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How Many Languages February 16, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Learning Tips.

How many languages should one learn at the same time?

This is probably one of the most talk-about topics among the language blogs and forums. I had no intention to talk about it originally, but since I happened to be discussing this topic in a language forum recently, I might as well give my own opinion here.

I believe it really comes down to your own expectation of learning the languages. There are language enthusiasts out there who just want to have a taste of a language, know a bit about its grammar, phonetics, sentence structures, and be able to perform basic conversations. If this is the case, then I think there is no limit. There is never any harm in knowing more about different languages.

There are other cases when you just want to get serious into learning a particular language. You want to communicate with people speaking that language, read newspaper and literature, and engage in oral discussions in that language. If this is the case, I personally don’t think you should learn more than 2 languages at the same time. Even if you are to learn 2 languages, you should be at different level for each one. I would say start another language while you have gained enough proficiency in the first one.

I wonder if anyone can learn more than 2 languages simultaneously and ultimately achieve fluency in all of them. I am yet to meet someone who can. In fact, I doubt that you can even gain proficiency in any of them! I am not talking about ‘maintaining’ already learned languages, but learning more than 2 new languages at the same time.

Assuming my thesis is correct, a corollary is that if you happen to be learning more than 2 languages at the same time, enjoy the experience but don’t expect to get very far. You may be able to watch movies with the aid of subtitles and bargain with a store owner. But as far as gaining proficiency is concerned, forget about it! Believe me. I did 4 languages at the same time while at high school. I passed all my exams with good grades. But besides English, I have never got very far with the other ones.



1. 米蘭 - February 16, 2007

That’s what puzzles me, people seem to prefer to be a Jack of all trades, master of none.

I have seen so many people attempt Cantonese and Mandarin only to realise that it cannot be done and end up being disappointed. They finally conclude they lack aren’t gift in language learning etc.

I’m not sure if Steve Kaufmann mastered his languages simultaneously though. However, I believe he is spending his time now learning Russian and Korean together? Not quite sure.

In my experiences, I tried learning Mandarin at the same time as Cantonese. I failed in Mandarin but have done OK in Canto… I tried learning for 6 months and still can’t even say a few basic sentences in Mandarin. I noticed when I dropped the Mandarin, my Cantonese immediately 進步神速 zeon3 bou6 san4 cuk1. Time is precious, I’m not sure how one can master a language by sharing their time between languages, in my case I study Cantonese for 10+ hours per day and still don’t feel like I’m doing enough. I want to see my efforts produce results, not study for years and end up with nothing to show.

2. man of the awa - February 16, 2007

Learning languages simultaneously is definitely the wrong way to go. Not to say it is impossible, but you save yourself a lot of confusion and frustration if you stay focused to a particular goal. I am in a unique position of having to study more than one time due to my job; but depending on what or how you study, the time and effort you put into one time only decreases the time and focus on the other. I wrote a similar entry into my blog. http://houhousihk.blogspot.com/2006/12/why-learning-two-language-at-same-time.html

3. edwinlaw - February 16, 2007

I don’t think Steve has ever learned more than 2 languages at the same time, not that I can tell from his book.

One thing I pointed out in that forum discussion is that I believe learning 2 similar languages should be easier than if they are completely different. Only that don’t learn them at the same time. Once you have gained proficiency in one, you should be able to use this as an advantage to learn the other one.

4. edwinlaw - February 16, 2007

Thanks for your comment.

One point though. Note that I don’t object the idea of learning 2 languages at the same time. But make sure they are not closely related, and that you have different proficiency levels.

You have a nice blog. I am glad to find another Cantonese learner’s blog. Do you hang around in the Cantonese Learner’s forum often?

5. man of the awa - February 17, 2007

hi edwin, that is a very good point about making sure the proficiency levels are different. one’s limitations in a language do help to differentiate it better in the mind and avoid confusion with any other you are studying. regarding similar languages, I personally agree with you that one should get at a proficient level before tackling another, but then again, many europeans, due to geography, tend to be multilingual and i’m sure they are learning their stuff simultaneously.

i’m glad you liked the blog. i’m a lurker in the cantonese forum. i don’t think my level in cantonese is high enough to actually contribute meaningfully. but i do enjoy it.

6. edwinlaw - February 17, 2007

Yes, many Europeans are multilingual, but how can you be sure that they learn 3 or more non-native languages at the same time?

Take those who are trilingual for example. Apart from their native tongue, if they learn 2 other languages at the same time and ultimately gain proficiency in all of them, this still does not break my thesis.

I have met Europeans in Skype who claim to be able to speak 5 or 6 languages. I am not sure if they are really fluent in their 5th or 6th language. I have no way to verify that myself.

7. man of the awa - February 17, 2007

it could be a matter of exposure or environment. perhaps it is not active learning (except for requisite schooling). but something more benign such as living in an area where language easily transcends borders. i’m no expert on europe, but i’m guessing that english, french, and german are the most prevalent and the constant exposure develops into a sort of intuitiveness that is lacking in other learners who don’t have that exposure. like children who grow up bilingual; they don’t actively learn the language, but come upon it naturally and intuitively, but on continental proportions. regarding any other languages above and beyond that, while similarities in most european languages do help in learning, when you get up to language number 5 or 6, i find it hard to believe they don’t have trouble keeping it all straight. there is a fine line between speaking a language and speaking a language well. Outside of environment, if a european, who most believe are quite talented with languages, tried to actively learn two asian languages (or anything without latin roots), at the same time, i don’t think they would get very far. but then again, i’ve been proved wrong before.

8. Joe - February 20, 2007

When I was in college I took German and Latin the first year, and added Greek the second. The coursework was intensive and I had a great time. The next few years I juggled those and added Hebrew, so that my final semester consisted of nothing but language courses. It was great fun, and I graduated proficient in all of them–writing and reading, not speaking.

On the other hand, a few years ago I decided to take up Japanese. It was so much fun that I dabbled in other Pimsleur courses (Mandarin, Portuguese, Vietnamese, etc, etc) before realizing that for me, as a native English speaker, Japanese is HARD WORK. Last year I gave up on all of them to focus specifically on Japanese: I just don’t have enough time for any others.

So I think it comes down to a number of factors: amount of time available for study, necessity of learning and uses for the language. Language study just plain takes a lot of time, and if your time is limited you can do one or two well, or do many of them but not very well at all.

9. Simon Holloway - February 25, 2007

As Joe intimates (in the last comment), learning ancient languages for which there are no first-language speakers, even when aiming to achieve a high level of proficiency, is infinitely easier than learning a modern spoken language and can be tackled alongside numerous others. For the last three years I have been studying Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac (the latter, of course, does have first-language speakers, but is fundamentally different to the classical form of the language), and added Akkadian to that in one year and Ge’ez in another. I am presently studying Ge’ez, Arabic, Latin, Greek and Coptic (and writing my PhD in Hebrew). Take it from me: the sky is the limit.

(PS: This is not a boast, as anyone who has ever studied ancient languages would know; studying pure grammar is truly a heck of a lot easier than having to participate in a conversation. I’m impressed with how many people here are able to actually speak so many of their languages!).

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