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 multiple languages at once, this post will tell you how to learn and maintain multiple languages at the same time 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 split your time 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 multiple languages simultaneously, you have to make sure that you’re spending enough time with each of the languages to maintain what you’ve already learned.
Although I learned a lot of French with the tips that I’m about to share with you, I eventually decided to focus solely on Polish until I had memorised at least 8,000 sentences with computerised flashcards.
Regardless of how you choose to split your time, I recommend learning one of the languages to a solid level before taking on another.
What’s a solid base level, I hear you ask?
To quantify it, I’d say 5,000 known sentences in your Anki deck.
If you’re not using Anki, a good base level 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 simultaneously later on.
Is learning multiple languages at the same time a bad idea?
@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
Yes, it’s a terrible idea! You’ll make slower progress and less progress by trying to split your time instead of focusing on one. As the old Russian proverb says, “‘If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.”
So before you start to wonder if learning multiple languages affects your learning, the answer is 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 English 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, two languages 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 completely 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 about learning multiple languages
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.
“[T]hird language acquisition is characterized in particular by the unintentional incorporation of L2 items during speech production…”Shirin Murphy
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 multiple languages at once and you just can’t wait, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of success.
Avoid learning similar languages at the same time
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 won’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 Most Similar Languages 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.
The benefits of learning multiple languages
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.
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. For example, learning 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.
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 How To Speak Polish method, for example, Russian or Czech, I recommend starting with a Russian or Czech phrasebook before progressing to learning sentences from a Russian or Czech grammar book using computerised flashcards.
Of course, you’d have to learn how to type their alphabets too! Following that, I would dive straight into native content that interests you.
Which languages do you have mutual intelligibility with?
I once had a chat with a friend Matt when he spoke Russian and I spoke Polish. Despite neither of us knowing each other’s 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 Russian 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 flashcards with English translations on the back in one deck and you could have French flashcards with Polish translations on the back in another deck.
If you had a greater knowledge of French than of Polish, you could just do it the other way around.
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 flashcards instead of English. Although I did make progress, reviewing the cards took significantly longer than when I used English, so I changed back.
I’m sure that over time I would have improved my speed as well as my Polish, but it was too frustrating to stick with it.
Because I find flashcards with English translations quicker to review, I only use English translations on my flashcards now.
While I miss out on an easy opportunity to maintain both languages, I gain the ability to review my flashcards 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, 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 and many adults speak speak four or more languages 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 the next 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 (you included) don’t have the time to effectively learn three languages at the same time. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
If you’re learning three languages at the same time, I’d love to hear from you to hear how you’re splitting up your time – and if you ever sleep!
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.