When watching YouTube videos of famous polyglots rattling off in five, ten, or even twenty different languages, you might be thinking to yourself how awesome it would be to do that yourself.
It’s natural, then, to wonder if you can learn different languages simultaneously.
Can you? Yes.
Should you? It depends.
The vast, vast majority of the time, you use your first language to help you learn a second language.
So if you’re a native English speaker and you’re learning Spanish, you learn that mesa equates to table, and amor equates to love. You learn that the Spanish alphabet is similar to, but not exactly like, the English alphabet, and that some letters are pronounced the same and some are pronounced differently. And you might even learn ways that Spanish sentences are constructed similarly to English sentences.
There are times, though, when your first language interferes with your ability communicate in the second language. Linguists call this phenomenon “interference” (naturally).
So you’d see interference when:
- You learn a word, but not its connotation or context.
- You pronounce sounds the way you think they look in English.
- You create sentences using English grammar syntax.
Interference is natural and, to a certain point, unavoidable. If you stick with a language long enough, the interference will subside. As you approach fluency, you will eventually be negotiating with your new language as its own entity, on its own terms, completely separately from how you negotiate with your first language.
Interference and Multiple Languages
Here’s where it gets tricky, though. There’s some evidence that performing two tasks at the same time makes you worse at performing one or both of those tasks. This is called dual task interference.
The science behind this is insanely complicated. But in a nutshell, due to your brain’s finite resources for paying attention, thinking, and basically doing its thing, you perform best when you focus on one task at a time. This applies to both motor-skill (physical) and cognitive (thinking) tasks.
So in theory, learning two languages at the same time could potentially degrade your performance in both languages.
Back to the Real World
Okay, that’s more linguistics and science than I usually like to cover. Let’s get practical again.
Nothing says that it’s impossible to learn two or more languages at the same time. There are plenty of people in the world who have accomplished this.
Based on the science, what I’ve observed in myself, and what I’ve observed in others, I’m comfortable concluding that:
- You can learn multiple languages simultaneously.
- Your performance will not be as great as if you focused on only one language at a time.
In the end, it all comes down to your personal preferences.
Learn multiple languages at once if:
- You don’t mind progressing slowly.
- You get bored easily with one topic and need new stimulation.
- You don’t get frustrated while learning.
- You love the idea of knowing a little about a lot, rather than a lot about a little.
But focus on one language at a time if:
- Your goal is fluency.
- You want to progress as fast as possible.
- You need to be passionate about a topic to maintain interest.
- You want to be really good at one thing, rather than not bad at a lot of things.
For me, I prefer to focus on one language at a time and really immerse myself in it for several months. I make myself get up to an intermediate level before I allow myself to study another language.
But what you choose is really up to you. There’s no right or wrong answer. As with anything, do what’s best for you and your situation.
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