A robot tracking resolutions on a tick list.

Setting Language Learning Resolutions – Ambitious But Kind

It’s nearly that day again – you know, the one with all the ones, where we start thinking about new beginnings and a new ‘us’. Of course, there’s nothing literally magical about January 1st. We can, and should, make resolutions and plans whenever we want to achieve something like learning a language.

But isn’t there just something about it that makes goal-setting feel a bit more exciting?

A good coaching friend of mine has a great attitude towards resolutions. Always advocating self-kindness, she insists on avoiding regimented ‘must do’ lists for the new year (or any other time, for that matter). Instead, she suggests creating ‘would like to do’ lists instead. They’re lists that acknowledge that, in an ideal world, we would tick every box – but our worlds aren’t always ideal.

With that in mind, we can mindfully put together lists of what we’d like to tackle, given the time and energy. One solid piece of advice to make those like to goals even likelier is to be concrete about them. Woolly, amorphous targets like ‘improve my French‘ are shaky on two fronts. Firstly, they make the goal down-negotiable on demand (‘I learnt one extra word this year‘ could cover ‘improve’!). Secondly, they’re immeasurable. You can’t track your progress towards something that isn’t defined.

It’s one reason that the CEFR language levels are so good for language resolutions. For example, “Achieve B2 in French” is defined by the competences in the official framework itself. But they’re also officially measurable, as you can aim for accreditation at those levels. “Pass a B2 French exam” is an even tighter bullseye to aim for.

We can also measure progress by effort, as well as result. An easy way to do this is to set a lesson goal. “I’ll do one French lesson every week for the whole year” is a good yardstick for time put into learning, and – you would expect – will deliver that precious improvement too.

Language Resolutions for 2024

So, putting my money where my mouth is (I promise I’m not all talk), here are my main language resolutions for the New Year – and that’s would like to do, not must do!

French – systematically work through TY French Tutor to formalise grammar knowledge
Gaelic – consolidate B1 through group classes; socialise more in Gaelic through interest groups
German – read four books in the language over the course of the year
Greek – consolidate B1 with continued weekly conversation lessons
Norwegian – consume more media in Norwegian; at least one 30-minute podcast weekly; arrange date for the Bergenstest and a tutor to work with towards it
Polish – resume actively working on language with weekly lessons, get back to B1
Swahili – consolidate A2
Swedish – hit B1 by May (Malmö 2024!); a podcast a week and completing the Duolingo Swedish course

And, of course: keep dabbling!

Wishing all Polyglossic’s visitors a very happy, healthy and successful 2024. Thanks for your encouragement and support over this and previous years – I couldn’t do it without you all!

You can teach an old dog new tricks! Image from freeimages.com

Old Dog, New Tricks

Have you ever learnt a new trick in your target language, and promptly gone to town with it, trying to crowbar it into every conversation?

It’s the excitable puppy incarnation of the old use it or lose it adage. You might call it use it… and use it… and use it. The trait isn’t uncommon amongst students of languages – or otherwise –  when there’s a particularly passionate connection to the subject.

For instance, I know one wee chap who will excitedly regurgitate new dinosaur facts ad infinitum to his very patient parents. My own not-so-little brother will hold me hostage to myriad beekeeping facts (his latest fad) when I visit of late. And I, myself, will bore my own friends rigid with newfound oddities of grammar and etymology. (No, the behaviour doesn’t wane with age!)

It really is one of the joys of learning to (over)share your new skills.

How’s Tricks?

It’s in my mind recently thanks to a bit of Gaelic new tricks magic I’ve learnt. Some months ago, I came across a really interesting quirk of Gaelic word order that bears a striking resemblance to German syntax. Namely, verb phrases place their head to the right of the noun phrase in certain conditions:

Gaelic: ‘S urrainn dhomh am biadh a chòcaireachd. (is ability to-me the food to cook)
German: Ich kann das Essen kochen. (I can the food cook)
English: I can cook the food.

We’d not covered it in class at that point, so I filed it away mentally as an interesting fact to revisit later.

I didn’t have to wait long. One of this term’s big ideas for our group was that very phenomenon. We’ve spent lesson after lesson having fun with it (in fact, some of the most fun lessons we’ve had, making up humorous sentences based on whacky scenarios!).

The thing is, I’m now using inversion everywhere – not just in class, but in casual chat too. I’m also spotting it everywhere in my reading too, as if a spotlight has been shone on it. It’s as if inversion has taken possession of the new tricks cortex in my brain, neurons glowing at the slightest excitation.

It reminds me of that explosion of expressivity when you first learn to form the past tense in a language. Suddenly you want to use it everywhere to talk about what you did, what you’ve been doing, what you used to do… And it’s one of the greatest signs that you really love the subject, or language, you’ve chosen to dedicate your time to.

Do you recognise new tricks syndrome in your own language learning? What new linguistic toys are you currently playing with? Let us know in the comments!

Polyglotised Products

I keep coming across what you might call polyglotised products lately. You know the kind of thing: emblazoned with motivational or humorous snippets in a number of languages, usually achingly corny and twee, and all too often containing a few errors to create some associated unintended comedy. From the welcome to… artwork at airports to that multilingual Christmas cross-stitch that comes out once a year, you can find multilingual cheesiness in all sorts of places.

As naff as they can be, there is something snugly positive about these chintzy embellishments. For the wistful polyglots, they’re a nod to the world beyond. For the philosophical, they acknowledge that despite language differences, humans tend to express the same kinds of everyday thoughts the world over. And for the rest of us, they’re just plain fun. I think they deserve to be celebrated whenever we see them in our otherwise blandly monolingual societies.

Corny polyglot fun

I spotted a corker of one recently: a polyglot ashtray, sitting incongruously outside a café pub in the city centre. It’s all the sweeter for the fact that it looks homemade, and well-loved, judging by the wear around the edges. There’s that folk irony there too, a hint of sarcasm, with the – ahem – hilarious decision to adorn an ashtray with “I will quit tomorrow”. Firmly in the “my other car’s a Lamborghini” tradition. Just glorious.

In any case, these things bring a dash of light-hearted silliness to a sometimes dark world, not to mention a smile to the face of those that understand a snatch of their target language in them.

Three polyglot cheers for cheese!

Have you come across any nice specimens on your travels? What are your favourites? Let us know in the comments!

A brick wall, doing what brick walls do best - offering resistance! Image from freeimages.com

Cross-Language Tactics Resistance : Doing What Works – Everywhere

Sometimes, we know what’s best for us. But we still don’t do it. It’s a frustrating matter of resistance.

I notice this a lot cross-language. It’s that realisation that I’ve had great successes in some learning projects, but fail to carry over what I did right to another.

I think the issue can be that I tend to ‘bubble off’ a new language learning project into its own mental microcosm. And that’s quite necessary, of course; it helps maintain separation, limit interference and keep me sane as a polyglot learner.

But it also sets up brick walls that make it hard to transfer good practices as an automatic habit.

The Great Greek-Polish Divide…

I’ve been active with Greek and Polish concurrently since the first 2020 lockdowns (Polish a lot longer as a continuous projectGreek a resumption project from years back). However, with pretty much the same lesson-per-week pace, I feel conversationally fluent in Greek, but perennially clumsy in Polish. I gab away happily with my Greek tutor about all manner of nonsense. Polish, on the other hand, can still feel like wading through ungrammatical, uncolloquial treacle.

I’m tempted to put it down to the fact that Greek is, perhaps, simply an easier language to learn than Polish. Taking an external, objective measure, though, this doesn’t seem to be an excuse to let me off the hook. The FSI, in its difficulty ranking for learners, classes Greek and Polish both as Level III, or hard languages.

So what am I doing so differently?

It is mostly down to my different attitude towards learning materials in the two languages. For Polish, I try to use serious textbooks. For reading material, I aim for the news.

Now, I barely read the news in Greek; I follow TV chefs on Instagram instead (and pop culture is the healthiest of all guilty pleasures for language learners, of course). I don’t spend a lot of time with textbooks or grammars, either. Rather, I just do a few minutes of Glossika and Duolingo every day. Glossika in particular has been transformative; just blasting my brain repeatedly with everyday sentence structure has produced amazing results.

Similar “brief blast” treatment comes in the form of Instagram accounts which post short, snappy quotes in Greek. It’s just enough to activate the Greek brain and impart a couple of new words without the overload of hefty reading. X and Y are recommended for fellow learners.

Chat Habits

The nature of my chat – or what I want to chat about – differs similarly. In Polish, I started out with my head stuck in serious discussion mode. I feel I should be talking about weighty, lofty matters. Where that idea comes from, I do not know; but I do know that it hobbles my fluency, much as a bunch of ‘should do’ norms stop us from reading what makes us happy in the target language.

In Greek, my conversation classes are usually without formal structure, and I ramble quite happily about some very low-brow stuff indeed. Maybe it’s because Greek was a revival project under lockdown, so the stakes felt lower. I believe we all develop a different persona for each of our target languages, and Greek Rich is certainly a lot more laid back.

But even looking beyond Greek, there are healthy chat habits I have in other languages that I need to carry over to Polish. In Gaelic, for example, I have a regular, lively get-together with fellow local learners, albeit, temporarily, a Zoom meet rather than our pre-pandemic pub chat. I still don’t have a huge vocabulary, but I use what I have, and it works. Our ‘no English’ rule is fantastic practice for flexible thinking as a fledgling A2 speaker, forcing us to express what we want to say in alternative, economical ways. By contrast, in Polish, I probably tried to learn too many isolated vocabulary items too soon. A case of trying too hard, too soon; I’m spoilt for choice and a worse speaker for it.

Resistance Busting

Good news for me: I am redressing the balance between my Greek and Polish now.

Thanks to some extra group classes laid on by my Polish tutor, I’m getting more of that informal, friendly chat that bolstered my Greek so much. I’ve discovered cheesy soap Pierwsza miłość (first love), which is filling my Polish ventricles with light-hearted nonsense. I’ve cut back on going too hard, too serious with the dreaded news. And I’ve started to add a few minutes of Polish Glossika to my daily tactics (even though it feels, oddly, like I’m cheating on my Greek there).

Other remedies are harder to source unless someone points them out, of course. For instance, I’m still looking for fun and snappy Polish quote accounts to follow (any recommendations welcome!). And I’d still love a shot in the arm for my Polish pop culture socials generally.

But, happily, I’m turning the tide. Polish is a language I care about very much; it’s waiting for me to break that resistance and benefit from the techniques my other languages have enjoyed for so long.

Which of your languages seem resistant to the success you’ve enjoyed with others? And how do you try and overcome that? Let us know in the comments!

New book, new language - a pile of Assimil "ohne Mühe" editions.

New Book, New Language

What comes first? The language – or the language book?

It’s a real chicken-and-egg question if you love language book shopping. Some editions just look so irresistibly shiny, that you long to have them on your shelf – regardless of whether the language fits your polyglot plan or not.

So it is with the Assimil editions and me at the moment. The uniform white and blue cover format sparks off the collector in me, and I end up wanting them all. That’s even though I have them in most of my active languages already. It was the same old story with the Teach Yourself Tutor books. I liked those so much that I bagged myself a couple in languages I don’t even study (yet). Incorrigible!

So, it was a predictable but special treat to buy myself an Assimil in a new language recently. Welcome to the shelf, Croatian!

Assimil's Kroatisch ohne Mühe

New Kid on the Desk : Assimil’s Kroatisch ohne Mühe

Language book whys and wherefores

First off, why Assimil, besides the satisfaction of building up that delft-like blue-and-white book collection?

Well, I’m in good company. Language learning legend Luca Lampariello has given Assimil textbooks the thumbs up, for a start. For all sorts of approaches, including his bidirectional translation technique, Assimil courses contain ideal, self-contained, high-frequency vocab dialogues to work with. Several languages are only available in German or French as the base language, fulfilling my love of non-native language course guides. And more practically speaking, they’re also really compact to carry around in your bag or rucksack.

Secondly, another language? Really?

Before you chide me for taking on too much, I should explain that I’m not about to dive headfirst into Croatian as a full-on language project. Instead, it’s purely practical. I’m learning for a trip, albeit a trip that was meant to take place this September, and has now been postponed to 2022 (thanks, Covid). I’m off to the Croatian coast with friends, and it’s a huge part of my personal ethos to learn at least a bit of the language everywhere I go. My goal? Maybe five or ten minutes a day until the trip.

A Eurovision head start

I’m not starting ab initio, of course. A lifetime of fawning over Eurovisions of old makes sure of that. Yes, my Croatian is already a 50-ish word pot pourri of song titles and lyrics from the early 60s onwards. Want me to talk about ljubav? I’m your man. Want to dance, Croatian-style? Ja sam za ples, too! Want to learn yet another language with me? Hajde da ludujemo! (You just knew I’d work Eurovision into this somehow, eh?)

Of course, I’ve said all this “it’s nothing serious” before, many, many times over. Maybe what I intend as a happy friendship could well blossom into ljubav in the end. Well, my heart and mind are open. Croatian, I am ready!

Multilingual World : Playing Our Part

Multilingualism is still alive! At least that’s the message we got loud and clear from Eurovision this weekend, with four of the top five songs in a language other than English.

Yes: thankfully, the world (well, Europe, at least) isn’t sleepwalking into an anglophone beige. It’s a welcome theme that ran through the whole week. A lot of it came from the Eurovision immersion, naturally. I spent a good chunk of time devouring home-spun news articles from my favourite countries and artists in the lead-up to Saturday’s final. I just love getting other takes on my favourite show, and most of the best ones aren’t in English.

But the whole jamboree (very appropriately) also coincided with the Polyglot Gathering. I spent a few great hours chatting and listening to talks online, switching from room to room, language to language, using everything but English. Proper multilingual merry-go-round stuff. The fun of it all got me thinking about how to de-anglify my life a little bit more.

Little Multilingual Things

One of the easiest, lowest-outlay, little things  we can do, in order to dent the preponderance of English online, is produce more multilingual content ourselves. I follow some lovely folk on Twitter who regularly switch between a number of languages for status updates.

Side note: I realise the irony of me writing this blog in English right now. Ahem.

Anyway, these things are sometimes easier said than done. Namely, there are two hurdles to getting starting ab initio here:

  1. A fear of alienating those followers who don’t understand the language of choice
  2. A fear of making mistakes and looking silly (“you’re not a real polyglot, you fraud!”)

It’s easy to deal with the first quibble. Most platforms have a translation feature now, so an unfamiliar language is understandable with a single click. Twitter is great for this – I use the ‘translate tweet’ option so often that I completely take it for granted .

The second problem is a little harder to tackle, as it comes from a very human – and probably ubiquitous – place of wobbly self-confidence. But going back to the Polyglot Conference, it helps to remember how utterly supportive our language learning community is. I sat in a room for fluent Germanists on Thursday, and the acceptance of all levels of fluency really warmed the cockles of my heart. I’m sometimes one to clam up when I think my mistakes will show – especially with my stronger languages, for some reason – but I’ve never felt more at ease. It reminds me that polyglotism isn’t some lofty refuge of geniuses, but something we can all aspire to.

Making the Effort

In short, there are really no serious obstacles to extending this wonderful world where Italian, French and Ukrainian can take their places quite naturally next to the anglophonic behemoth. I’ll be making more of an effort to do just that over the coming weeks.

Language and music - the Eurovision 2021 stage. Photo by EBU / STIJN SMULDERS.

Language and Music : A Double Whammy Treat This Week

It’s an exciting week ahead for lovers of language and music. Firstly…

It’s Eurovision Week!

As you’ll know, my polyglot passions and love for the content are tightly intertwined, so Eurovision is a very special treat once a year. Even more so this year, since the 2020 event was cancelled due to the worsening Covid-19 situation. There will be a lot to celebrate in Rotterdam on Saturday the 22nd.

Since the free language rule was reintroduced in 1999, however, the non-English entries have dwindled. Saying that, there are still rich pickings for those eager for songs in other tongues. Italy and France are currently the top favourites to win – and both sung in the countries’ native languages. Malta, while mainly sung in English, is a vehicle for a very handy colloquial French phrase, “je me casse” (I’m outta here). And, admirably, Denmark has elected to sing in Danish this year, and what a catchy little synth bop it is, too. It has been quite a while since we last heard Danish sung at the contest!

I still keep my hand in writing about the contest, and you can follow my regular bookies’ roundup articles at esctoday.com. Have to keep on top of those odds!

The Polyglot Gathering (Online)

Appropriately, Eurovision week coincides with another jamboree of coming together in language and culture: the Polyglot Gathering. It’ll be my first, although I got great vibes from my inaugural Polyglot Conference in Slovenia too, and expect the level of linguistic revelry and ribaldry to be at least as high.

Due to the ongoing Coronavirus crisis, it will be quite a different gathering this year. Originally slated to take place in Teresin, Poland, it would have been the perfect opportunity to practise my Polish. Fortunately, the organisers have planned in a couple of online practice rooms for Polish learners, so I’ll still get my polski fix (as well as all the rest!).

It’s still not too late to register at the official site if it takes your fancy. I hope to see many of you there!

In Other Language News…

Oh – and bookshops are open to walk around and browse again where I am. It has been too long, friends. Absolute heaven. I hope you’ve experienced a bit of a return to the ‘good old days’ where you are, too. Long may things continue to improve!

Triangulation - a polyglot approach to language learning. Image by Nils Thingvall, FreeImages.com

Everyday Triangulation : Three Sides to Every Language Story

A study colleague popped up in our group forum this week, sharing an interesting resource. It was a set of quiz flashcards for the current term’s Swahili vocabulary. But it came with a triangulation twist. It was a Swahili-Spanish set, rather than Swahili-English.

Triangulation – learning one of your foreign languages through another, rather than your first – is nothing new, of course. A beloved technique of polyglotters, it can be an easy, quick-win strategy to learn and maintain / strengthen skills at the same time. Many readily available resources support it, too. Both Duolingo and Glossika have options for learning via a different base language.

The assumption is often that it works best with quite different language pairs, like my colleague’s Swahili-Spanish set. There is certainly a logic to this, as some might expect possible counter-interference with closely related languages. I’ve certainly got some good use out of Langenscheidt’s Polish course for German speakers (a slightly more updated version of my ancient copy is available here!).

Close Triangulation

That said, triangulating with close language pairs does come with a unique advantage. Namely, it shines a bright light on false friends and misleading pairs, which might otherwise remain invisible if English is the medium to learn both.

Take Norwegian and Icelandic, for example. There is an apparent cognate in Icelandic líka and Norwegian like. However, they mean different things: also and alike respectively. If you learn both languages via English, the two will never come into contact with other (at least in your mind), and that discrepancy will remain in the dark. Well, at least until you confuse them in conversation with a native speaker (yes: guilty!).

However, if you create a set of learning resources in Icelandic and Norwegian that makes explicit this (dis)connection, you have a head start.

The same happens with words that are cognates, but slightly overlap in usage. For instance, Icelandic and Norwegian have the cognates sem and som. These can both be used as relative pronouns (the dog that I saw, the doctor that treated me and so on). However, Norwegian som can also be used for the comparing like, as in noen som ham (someone like him). In Icelandic, that doesn’t work at all. Instead, you have to use the term eins og, giving us einhvern eins og hann for the same phrase. It’s exceptionally tricky to learn that distinction if you learn Icelandic and Norwegian through English, but separately from each other.

Triangulating Existing Resources

Great, if you are just starting out, you might say. But what if you are already halfway down the road? By the time I realised the benefit of triangulating Iceland and Norwegian, I already had a ton of English-based Anki flashcards in separate decks for each one. Starting a third set for Icelandic-Norwegian was a less than fun prospect. It felt like treading the same ground all over again.

Tech tools to the rescue, though. There are some clever tricks you can play with your existing data sets to create triangulated versions without starting over. This export / collation technique using Anki and Excel, for example, produces a merged list than can then, in turn, be used to create a fresh Anki deck.

Aside from that, auditing via Excel is a great way to check what you know in one of your languages but not the other.


The Polish flag. Photo by Michal Zacharzewski from FreeImages

Język polski i ja / Polish and Me

Not long back, a lively online language learning debate caught my eye. It was around the unassailable prominence of English as a medium for discussion in the polyglot community, and the irony of this within a community of a hundred other choices. Where is the diversity, the German, Japanese, Polish, Spanish articles? After all, we are spoilt for choice.

Of course, it is hard to get round this – not least because we all speak a slightly different set of languages. So, at least for now, English looks to keep its place as the most inclusive choice of language for discussion.

That said, I would personally echo that hope to see more blog and social media content in the languages I learn. Above all, being a blogger myself, it seemed like a good cue to lend a little ballast to the non-English side of things, to be brave, to publish non-English content.

Safe, comfortable English is a difficult spot to get out of, though. As a native English speaker, the reason for my reticence is probably one shared by many of my fellow anglophone enthusiasts: fear of mistakes, of others simply doing it better. That kind of anxiety is self-fulfilling; keep your fledgling skills too tightly caged, and they might just wither away.

Luckily, the chance came along to do a bit of writing along these lines, but with support. That made all the difference.

Good Timing

By complete coincidence, my iTalki Polish tutor Jan set a very appropriate homework task for me recently – a simple blog post, in Polish, about my personal history of learning the language. Writing from experience, like diary-keeping, can be an effective way to engage with, recycle and strengthen your language skills. But in this case, it gave me the opportunity to create something original – and not in English – for Polyglossic.

Now, the natural thing to do would probably have been to do this in one of my stronger languages. German, Norwegian or Spanish. You could say that Polish was simply in the right place at the right time. However, maybe that makes it an even better candidate. My lagging Polish is crying out for a bit of extra writing practice.

Let’s overlook for a moment (pretty please!) the discrepancy of this preface to it in English. Hmm. But for a first non-English post in a site full of them, it only seemed fair – at least for the time being. Baby steps.

Finally, huge thanks to Jan for the prompt and the copious corrections to this during class. Check out his own blog, Polish with John, for some fantastic original resources for learners. Any remaining errors below are completely my own!

Język polski i ja

Na Początku

Interesuję się językiem polskim od wielu lat. W latach dziewięćdziesiątych słuchałem polskiej muzyki w radiu u polskiego sąsiada, Pana Wilsona (jego prawdziwego polskiego nazwiska nie znam) i bardzo chciałem się nauczyć tego pięknego języka.

Ale wtedy nie było łatwo uczyć się polskiego. W bibliotekach nie było wielu materiałów do nauki. Jeśli ktoś chciał się uczyć hiszpańskiego, francuskiego, niemieckiego, dostępna była masa materiałów i książek. Niestety do języka polskiego był tylko jeden, bardzo stary egzemplarz “Teach Yourself Polish”. Było to wydanie z lat czterdziestych oparte na starej metodologii. Zastosowana była metoda gramatyczno-tłumaczeniowa. Pięćdziesiąt lekcji gdzie student musi czytać przykłady, nauczyć się listy słów, a potem zrobić długą listę tłumaczeń. Wtedy uważałem, że to było zupełnie normalne, że tak po prostu uczy się języków. To był błąd.

Brak mówiących

Nie było dostępu do mówiących. Pan Wilson nie lubił mówić po polsku (był starym człowiekiem a miał tragiczną historię i złe doświadczenia z wojskiem), a wszystko, co robiłem, było tłumaczeniem zdań nie mających praktycznego zastosowania. Tak nie da się nauczyć języka obcego.

Nawet słownictwo nie miało sensu dla mnie – słowa z lat czterdziestych, słowa I zwroty takie jak porucznik, pułkownik, polsko-brytyjskie przymierze i tak dalej. Myślę, że książka została napisana dla żołnierzy, którzy pracowali w polakami po wojnie. Po prostu nie mi pasowała. Ciekawe słownictwo, oczywiście, ale nie bardzo przydatne – na początku tylko chciałem rozumieć polskie piosenki! Ale nie było innego wyboru.

Nowy Świat

Wiele lat później, świat się zmienił. Nie tylko jest więcej książek, a też więcej metod, szerszy dostęp do materiałów do mówienia i słuchania w internecie, wszystko, co by mi pomogło jak młodemu studentowi.
Wniosek jest taki: nie da się uczyć się języka obcego bez słuchania i mówienia. Sama książka nie wystarczy.

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

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

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!


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.