Adding a language is like adding another colour to your communication swatch! (Picture from

Language learning, fast and slow : one-track hack or polyglot glutton?

As a language learning addict, the idea of having multiple projects on the go at the same time is always appealing. But is there a sensible maximum to the number of languages we should be studying simultaneously?

The topic came up on a very interesting recent Hangout with Benny Lewis, the mastermind behind the Add One Challenge. Quite rightly, the general advice was that progress will be faster if you focus on one at a time. It stands to reason – we only have a finite mental capacity, and if you want to see results fast, you should direct it all in one direction.

Learning: fast and slow

But there are two differing attitudes towards learning in competition, here. The key selling point to much of the language hacking approach is ‘results fast‘. There is nothing wrong with that. I have used it to great effect myself. Efficiency and speed are fantastic study skills to develop if you have particularly practical (or urgent) goals in language learning.

By contrast, there is also a much more gradual approach to languages. Instead of a focus on short-term working knowledge, it emphasises the joy of the learning process. It regards learning it as a gentler method of layering knowledge upon knowledge over time. It is about finding fun in the detail, revelling in the rules. Furthermore, the lower priority on speed means that it supports multiple language learning a little better, if that is what you want to do.

There is room for both of these methods in the same language learning life, of course. The learner can chop and change according to circumstance and need. Need working fluency for a trip? Choose the fast route. Greedy linguist who wants a taste of everything? The slowly-but-surely approach is an excellent option.

Back to school

After all, early experience of languages in school is frequently in the mould of the gradual grammar crammer. For example, at my own secondary school, all students studied French and German for their first two years. Later, when the time came to take our options, we selected the one language we wanted to continue with.

Practices are similar in other European schools, with Icelandic students learning English and Danish, for example, or German students learning English and Spanish. Learning a couple of languages at a time in your own time is no unusual feat – kids have been doing it for decades.

The more the better?

There is even an academic argument for adding multiple languages into your study routine. Closely related languages, for instance, can be part of a larger voyage of discovery, opening up a whole language family. The resulting bird’s eye view can give a truly deep understanding of each individual member of that family, as you begin to make connections and colour between the lines.

What’s more, human languages share particular characteristics, regardless of family. There are common, abstract concepts across them, like nouns, verbs, tenses, moods (although they may appear vastly different, and be given differing names and explanations). Experience with the mechanics and terminology in one tongue can support your understanding in the other(s).

With a bit of organisational panache and sensible separation, it’s quite possible to handle multiple language projects. As always with matters of the mind, though, avoiding burnout is paramount. Take care, and you can keep that long-term, polyglot passion a joy, rather than a drain. And there is no need to give up that lexical gluttony, if it floats your boat!

If a big draw of language learning is enjoying the process, does it necessarily matter how quickly you progress? As linguists, we have the tools for language learning, fast and slow. Employ – and enjoy – them both.

Sidenote: the title for this post was inspired by the utterly fascinating “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Read it for an insight into our truly two-track brains!

Keep your language learning colourful - change things up from time to time.

Managing Anki decks with options groups

Well, the football didn’t go England’s way this week. Commiserations, fellow polyglot fans who were also hoping. But when anticlimactic gloom ensues, sometimes you’re motivated to very productive distractions. I’ve spent a useful chunk of time this week optimising my Anki flash card decks.

With Anki, as with all things, it’s easy to get stuck in your ways. When something works straight out the box and does the job, it’s tempting not to tinker. How many people, for example, never touch the advanced settings on a new phone, console or TV?

Change things up a little

That said, sometimes you just need to be brave and change things up a little. The experimenter’s ethos is key: it might work; it might not. But it’s worth trying!

Yes, Anki works straight out of the box. And it does a fantastic job like that. But, with some tweaking, you can fit it around your goals and lifestyle much more neatly. Here’s how I’ve tweaked it to fit my goals and lifestyle more neatly lately.

The problem

The problem is that I rotate a lot of languages in my learning routine. Some I’m actively learning right now. Others I’ve learnt in the past, and want to ‘rest’ them for a while before returning to them in the future. And some of those I want to bring out of their rest phase, and work on maintaining, rather than growing them.

The way I was doing this before was quite efficient, on the whole. I normally nest all my language decks in a superdeck called ‘Languages’. When I was ready to rest a language for a while, I’d simply rename its deck into ‘Rested Languages’. This deck had a learn / review limit of zero in its settings, effectively turning it off. When I was ready to restart that language, I’d move it back. I talk about this cycle in a previous post.

The trouble is, it could feel like a clunky kludge at times. Removing a whole deck from your stack renders the language invisible. It’s almost like you’ve given up on it – it’s no longer in your Anki hall of fame, it no longer feels like yours. I love seeing the long list of languages I’ve worked on in Anki, and removing one smarts a little. It’s like parking you classic, but disused car, in a dark, dusty garage. Or shutting away your pet in a kennel. Or lots of other slightly sad metaphors… In any case, it felt wrong.

If only there were some way of keeping decks where they are, but adjusting the new card / review settings separately from the rest…

Anki Options Groups

Roll on Anki options groups. By default, all the decks in a superdeck have the same settings. If you have a limit of ten new cards a day on the superdeck, all the subdecks share that limit.

However, you can set up separate ‘options groups’, and apply them to individual decks in a stack. This gives you control over the settings for that deck alone, and allows you to keep the deck where it is, but make it behave differently.

Getting started

It’s easiest to do this in the desktop program. Next to each deck, you’ll see a little cog symbol, which you can pull down to access a deck’s options.

Changing the options on a deck in Anki

Changing the options on a deck in Anki

Your decks will be set to the default options to start with. Pull down the cog menu in the top-right corner of the options form to add a new batch of settings.

Adding a new set of options in Anki

Adding a new set of options in Anki

The key setting here is ‘New cards/day’. In this example, I’m setting that to just two, as these are rested languages that I’ve reset all the scheduling on, and am drip-feeding as new vocab at a slow pace each day.

Adjusting options in Anki

Adjusting options in Anki

When you press OK, you’ve created an options group that you can use on your other decks, too. For instance, I’m currently sharing that ‘Minor languages’ group above with my Greek and Hebrew.

Grades of activity

It’s a great way to manage your study if you have lots of languages. It also pays to spend some time deciding what your levels of activity will be before creating options groups. Mine, for example, include:

I can’t underestimate how satisfying – and motivating! – it is to see all the languages I’ve worked on in the same list again. No more dusty attic of lost languages – they’re all in one place again. Give it a go, and get a little bit more tailor-made learning from this amazing, free tool!

Anki - with lots of language decks!

Anki – with lots of language decks!

Learning multiple languages CAN be as simple as putting together coloured blocks!

Tackle multiple languages by blocking your time

I am a language hog. I’m eternally curious about them, and genuinely love studying them. So, I’m often actively learning multiple languages at the same time.

However, advice on learning multiple languages usually suggests plenty of caution and good planning. Now, you can be over-cautious; some suggest avoiding languages that are quite closely related, such as Norwegian and Icelandic, or Polish and Russian. However, I find that sometimes, this can actually help.

But overstretching yourself – however fun the activity – is a recipe for burnout. And, I’ve found, successful study sessions in a foreign language require a bit of conscientious preparation. You have to get in the mindspace for that language. At the very least, you need to (re-)activate your existing knowledge and plan to have something to say.

Because of that, few students will learn effectively by cramming three or more different languages into back-to-back study blocks on the same day.

Multiple languages pile-up

The problem was this: when I first started taking online lessons on iTalki, I had a tendency to spot any free time in my diary and fill it up. A sucker for punishment, you might think; rather, kid-in-a-sweetshop syndrome! So many languages, so little time…

For all busy people, it’s very tempting to do this. A free afternoon on Saturday? Squeeze in your German and Spanish. Only have one free evening in the week? Schedule three different language classes in it to make sure you’re getting your practice.

Nonetheless, this was a disaster for me. The result was always the same – I’d do well in the first class, then struggle to switch mindset for the following ones. I noticed the problem even when I left slightly longer, like a single day, between lessons. And, frankly, it’s a waste of the money to spend money on lessons and not be able to do the best you can in them.

Language blocks

However much I wanted to chop and change, it was necessary to create some separation. This way, at the very least, I could give each language a fair allocation of my time and energy. To this end, I’ve used trial and error to find an approach that works. And the trick, I’ve found, is spacing different languages into learning blocks of a few days.

What I do now is to carve my time into blocks of learning. Each one leads up to the big lesson ‘event’, where I can practise what I’ve learnt. Importantly, as much as possible, I keep each different language lesson separated by at least a couple of days on my calendar. In effect, you are spending your block working up to the pinnacle, which is the face-to-face lesson.

Short, sweet and focussed

It’s probably best not to make the blocks too long; two to four days working on a language is probably optimal before you cycle to the next one. You don’t want any one language to have too much downtime. But for those few days, ensure that your all your active learning is focussed on the single language.

The exception to the rule is with your languages in maintenance mode. These require less fresh learning and intensive vocab prep. For example, German and Spanish are my degree languages, and my strongest; therefore, I’ll pop a Spanish or German class on the same day as an Icelandic or Norwegian one – but never an Icelandic and Norwegian one on the same day.

Finally, it’s important to ‘sign off’ properly after you finish a block. For instance, I write up my lesson notes, add new vocab to Anki and spend some time putting any new vocabulary into example sentences. Tying it all off nicely after the big event is as important as preparing for it.

Why limit yourself?

If languages are your joy and passion, then why limit yourself? It’s true that you may well learn more quickly if you concentrate on a single one. But if you are a language guzzler, like me, then timing tricks like these will help keep you satiated, while still squeezing the most from your lessons.