Should I try to learn two languages at once?
September 27, 2010 11:50 AM   Subscribe

Does it make sense to learn two languages at once?

I'm currently in a Spanish class, but I have access to online language lessons that are ordinarily very expensive. I want to make use of them, but I don't know if learning two languages at once "works". Should I learn a language that's similar to Spanish, or should I not bother at all?
posted by tomtheblackbear to Education (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
ABSOLUTELY! I took French and Spanish concurrently (had a three year head start on Spanish, though). I actually took my French notes in Spanish instead of English because it made more sense that way -- the two languages have much more similar conjugations and vocab.

Yes, you will occasionally get confused. Yes, when you're tired, your accents will merge and you'll be unintelligible. But it's a lot fun and can actually be easier for the second language.
posted by olinerd at 12:00 PM on September 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was in high school and college, I studied German, French and Spanish at the same time, with a bit of Latin and Italian thrown in for good measure. I don't think it hurts to study them at the same time at all. In fact, it probably helped me a bit because I began to see commonalities among the languages (especially the Romance languages) which cuts down on study time.

The main drawback, especially if the languages are similar, is that you might get vocabulary mixed up. This was never an issue for me, because even if Spanish and French are similar, you would never confuse "trabajar" and "travailler," for example. One is obviously Spanish and the other is obviously French. You are, though, learning twice as much vocab as you otherwise would, which is a lot of work. The mind can only absorb so much. (At least that's how it was for me.)
posted by soonertbone at 12:09 PM on September 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Is English your first language? If so, I think it's better to work really hard on Spanish. You should be able to learn it fairly quickly by studying just Spanish and then progress on to a different language.

You can learn a lot at this website for polygots. There are some very knowledgeable members there that are incredibly helpful and have some tips for learning multiple languages at once.
posted by zephyr_words at 12:10 PM on September 27, 2010

I used to be able to speak pretty good German, spent a few years living there, but then I learned Arabic eight hours a day for nearly two years, and now all I can say in German is "Gehen sie gerade aus" and "zwei bier bitte". :-(

Perhaps there is benefit in learning two similar languages simultaneously, but to me you can only really focus on one. Like they say: "Jack of all trades, master of none".
posted by Biru at 12:43 PM on September 27, 2010

I think your best bet would be to learn additional regional Spanish languages, like Catalan or Gallego. (Although actually I think Gallego is closer to Portuguese than to Spanish.) I do not recommend Euskara to anyone without an iron determination to learn it at any cost, as it is quite difficult and totally unrelated to romance languages in any discernible way.

Otherwise, French/Spanish/Italian/Latin are all pretty easy to learn at the same time.
posted by elizardbits at 12:46 PM on September 27, 2010

In my experience, trying to learn two similar languages at the same time (especially if you're at beginner level for both) was quite confusing. I learnt French at school, and a bit of Spanish later on (my background in French really helped with that), but then went to South America with a group of french friends weeks after completing a beginner's course in Italian. My french improved. But I found myself mixing up spanish and italian words constantly.

I'd vote for yes, give it a go, but pick a language that's very different to Spanish. Once you've got to a good level in Spanish, then think about learning Italian / French / Portugese at a later date.

Also, make sure you don't try and do homework for both in the same night, as that can also lead to confusion (based on my experiences at high school). Make Monday your Spanish night, and Tuesday your Polish night, for instance.
posted by finding.perdita at 1:25 PM on September 27, 2010

Interesting - my experience was that it was better to study more different languages, rather than similar ones. I studied French and Japanese at the same time, then Japanese and Chinese, and all three were different enough that when I would go "movie, movie, what's the word for movie.." and pull a word from the wrong language, I generally caught it pretty fast.
posted by Lady Li at 1:29 PM on September 27, 2010

If YOU can do it, it makes sense. Some people out here will say you can't (they have turned up in other threads). Don't listen to them until you have found that YOU can not do it.

Personally, I haven't had the vocabulary mix-up problems too badly until I am not actively using a language. Again, YMMV. (Like an above poster, I studied SP/FR/DE together in high school with no problems, SP/PT similarly as an adult, and CN/PT and VN/JP, for your extremities of similar and different.) Honestly I think I learned MORE by learning them together, and using them at the same times, because I was able to contrast them and build from the knowledge gained in that process.

Learn what you WANT to learn.
posted by whatzit at 1:39 PM on September 27, 2010

I've studied two, three and even four languages at once, in combinations of related and totally unrelated languages. Never had a problem, and I'd argue that being in heavy language acquisition mode helps things. Go for it!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:44 PM on September 27, 2010

One thing that might make it slightly easier is staggering them, so you're not doing two beginners' classes at once. I did intermediate Estonian, added in a comically basic beginners' Russian course once my Estonian was getting more advanced, and then started studying beginners French taught in Estonian, having already learnt some French before and forgotten it. I agree with Dee Xtrovert that your brain (or at least mine - eventually) does kick into language mode. But I think if I'd started them all simultaneously and was learning similar lessons in each language at the same time it would've been much harder.

And bear in mind that you'll only retain either language at a decent level while you're using it, so if the second one is just a hobby that you might not use, it'll fade away if you stop actively studying/using it. Not to say you won't be able to rekindle it in future, but bear in mind that e.g. if you're off to live in Spain for a year as part of your course, language number two might slide unless you have the chance to keep practising.
posted by penguin pie at 3:24 PM on September 27, 2010

I'm doing it right now, with Cantonese and Mandarin. It's easier than learning Cantonese alone, because the sentence construction of these two languages is similar. It's also fun to note the little differences between the two languages. But, as olinerd mentioned abovethread, tiredness does mess up my accent and vocabulary, but this should disappear with practice and experience.
posted by onegoodthing at 3:25 PM on September 27, 2010

In my experience, it works fine in a structured environment (like a classroom): when I was fifteen, I was studying French, German, Italian and Latin in school, and can acquit myself passably well in all four languages to this day. Ten years later I was working in Israel with a bunch of Palestinians and my Hebrew and Arabic are a hopeless muddle now.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:00 PM on September 27, 2010

I took Spanish and German in university, an hour a day each. Started German from zero, and got to intermediate/fluent by the third year. Spanish was easier because I had taken it (with Latin) throughout high school. The two languages were sufficiently different to challenge me in different ways, I enjoyed learning the vocabulary, the grammar - and reading interesting works from Existentialists, and South American writers.

My main language at the time was French, and I spoke Lithuanian at home. Given that I was living in Montreal at the time, my English was to hum along to Emerson Lake and Palmer and watch Dynasty ;)
posted by seawallrunner at 10:43 PM on September 27, 2010

It's easy if you concentrate -- I did French and German concurrently in high school (adding Chinese and Latin as they were offered) and then went on to major in German, take Russian and spend a year abroad on a fellowship learning Czech.

I think it's worse for people who start out knowing a similar language -- when I was in the Czech Republic my born-in-Russia-moved-to-US-as-kids friends who spoke fluent Russian had a much harder time not "filling in the blanks" with the appropriate Russian word when they were stuck... which works, usually, until your Czech teacher gets really pissed off for geopolitical reasons not related to language acquisition.

My boyfriend's first language is Hungarian, he learned English properly when he went off to kindergarten and took French all through Montessori and high school...he hasn't touched a French book in years but still comprehends anything I say to him fairly well. Your mileage may vary, of course!
posted by at 8:12 AM on September 28, 2010

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