Learning Two Languages at Once: 3 Challenges and How to Beat Them

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If you’re new to language learning the answer to “Can you learn two languages at once?” might seem like a mystery to you. Even in the case that you’ve already learned to speak a foreign language, the concept of learning two languages at once might be an intimidating endeavor.

There are specific challenges to learning two languages at once that have to be taken into account.

No matter how much experience you have with languages, you’ve likely already thought of one. Not having enough time in the day is something even someone just wanting to learn one language will consider.

A potentially unexpected challenge or limitation rather is the amount of mental energy that you have in a given day to spend.

Lastly is the potential to mix up languages that you are learning. This one is something that someone who has already learned a language has taken into account as being potentially problematic.  

What Are the Challenges of Learning Two Languages at Once?

Let’s say that you are someone who is learning two languages at once.

As already mentioned, the difficulties that you will have primarily come from three things. First, you have to consider the additional time constraints that come with learning two languages at once. The second is the amount of energy you have to study. And the third thing is the potential to mix up languages.

Time Constraints

Having a limited amount of time will affect you as much as you let it. I say this because it’s often your mentality that prevents you from studying more.

Personally, I’m currently studying Mandarin and Spanish. I typically spend at least 15 minutes on each language a day. If I spend more than 30 minutes on Spanish, it’s normally because I’m also watching Netflix series in the language.

15 minutes a day is a small commitment to make. You will make progress in your target language, even if it seems like very little time.

Mental Energy for Learning Two Languages at Once

Maybe an even bigger and unexpected challenge to learning two languages at once is mental energy.

Let me explain this one with an example. When I began learning Mandarin roughly a year ago it was exhausting. I felt inclined to study in the morning when my energy was at its highest.

To a large extent it makes sense. I was absorbing new sounds, words, and a new writing system. (Still am) As you may have already picked up, there’s a caveat to this. Not all languages are as difficult for English speakers as Mandarin.

When I began learning Spanish 5 months ago, I hardly experienced this taxing feeling. I learned a lot of Spanish vocabulary quickly through Portuguese. Learning Spanish was a more relaxed feeling as a result. I was speaking the language inside of a month.

Mixing up Languages

The last critical point is the potential to mix up languages. How critical this is will depend on the languages that you’re studying.

Your experience learning languages will also be a lesser but important factor.

When I started studying Portuguese almost 3 years ago, I continued studying German for some months. As I began speaking Portuguese, German words constantly slipped into my mind while I was trying to speak. These were the only two languages that I had seriously studied.

While I began learning Spanish, I put Portuguese to the side for several months. I figured that considering how similar these languages are, learning them at the same time would surely be problematic. Especially if it was the case for German and Portuguese.

I learned something new about language learning several months into learning Spanish. In some sense, learning Spanish was consuming my ability to speak in Portuguese. One language was eating the other so to say.

Currently, I’ve been practicing my conversation in Portuguese for 2 months with a tutor. We joke about it now, but he said that when we began practicing Portuguese again after a 3 month pause, I was basically speaking Spanish to him. There is so much overlap between the languages that it’s easy for the dominant language to take over.

Learning Two Languages at Once: Overcoming the Challenges

If the points above are the main challenges that you need to overcome, how do you overcome them?

Just by practicing conversation once a week for an hour has helped a lot with maintaining my speaking proficiency in Portuguese. I can quite literally see my speaking ability returning a little bit each class.

There are ways to avoid or even solve the potential challenges of learning two languages at once.

Picking Languages

To discuss strategy, we’ll start with the third point, mixing languages up. We’ll start with this because, practically speaking, you should first make decisions that start with this point.

What languages will you learn? This is an important question.

I will be blunt and say don’t study languages with a lot of overlap. It’s not a good idea, especially if you’re new to learning languages. Mixing up words from languages can be very frustrating. It adds an element that takes away from the learning process.

The polyglot Luca Lampariello often talks about building a language core. What that means is that you build up a concept of a language as a whole in your head. When you’re learning two similar languages at the same time the cores that you’re building up in your head are harder to distinguish.

When learning two languages at once, learn as different languages as you can.

As I’m learning Mandarin and Spanish at the same time, I’ve essentially had zero problems mixing up these languages. These are about as different languages as you can find.

This will also be less of a problem as you increase your proficiency in one language or another. Do you remember how I said I mixed up German and Portuguese in the past? I don’t mix these languages up anymore.

In this case I stopped studying German, a language I already had a “core” in. Then I began learning Portuguese and built up my core in this language. Now I have a distinct collection of associated experiences in these two languages.

Over time my ability to switch languages has without a doubt gotten better as well. Maybe my brain has become more proficient at speaking languages. The most likely explanation is that I just simply have a more confidence in my ability to speak them.

Finding a Balance: Mental Energy

So how do you find a balance in the amount of energy you spend learning two languages at once?

This also comes down to your choice in languages but is more open-ended. For starters, you shouldn’t start two new languages at the same time.

A heavy, more unique language from those that you already know will consume a lot of your energy. If you start two similar languages at the same time, you’ll have the problem I just mentioned above. You’ll mix the languages up.

An additional note: even if languages are very different, you’re more likely to mix them if you start learning them from zero at the same time.

Find the Time for Learning Two Languages at Once

The final challenge to overcome is time constraints. This, frankly speaking, is the easiest element to control. Just spending five minutes a day on a new language will result in progress.

You’ll have to put more time in a language as your proficiency level grows, but learning will become more natural as time goes on. If you want to learn a language, then find time for it. 5 or even 30 minutes a day per language is not a big commitment. Make it a part of your daily life.

My article 5 Tips for Studying a Language from Home can help you overcome the daily challenges of learning a language.

Best Practices for Studying Two Languages at Once

Can you learn two languages at once? You should have noticed by now that the answer is yes. I don’t like being blunt about it because it requires more strategy then learning only one language.

If it requires more strategy, then what might be the best methods for learning two languages at once?

Avoid Language Burnout

Make sure that you’re enjoying the learning process. This is the first part of the question to consider. You’ll burn yourself out if you’re not enjoying it.

If you’re feeling burned out, consider dedicating yourself solely to your newest language for some time. After some months you can go back to studying two.

Create Separation Between Languages

Another important part of learning two languages, more so if you’re new to language learning, is separation. You want to keep the languages apart from each other. When you go to study you don’t want to be reminded of another language if possible.

Separation should happen somewhat on its own. You’ll practice the two languages with different people. Content in the language will often be on different topics tied to the culture of where the language is spoken.

Also, somewhat related to this is when you study each day.

Know When to Study

Try setting a specific time of day that you want to study a given language. Say that you’re studying Japanese and Italian. Study Japanese at some point in the morning and Italian in the afternoon or evening.

I don’t want to say that you should study them at the exact same time every day. It can sometimes be more productive to stay flexible.

In my case I have a very flexible work schedule that allows me to study languages at my own discretion. As a result, I will work on projects or tasks for as much time as feels appropriate in the moment. Then I might study languages for 15 minutes or so in between tasks or just study them in the evening.

If your schedule is not so flexible then block out specific time each day to study your languages, preferably at different times of day.

Closing Comments: Can You Learn Two Languages at Once?

By now it should be clear to you that learning two languages at once certainly is possible. It just requires a little forethought.

In order to overcome the challenges of learning two languages at once, first think over which languages you pick. Picking two languages that have a lot of overlap is a bad idea. Study two languages that don’t necessarily have a lot in common. For example, Japanese and French or Mandarin and Italian.

It’s also best not to start two languages at the exact same time. Regardless of how different they are, it will be even easier to mix them up in this case.

Find time in the day to study your languages, even if it’s just 15 minutes. If necessary, block out specific time in the day.

Most importantly check to make sure you’re enjoying the learning process. Burnout can take away a lot of the fun in language learning.

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