Multitasking in Language Learning

Since I’m insisting that my children each learn a language, I’ve had the task of keeping up with them so that I can help along the way.  The fact that they each chose a separate language has made this task more complex, and I find myself faced with the challenge of learning both Italian and Irish while still moving forward with my Hungarian. Thoughts of updating my Spanish are on hold for the moment.

I found myself musing on my experience this morning and wondering how others have felt about and dealt with this type of challenge.  As I began reading what others have to say, I thought I’d share my findings here and compare them with my own experience.

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Should you even attempt it?  This basic question is where I found the most conflicting information. Benny the Irish Polyglot says no and worries that it’s much easier to mix the languages up. Other blogs say you can learn as many at a time as you can find time for.  I’ve found several other resources that say you can, but that recommend no more than two and being careful to choose languages that are different and therefore not easily confused. Luca Lampariello at the Polyglot Dream advocates choosing one “easy” language and one “difficult” one.

I find that, having unwittingly followed this guideline, it seems to help.  I find Italian easy because of its similarity to Spanish and the Latin influences in English. Irish is a completely different beast, and I find it takes more effort to remember things in that language. I haven’t limited myself to two, really, but I find that they’re different enough that I don’t confuse them.

Luca also mentions speed, and he has a good point.  This is not the route to go if you need to learn quickly.  I find that the doubled vocabulary size means it takes me longer to learn words, though grammar and conjugation so far haven’t caused the same issues.

I would also only recommend this if you’re already familiar with learning a language.  You already know what works for you and some of the differences and obstacles you might run into, so you’re better prepared to learn effectively.

Building a Language Core. This is mentioned often with this subject, and rightly so.  When you’re learning a language the emotions, sounds, memories, connections, and even colors work together to create a larger overall impression of the language – it sort of forms its own atmosphere.  You develop a specific mindset associated with that language, and you shift into that mindset any time you use it.

The concern is that learning more than one language at a time prevents you from building language cores or causes them to become confused. This hasn’t been the case for me. I have distinct impressions of each language, even though I started Irish and Italian at the same time.  It still takes me a bit of time to swap between them because I’m not used to making that shift in mindset, but I can do it. This is probably a personal thing – some people can create the distinctions, some can’t.

Interestingly, the Fluent U blog suggests mixing up your flashcards from the two languages, saying that “going back and forth quickly between the two languages you’ve picked paradoxically helps you keep them separate” and helps build the flexibility to quickly swap languages.  I haven’t tried this yet, but I did recently start trying to translate sentences directly from one language to another with no transition through English. It’s difficult to stop myself from translating to English first, but I think it will help in the long run.

Immersion. Immersing yourself in one language is difficult enough, but more sounds daunting.  There are ways, though.  Play audio while you’re in the shower, working out, or in the car.  Find news sites, preferably with video, and read or listen to one in the morning and another in the evening. Of course, a language partner is probably the best way, so try to find one for each language who’s willing to work with your schedule.

I’m trying not to intimidate the kids yet, so I haven’t gone with news sites, but I’ve been looking at sites geared more toward their age groups, preferably with audio and interactive features.  My son watches a lot of YouTube videos (mostly about video games and Java programming), so that may be a workable avenue for him.  As for me, I prefer a good news site.  I think we all may be looking for language partners in the coming year, but as a parent I want to be sure to find the kids partners in their age groups, preferably with similar interests if I can.

Finding Time: I’m an organized person, and I have a color-coded planner sitting next to me as I speak.   I realize, though, that this may not be normal for most people.  It’s taken some trial and error to work out a schedule that works for me, and it might for you, too. But you do need a plan.  It can be as loose as “I want to work on A and B sometime today” and just getting them done when the time seems right that day, or it could be scheduled to the minute, or anything between.   And you’ll probably need to adapt it if you notice you’re having trouble with one language or something’s just not working.  You may fail to stick with it now and then. Don’t punish yourself! Just adjust as necessary, push forward, reward yourself for the things you do accomplish. Try to stick to the plan going forward, but accept that you‘ll likely get off schedule again at some point and have to readjust.


Overall, I’m really happy with my progress in both languages, and I’m a firm believer that learning more than one language at a time can work, with work and determination.  But if, after reading all of the links here and doing more research, planning a schedule, and making a strong effort, it doesn’t work in the end, I already know which language is most important to me (and chances are, if you’re doing this, so do you), so if necessary I can slim down to a single language and learn another when I’m ready.

If you do decide to go this route, let me know! I’d love to hear what works for you and what challenges you most.

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