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

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!

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