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.

Learning multiple languages can often seem like a maze, especially when you get mixed up

“Don’t you ever get mixed up?” Learn to love your language mistakes! ❤

If people know you’re a language geek, then there’s one question they ask all the time: don’t you ever get mixed up with all these languages?

The short answer is simply yes. The longer answer – well, I’ll get to that. But it is a frustrating fact that I’ll sometimes reach for a word in one language and, maddeningly, only be able to grasp it in a language I’m not trying to speak at that moment. It happens particularly frequently with languages that are closely related, and when I’m quite proficient in one but not the other.

All Russian to me

I’ll take a recent example to illustrate this polyglossic pitfall. In the last year or so, I’ve begun to learn Polish in earnest again. It’s something I wanted to speak ever since I heard Edyta Górniak sing Poland’s stunning debut in that beautiful language at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994. (Unashamedly, Eurovision steered many of my early language goals!)

After some self-paced book study, I decided it was time to get some speaking practice in. I found a good teacher on iTalki – always a decent place to get face-to-face native speaker lessons – and sat ready for my first, full-length Polish lesson. The teacher took a communicative approach, and so the lesson was almost completely in Polish. But I managed, despite the challenge, and got a lot from it. All the same, every now and then, I’d reach for a word I knew I knew in Polish, and it would come out in Russian. I’d go for przyjaciel (friend) and it would come out as drug; I tried to say kraj (country) and what I got was straná.

Familiar friend

Now, I spent some years learning Russian, on my own and with various tutors, online and offline. It was pretty strong at one point (now, sadly, a bit rusty and screaming to be my next ‘recovery’ project!). Due to their similarity as Slavic languages, Russian was leaking into my Polish.

I noticed what was happening; it was when I was under conversational pressure, trying to keep the flow and not stumble for words. Russian was my familiar friend at times of Slavic stress (although a false friend where the Polish word differed completely!).

On face value, this seems bad. Mixing languages, when you’re supposed to be speaking one, is missing the goalposts. Right?

Getting mixed up is a healthy part of multiple language learning

However, in real life, it is a completely normal part of how bilingualism develops. Children brought up with multiple languages, for example, will readily mix them up to a certain point of development. The mix-ups eventually stop, and separate, functional languages remain. As such, experts recognise it as a perfectly normal and healthy part of multiple language learning.

What’s more, these ‘mistakes’ represent active learning. When I conflate Russian and Polish, I’m reinforcing the relationship between the two in my brain – especially with a good teacher who can recognise it and explain what I’ve done. I start to build up a map of how these two languages are related, how they are similar – and not. And this bird’s eye view of language is one of the greatest gifts that can come from being a language junkie. Ultimately, this heightened familiarity will help you miss the false friends, and make more educated guesses when struggling to find a word in one of them.

So, in short, I do mix words up, all the time. Everybody does. But don’t be afraid of it. Language learning is a process of exploration; mixed-up moments represent real discoveries that join up the dots and fill in the gaps on your journey.

Building languages into your daily routine as habit is the first step to polyglot success!

Essential habit-forming apps for language fluency ⏰

Efficient learning hinges on habit. A little, every day, will go a long way. “We become what we repeatedly do” writes motivational mogul Sean Covey, and this could not be truer for linguists. If you want to become a polyglot, languages must become a regular fixture in your daily routine.

Inevitably, we are all human, and most of us need a helpful nudge now and again. Fortunately, there are some excellent self-organising tools to build those nudges digitally into your day. Here is an updated list of some favourites I couldn’t do without!


Probably one of the most fully-featured and best-known note apps, Evernote has earnt its status as essential app. It also has a free, basic plan, which will suit many users; this limits note upload size, but as linguists, we deal mostly with words rather than pictures – handily making most of our notes pretty small! You can also access it on pretty much any of your devices (although you will have to choose just two on the basic plan).

At its simplest level, it’s excellent for storing your lists of vocab. You can tag notes with language / topic titles, making them easy to search through later on. The ability to have multiple digital notebooks is great for the polyglot, too – you can set one up for each language.

Habit-boosting Evernote

But in terms of habit-forming, there are some brilliant extra tools in here too. You can create quite rich to-do lists using the checkbox feature.

Example of an Evernote productivity list to help create a routine for your language learning - ideal for forming a habit

Creating language routines with Evernote

I’ve had great success organising my time using Evernote with Brian P. Moran’s 12 Week Year system. Evernote allows me to create weekly to-do lists as part of that plan. For example, these include tick boxes for things like:

  • listening to foreign-language podcasts
  • reading a certain number of target language articles
  • doing my Anki flashcards
  • getting my daily Duolingo fix

At the end of a week, I score myself on my completion rates, aiming for 75% or above. In the same Evernote note, I can also note down comments such as ideas for improvement or amending tasks. It’s a great way to stay on top of projects like multiple language learning.

Incidentally, I use this system to organise my work and fitness projects too. I’ve really noticed a difference since I started!


Wunderlist is another staple app with a superb free tier. This is to-do organisation as its very best; the tick box is the very heart of this service.

However, here is the real magic: Wunderlist can supercharge your language habit formation with its recurring to-do items. Is there something you need to build in daily, like vocabulary testing? Add it as a repeating item, and Wunderlist will remind you every day at the selected time. You can even have shared to-do items with linguist buddies, using the app’s social features.

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist


The Streaks app lends itself so well to languages, that ‘Practise Spanish’ is one of the examples on its home page. This is a to-do app with a difference; it borrows gamification ideas from educational apps as a motivator.

The premise is simple – the user is motivated through the challenge of maintaining an unbroken run of successful regular task completions. In this way, it will be instantly familiar to fans of language systems like Duolingo. Streaks allows you to add this feature to any area of your life and learning.

Streaks is currently only available on iOS, and costs £4.99 / €5.49 / $4.99USD.


A free alternative, and one available on Android as well as iOS, is Coach.me. Unlike a standard to-do tracker, Coach.me has several achievement paths that you can sign yourself up to. These contain standard milestones for you to tick off as the app digitally ‘coaches’ you with regular reminders. There is quite a handy one titled “Learn To Speak A Foreign Language”, which contains twelve steps to get you started on any language path.

If you struggle with self-motivation, the app even offers the option of paid coaches. Although none are language-specific, there are a few study specialists on there that may fit the bill.

Hidden gems in the everyday

These are just a few of the sea of organiser apps that stand out for me. Honorable mentions must also go to Google Keep and Todoist, apps not specifically aimed at linguists, but perfect for learning languages. This is often where the best language learning gems are found; very general, everyday apps that can be repurposed for polyglots.

Are there any other favourites that make your top list? Please share them in the comments!

Exploring language family tree connections can be one of the most useful polyglot learning tools

Polyglot perfect recall: connecting your languages with Wiktionary

One of the nicest things about the polyglot journey is the interconnectedness you see along the way. And finding connections is a brilliant way to make words stick. Sometimes, those connections are staring you right in the face, like the German Flasche (bottle), a relative of the English word flask. But more often than not, it’s the less obvious connections that can be the most rewarding (and memorable).

Polyglot pants

Sometimes, you see connections in the most unlikely of places. Take Lowland Scots and Romanian, for example. Both Indo-European, but pretty far removed from each other. I happen to hear a lot of Scottish English, being based in Edinburgh. So when I came across the Romanian verb îmbrăca (to dress), I thought I spotted something familiar.

That -brăc- part of the word is, in fact, from an old Latin word for ‘trousers’, braca. So in Romanian, you literally ‘trouser yourself’ when you get dressed. Now, with these clues, some will instantly spot the connection. The Scots for ‘trousers’ is breeks, also related to the slightly more archaic breeches in Standard English or britches in Yosemite Sam country. That’s a handy hook between two unlikely language pairs to help remember a word!

Mining for connections

Unless you are a walking etymology dictionary, it can be hard to spot these connections. To this end, it’s much handier to look up new words on the open source dictionary site, Wiktionary. For a community-driven site, it’s absolutely packed with detail, including word origin.

Take the German word Zaun (fence), for example. At first glance, it looks pretty removed from anything familiar in English. However, check out the Wiktionary listing; it turns out that the word is a relative of the English town. With a bit of historical imagination, you can think up reasons why the meanings have slightly diverged. The town, or settlement, is an enclosed living space; the fence is a means for enclosing a space.

Word hangover

Languages derived from the same proto-family, like Indo-European, are bound to display these similarities. But often, you can find them in neighbouring languages from totally different trees, too.

If you’re learning Finnish and Russian, for example, you’ll find a few crossover words to help you. One of my favourites is the word kohmelo, meaning ‘hangover’. Check Wiktionary, and you’ll see that it’s a borrowing from the Russian похме́лье, meaning the very same. However, as a bonus, Wiktionary informs you that the Finnish word was further changed by ‘contamination’ with the word kohme, meaning numbness. So that’s three words you’ve learnt for the price of one, thanks to some canny connection-spotting!

Cultivate a bird’s eye view of language

If you travel back far enough, you’ll find all sorts of links between your languages. It’s one more reason why studying several languages at once can be a help, and not a burden. The polyglot approach is a fantastic way to get a bird’s eye view of language relationships and development; in my experience that has provided a great scaffold for making those words stick.

Which are your favourite word connections between languages?
Share them in the comments!

A model of a human brain, seat of the memory

Memory tricks to SUPERCHARGE your language learning!

Memory is a serious business. It’s a sport, which even has its own world championships. And this is nothing new, either; experts and sages have been teaching memory master techniques for centuries.

New research confirms that there is nothing new under the sun. The memory palace technique, a favourite of the Ancient Greeks, can dramatically improve recall, according to a recent article. This particular technique has a long and unbroken pedigree. As the ‘method of loci‘, it was a staple of medieval scholars, eager to memorise long tracts. Esteemed rhetoricians taught the technique to royalty, politicians and orators, who would use it to rattle off rousing speeches, full of learned facts.

Constructing your memory palace

So what is the memory palace technique? It involves the construction of a mental geography, which could reflect a real-world place like your home (or a palace, if you’re lucky), or be completely imaginary. The learner mentally deposits objects for memorisation around this location, often in a specific order. To recall the items later, all the learner must do is mentally ‘walk’ around the place.

Because of the element of order, the technique is brilliant for remembering a particular sequence of words. But more generally, it taps into our visual and spatial thinking centres, making the act of learning – and remembering – more of a whole-brain activity.

Multiple Memory LOCI

For the polyglot linguist, perhaps the best way to approach this technique is in the plural: memory places rather than a memory place. Friends often ask me: how do you avoid getting confused between all those languages? Well, by constructing different location markers as an aide memoire, it’s possible to maintain more separation between the pots of vocabulary in our brains.

This kind of location marking for target language vocab is nothing new or revolutionary. You might have already used the excellent Linkword courses, or similar associative techniques, for learning vocabulary. Usually, this route to memorisation involves visualising a scene that represents both the target language word and the English translation. For example, for l’eglise (church) in French, you take what it sounds like – legless – and construct a strong visual image that combines it with a church. The image of a parishioner turning up blind drunk (legless) to church is probably enough to make sure you remember it in future!

Vocabulary in situ

However, there is also an element of location marking built into the Linkword system. If a word is a cognate, and very close to the English translation, then the instruction is this: visualise the word with a stereotyped symbol of the target language (a bull for Spanish, a Bratwurst for German and so on). In the absence of a funny English sound-alike word, this ‘native marker’ technique is useful for creating an image where there would otherwise be none.

You can apply this technique as a multilingual learner, too. How do you keep five or more words for ‘car’ separate, for example? Well, one way is to visualise the word in the setting of the target language country. For Polish, picture a typical medieval old town as you drive your open-top car down the street. You pass someone on the street who starts shouting – he has the SAME HOOD as you do! (Samochód = car in Polish.) Cross the border into Germany, and drive on to Berlin. You travel under the Brandenburger Tor, where suddenly, your car starts driving itself. It’s an AUTOmatic card! (Auto = car in German.) 🚗🚗🚗

Supercharge with storytelling

That’s all very well for single words. But then, you can then start to embellish your locations. You can turn them into stories to add related words in the target language. For instance, what happens in Poland when you see the same hood guy? He walks over, kicks one of your wheels and calls you a COW, OH! (koło = wheel in Polish.) Meanwhile, in Germany, the wheels on your AUTOmatic car start to light up – impressed passers-by shout RAD, man! (Rad = wheel in German.) In effect, you are now building up a memory palace / method of loci in order to remember a series of related words in the target language.

Embrace stereotypes!

OK, so this advice isn’t generally advised for the everyday! Stereotypes can be annoying. But they actually work wonders with this method. The more hackneyed and comedic, the more comedic resonance your visualisations will have. That gives them salience, and makes them more resistant to forgetting. So don’t beat yourself up too much for visualising strings of garlic, or pizzas and sunglasses.

Above all, this is a technique to have fun with. So construct your place, be it palace or playa, and fill it with symbols and stories. It worked for the Ancient Greeks and countless others after them, so see if can work wonders for your memory, too!

Spanish flag

Spanish Grammar Bites: The personal ‘a’

I love language quirks. Little things that your foreign language does, well, just differently. The Spanish personal ‘a’ is the perfect example of that for me.

Learning these little foibles isn’t just a case of speaking correctly – it sets you apart as someone that really knows the language well.

The rule

In essence, the rule is:

When a verb takes a direct object, if that object is a human being, put a before the object.

This might seem a bit strange at first, as ‘a’ means ‘to’ in Spanish. Two examples make this a bit clearer:

  • Veo el castillo (I see the castle)
  • Veo a la mujer (I see the woman)

You’re literally saying ‘I see to the woman’ in Spanish, which might strike a non-native speaker as a little odd. When translating sentences like this into English, there’s no equivalent – you’d simply leave it out. It’s very particular to Spanish, though, and getting it under your belt will mark you off as someone who is a real language master!

In context

Seeking out an example of this in context, I found a nice little headline featuring a personal a:

¿Te gustaría encontrar a tu doble? Would you like to meet your double?

Because your double is (hopefully) another human being, and it’s the direct object of encontrar (to find), it has to be preceded by the little a.

Flippin’ el – watch out

The personal a comes with all the baggage of the usual a, too. Specifically, note that a will combine with a following el (the – masculine singular) to become al, too. So, we have:

  • Veo a la mujer (I see the woman)
  • Veo al hombre (I see the man)

Spanish personal a: video

Here’s a quick ‘n’ easy video to illustrate the grammar point – definitely one of my favourite Castilian quirks!

The Globe

Tips from a language junkie

I admit it – I’m a language junkie. I’m perennially curious, always looking for something new to learn. New languages are pretty, shiny objects and I’m a restless polyglot magpie.

Not surprisingly, a question I’m asked a lot is “Don’t you get mixed up learning all those languages?”. It’s an understandable question, to which I’d reply, first off: have faith in your brain! It’s more adept than you realise at keeping things separated. Children brought up bilingually manage it neatly, so why shouldn’t your mature, adult brain?

There are a number of things you can do to help keep things compartmentalised, though. For instance, users of Anki might want to take advantage of custom cards, so you can colour-code those belonging to your different languages. There’s a good beginners’ guide on doing this on YouTube at this link. Here are a couple of mine; the key is to make your different language cards as distinctive as possible (I like to use flags):

A customised Icelandic card in Anki

A customised Norwegian card in Anki

If you prefer to keep your lists the offline way, you might think about colour-coding your vocab notes by language, too.

Secondly, there are several reasons why learning more than one language can be more effective and beneficial than just learning one.

I try to pick just one language within a major group to focus on (for instance, Norwegian from North Germanic, and Spanish from the Italic languages). That’s not to preclude others from that group completely – it’s just that the main focus language will become the ‘anchor’ for that group. Instead of learning Icelandic (another North Germanic language) from scratch, for example, I’ll relate it to Norwegian as my base language.

Take the Norwegian word dør (door), for example – in Icelandic, this is dyr. Contrasting and comparing cognates like this gives you a real feel for the language group as a whole. This way, you can build up an instinct for the regular patterns of change and difference between languages, which deepens your understanding of each one.

Be a bluffer!

What’s more, learning patterns like this can give you some productive rules for ‘guessing’ or ‘bluffing’ in other languages. To take Spanish as an example, with a little learning you can learn how to ‘Portuguesify’ your Castilian, and fake enough Portuguese to get by in simple situations. You’ll spot that Spanish initial ll-, for instance, is often ch- in Portuguese, so you can guess that llegar (to arrive) in Spanish is chegar in Portuguese. You might also see that Spanish diphthongises a vowel (sticks two or more vowel sounds together) where Portuguese doesn’t, so huevo (egg) in Spanish is ovo in Portuguese. It doesn’t always work, but pattern-spotting is definitely a good way to get a working version of a new language up and running, based on something you already know.

Cross-reference your vocab

I also like to use my stronger languages to check for gaps in my nascent ones. If I learn a new word in, say, Norwegian, I’ll check whether I know that word in my other languages too. My OCD streak dictates that I hate gaps and imbalances in my knowledge, but it’s not hard to look up the missing words and make a note of them (in Anki, in my case). At the simplest level, you could do this in a vocab notebook or Excel spreadsheet:

English German Spanish Norwegian Polish
dog der Hund el perro en hund pies
cat die Katze el gato en katt kot

It’s also a great way to start spotting similarities and relationships between the languages you’re learning.

The underlying message of this post is: you don’t have to settle for just one foreign language if you have the time and motivation! Have faith that your mind is more than equipped to deal with multiple tracks, and enjoy the extra benefits that learning more than one can give you.