The idea of learning two languages at once sounds instantly appealing – after all, learning languages is one of our favourite things! However, is it a good idea that you should embrace wholeheartedly, or a terrible idea that you should run a mile away from?
As with so many questions in life, the answer is more complicated than it at first seems. Ultimately, it really depends on your circumstances – how much time you have, how committed you are and why you want to learn each language. From there, you can figure out what works best for you and form a language-learning strategy designed to maximise your success in one or both languages.
In this article, we consider the question in more detail, looking at the pros and cons of learning two languages at a time. But first, we look at an even more important question that will help you understand your reasons for wanting to try learning two languages at once.
Ask Yourself: What Is Your Motivation?
This is really a question of ‘why’: why is it important to learn two languages at once? We would argue that focusing on one language at a time is a more likely route to success (and probably a quicker route to achieving key goals along the way in your language learning), so why is it important to you to divide your time between two languages?
If you are contemplating the challenge, you probably do have a good reason – perhaps a job opportunity that relies on two different languages you currently do not speak, or that brings an extra language into focus for you. For example, you may have been learning Spanish for a few months for personal reasons, and now you have an opportunity to work with a German company. German may now be the more advantageous language to learn – but at the same time, you want to keep the momentum going with your Spanish classes. What a conundrum!
Alternatively, you might simply be up for the challenge! Whatever your reasons, assess whether you have thought through how you might achieve your goal of learning two languages: do you have the time, energy and commitment required to take on this challenge?
The ‘Yes, Why Not!’ Argument
First, we consider some of the ways you can make learning two languages at once work for you – with an optimistic spin.
- Time: Making time to study around your work and home life is critical to your success, but if learning two languages is a priority for you then it is achievable. Give each language its own regular time slots throughout each week, and aim to create a routine that you stick to the majority of the time. However you structure your learning, make sure you set achievable goals in terms of how much time you can dedicate to each language each week, and how much you can expect to learn. If it is hard to see regular achievements, this will impact your motivation.
- Focus: Though two languages will divide your focus, aim to make time for regular – ideally daily – in-depth practice. If immersive daily sessions in each language are a challenge, perhaps make each language a focus on alternate days. And if it is becoming difficult to prioritise both languages equally, consider having a priority language that you commit the most time, focus and energy towards learning.
- Motivation: Ebbs and flows in commitment and willpower are inevitable with any long-term task. If things are getting tough, remember to have some fun with your language learning – perhaps try some different forms of immersion, such as watching a film in one of your chosen languages or reading a book (perhaps a translation of a favourite novel, so you can follow the story more clearly). At all times, remember why learning both languages is so important to you.
Convinced? How about shifting the perspective a little to see the same issues differently?
The ‘No Way!’ Argument
Here, we look at the same areas but with a more pessimistic slant.
- Time: However motivated you are, at some point real life may make it hard to balance learning two languages. And if your routine becomes compromised – increased stress at work, new personal challenges, another hobby or interest that requires additional time – then both your languages may suffer the consequences. By learning one language at a time, you can clearly set aside all the available ‘language time’ you have – even if that amount fluctuates – for learning that language. Sometimes it is best to make good progress in one area rather than middling progress in several different areas.
- Focus: By focusing on just one language, you have a far greater opportunity to immerse yourself in the learning experience. With language learning, immersion can lead to a greater depth of understanding – and the more time you have, the better your chances of building on your learning and progressing swiftly to an advanced level.
- Motivation: Perhaps one language will start to seem more appealing than the other (especially when you are struggling with one of them), or maybe you will become demotivated by your lack of progress if you jump from one language to the other whenever the going gets tough. Does your original motivation to learn both languages have the power to bring your learning back on course? A drop in motivation could see you giving up on both languages rather than persevering with one or the other of them.
Both arguments have their merits – but what does the realist in you think?
Our Conclusion: One Language Wins… Most of the Time
It is perfectly possible to learn two languages at once if you really want to. Your brain is capable of managing the two languages alongside each other, and while you may get confused at times, the inevitable mix-ups are unlikely to set you back too far. But the really important question is why would you want to: what is your motivation?
This question requires a really good answer – one that cannot easily be derailed by the pitfalls we note above. A professional goal is usually the most effective – if two new languages are essential to developing your chosen career path, then the drive to succeed can motivate you on the days when it all feels a bit too much. But if you just like the idea of fast-tracking your language learning by stacking your two favoured languages alongside each other to double your progress, then the path to success may well be littered with obstacles – and a sequential path to learning each language, where you focus on one first and then the other, may be a more motivating fit for you.
Overall, we would recommend that you focus on learning one language at a time, or at least learning one main language (with the second language a bit of a fun ‘side-hustle’ if you feel in the mood for a change of pace). You are more likely to make notable progress when you focus in on one language at a time – and these successes can help to keep you motivated when the going gets tough. That second language will always be there for you to pick up when you are ready!