How Many Languages Should You Learn At Once? [Spoiler: it’s up to you!]

How many languages should we learn at once? How many pieces of the jigsaw do you need? Image by Gary Fleischer on freeimages.com.

Every so often there is a ripple in the polyglot ocean, and that old, bebarnacled behemoth “how many languages should you learn at once?” rises to the surface again. A couple of social media posts on that perennial debate caught my eye recently, with passionate punters in both camps.

The conundrum is this: do we concentrate on a single language project at a time, maximising our efforts to progress more quickly and efficiently? Or do we indulge our love of languages, learning several at a time, aiming for the same goals but over a longer period of time?

Spoiler: there is no single, right answer to that question, however much the pundits claim!

Guilt-busting

The accepted wisdom currently seems to have swung in favour of “resist the temptation” when it comes to multiple languages. Narrow focus is the key to success. Now, I must admit to a pang of guilt every time I hear this nugget. As much as many, many of my polyglot friends, I am guilty of full-on Aladdin’s Cave mode. I am a veritable magpie with shiny new languages. If I really want to reach fluency quickly, so the recommendation goes, then I should probably drop a few for now.

Although concrete advice like this errs on the prescriptive side, it does mean well. And as a guideline for the goal-oriented learner, it is sound, too. If your language journey has a very well-defined, practical purpose, such as preparing to live in another country, or pass an exam, it is certainly the safe path to travel.

But are utility and economy of time really the alpha and omega of language learning for pleasure?

The explorer approach

The danger of prescriptive advice is that it selects a single path out of many – black or white, right or wrong. It is exclusive. Specifically, it sets up the end result as the only meaningful objective.

The reality of language learning is much more nuanced. The point for many of us is in the process, as well as the result.

Does a multilanguage process slow down progress compared to a one-at-a-time approach? In terms of pure mileage covered, it stands to reason, yes. But in other ways, not so much. It depends on what you are measuring the progress of. Chiefly, learning multiple tongues simultaneously takes some beating as a big picture approach to developing a deep understanding of language.

I like to view all my language projects as part of this much larger whole. What I learn in one helps carry the others along, too. Most obviously, this yields dividends when studying quite closely related languages, such as German, Icelandic and Norwegian. In this case, it is less about how many languages you learn, and more about which ones. Learning within this group helps to develop a keen instinct for the shared history, shape and feel of Germanic languages.

But even zooming out to more distant leaves on the tree, we can deepen our understanding of language at another level of abstraction. You develop a feel for what language, in a much more general sense, is trying to do, how humans perform communication. In particular, you start to see recurring patterns in how information is coded across very disparate groups.

What is a subject, and how is it given precedence in the sentence? How does language encode time and space, and what commonalities are there between far-flung groups? How are individuals and collectives represented in different ways by different languages?

All these question relate to how human beings package up and present information to carry out specific social functions. Studying a plethora, rather than just one at a time, opens the eyes of learners to the human jungle in glorious technicolour.


Incidentally, the ‘big picture’ argument for polyglot learning has a lot in common with the ideal of the polymath ‘all-rounder’.

Incremental and cumulative

Perhaps, too, we are asking the wrong question when making a choice between quick and slow learning. The most generally applicable piece of advice is simply this: make your learning incremental and cumulative, whatever the speed. Just keep building. And fast is not always fantastic.

This more ambling, strolling path to fluency reminds me of Dawkin’s explanation for the slow evolutionary development of eyes. As he explains, the eye did not simply flash into existence, fully formed. Instead, it evolved over aeons, from an initial small cluster of photosensitive cells on an early life-form, to the complex organ we see in so many incarnations today. At each stage, what was to become the eye was still useful and functional, even though it lacked the finesse of its current form.

Slow language learning is the same. Even if it takes longer to reach high-functioning fluency, the interim skills are nonetheless useful at every step. Just like evolution, language progress is incremental and cumulative, at whatever speed you take it.

A joy, not a chore

We should also remember what brings us to languages in the first place: the sheer joy of it. Too much rigidity can take the edge off any pleasure and turn it into a chore, and this is no exception. Of course, regularity and habit are crucial to ensuring progress. But we should be careful not to deny the place of flexibility in our passion, too.

For instance, I completed my first 30 Day Language Challenge in October. I tackled that one in Polish, and am now into November’s event using Icelandic as my challenge language. The daily speaking topics give me some structure and focus, but I maintain the freedom to use a different language in each challenge.

That’s a great compromise for me and fellow shiny-object fiends. We all have times when we are drawn more to one language than another, and that is absolutely fine. Basing our routines around short, sharp, fixed-term projects like the 30-Day Challenge gives us the best of both worlds: variety and structure.

What’s more, there is nothing to stop you switching modes with the ebb and flow of your own life. Sometimes an exam or a foreign trip will require a change in gear. Stay flexible; what is right for you now may not be in a month’s time.

How many languages? You decide.

I personally strive not to view my learning as a race against time. Nor as a sprint, or even a jog. I prefer it to be a glide, giving me the leisure to take in as much of the view as possible.

But this is not a personal manifesto. What works for me may well not work for you. But it is a friendly nudge to listen to what you want, rather than worry about the many shoulds and shouldn’ts whooshing past us on social media.

Joy should never be prescriptive. Although the booming edict ‘Learn But One Language At A Time’ is well-meant advice, the peer pressure it carries, coming from the mouths of experts, is powerful. One size never fits all. We are a rainbow of different circumstances. Consider at your leisure and select the answer that suits you.

Richard West-Soley

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