How many languages can you juggle?

Language wanderlust is a beautiful affliction to have. Everywhere you go, your ears prick when you hear someone speaking a new language, and if you’ve never heard it before, you can’t help but wonder. “What language is this? I wonder if I could learn it… but wait, I’m already learning another language! Oh, woe is me…”

In theory, as long as you have the time, there’s nothing to keep you back from learning as many languages as you want at once. However, in my years learning languages I’ve discovered a few bumps in the road. If you’re interested in learning multiple languages at once, read on!

Just one brain and only 24 hours to a day

One of the most common questions in language learning is “can I learn more than one at the same time?”

Well, can you?

The feasibility of juggling languages has nothing to do with complex grammars and reading systems; the problem of being able to learn more than one language at the same time is more of a logistical one. Being realistic, if you sleep seven hours a night, work for another eight, and put another two or three into personal or family-related tasks (and I’m being very light on time spent with family), that leaves you with about six hours to sink into languages… but probably not much energy.

The next issue to take into account is the workload and focus required by the languages you’re aiming to learn. For most people, Esperanto does not require the same number of hours as Russian does, and you will definitely not study Spanish with the same resources you use to study Mandarin.

I believe you should always keep in mind the linguistic distance between the languages you intend to learn. If you intend to juggle languages, then it may be better to choose those with distinct enough characteristics and few features in common. In my experience, this helps keep a wall between these languages; the one time I juggled two Romance languages (Portuguese and Italian) a point came in which I could not even try to think in one without the other interfering, and so I had to drop one, much to my personal frustration. This doesn’t happen while learning, as an example, Esperanto and Mandarin at the same time.

Crawl, walk, then juggle!

Lastly, here’s a good piece of advice if you want to attempt juggling languages: never do it with two A0 (beginner) level languages. I mean it!

While a good learner can slip out of the beginner stage relatively quickly, the amount of focus and energy you need to get the basics of a language just right is nothing to sneeze at. You can try juggling two languages you’ve just started, but unless you’ve gone through this process over and over again and know you can handle the mental strain, this kind of exercise is extremely conducive to burnout. Do you want to feel defeated because you bit off more than you could chew? No? I didn’t think so. 🙂

Always remember that you’ll get better at learning with every effort you do… so there’s no hurry. If you feel you can’t juggle yet, that’s no problem! Just focus on one language and then go on to the other one while you’re taking a break.

 

Have you juggled languages before? Which ones? Share your experiences in the comments!

  • Maureen F Millward ,

    Yes I usually study 2 at once but both different stages and completely different languages. At the moment those are Greek and German. I maintain my other 6 on Italki at least once per fortnight but don’t really need to spend time studying them as such now. I just like the conversation practice.In Autumn I will start some basic Cantonese for a trip in January.

    • Siskia L. ,

      That’s very similar to how I manage my own languages–I keep all other languages I’m not currently learning in a state of semi-passivity, sprinkling a few input-output activities every other week to keep them alive.

      Good luck with Cantonese!

    • Fish (小魚) ,

      I feel like how many can be juggled depends on your situation. I plan on starting 3 almost completely from scratch next week, which are Swedish, Mandarin and Korean. I’m already high intermediate in Japanese, so that helps with korean and Mandarin some, and lower intermediate german helps with swedish. With school or work it may probably be near impossible for most to handle that much, but i’m 17 and have 3 months of summer vacation to set solid foundations in the 3 new ones. Having a good study schedule and goals specific to each languages helps a lot. For example in Mandarin I plan to focus more on speaking and listening for the foundation, whereas Korean I plan to focus on major grammar and reading first. Having motivation is important too, so I always keep a list of movies, tv shows, music and books in each target language. Feeling too low to study one day? Relax and watch a movie, it can be just as productive in language learning c:

      • Siskia L. ,

        Wow, seems to me that you’ve settled on a good way to spend your summer! As you said, one’s personal circumstances are a big modifier–for me, right now it would be impossible (and/or irresponsible) to do more than two, so I can’t but feel a bit of healthy jealousy about your next language mission. I’d like to know how things turned out at the end of summer, if you’d like to contribute to The Polyglotist. 🙂

        The most important thing, regardless of the number of languages you’re juggling, is that you’ve already mapped out how you plan on taking them on, and set goals for each. All I can add is a suggestion to stay aware and on top of things (a journal of your daily activities may be good measuring, if you don’t keep one already), and avoid burnout so you can achieve all of your goals. Good luck!