without even learning their languages. Using the laddering method, you can learn multiple languages at the same time as well as maintain your knowledge in languages you’ve previously learned. [/alert-warning] [alert-announce]Polish is the main language that I’m learning. On occasion, I also dabble in French and hope to speak both at C2 level within the next few years. Which other languages are you learning? Let me know in the comments![/alert-announce]