Learning two languages at once? Here are some tips

In general, Polish isn’t usually anyone’s first choice when it comes to learning a foreign language. Because of that, you might find yourself learning two languages at once.

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 effort into a 50/50 split or focusing more on one language over another.

Regardless of how you choose to split your time, I recommend learning one language to a solid base level (5,000 known sentences/mature notes in your Anki deck) before taking on another. You’ll see quicker progress in the language which you’re learning than if you’d tried to learn another language at the same time too. 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?

Allison asked me the following question on Twitter.

The answer is a definitive “Yes”. The bigger question is “To what extent?” 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 are alien to me, it would be difficult for me as a beginner to tell the two apart and keep them separate in my mind.

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”. In short, the more advanced you are in your target language, the less interference you’ll have from your native language.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that your second language would interfere with interfere with your third 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. If you learn a third language, you’ll start throwing in the occasional word 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 chance of success.

Avoid mixing similar languages

Although you should always choose to learn a language based on your interest in learning it alone, ideally, the two languages which you are learning shouldn’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 languages. The more similar the languages that you’re learning are, the more likely you are to mix them up. An easy 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, if there are 5 or less to choose from). The languages which you are studying should be sufficiently different to avoid constant confusion.

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.

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.

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!

TL;DR

Learning two languages at once is less effective than just learning one. By carefully managing time and using techniques such as the laddering method, you can learn multiple languages at the same time as well as maintain your knowledge in all of them.

What other languages are you learning?

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!

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