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Fears of Learning New Languages

Have you ever wondered about the max number of languages you could possibly learn and remember?

If you are a super polyglot or something, your possibilities would be almost limitless, but for average people, it's amazing if you can get up to only 4 or 5.

Probably most people (at least a few?) have dreamed of communicating in multiple languages, and I mean multiple as in A GREAT MANY! I started Spanish class dreaming of one day learning up to 10-15 languages and being able to speak them fluently.

Sadly, that won't ever happen, so realizing I only had a couple slots open for languages I'll ever know, I now take diligence in not studying a language which may initially seem cool.

That probably sounds wacky, but before learning Spanish, I started with French, and deciding I'll never actually go to France for any good reason, I traded it for Spanish. Now, I sometimes use French words mistakenly for Spanish words, like "eau" instead of "agua", and it's annoying to always have to comb out my translations for French words used out of habit.

I think there is something wrong with my brain where the things I try to forget, I remember better than the things needed to be remembered. I can't try to learn a new language, or my brain will get more muddled, and I would have replaced another slot for a potentially better language I could have learned.

Is anyone else out there struggling with the fear of "learning the wrong language"? If an average human brain can only hold up to five languages, what if we fill all the slots before learning all which we want?

March 24, 2017



Don't worry, what you are experiencing is completely normal. I also do not think that learning more than five languages in impossible for the average human being. After all, this is what average school schildren all over the world do on a regular basis.

I am Austrian. I grew up with German, Yiddish and a little Dutch. I went to a normal state-run Austrian school. At age 10 we started to learn English, at age 12 Latin, at age 14 French and at age 15 Italian. By the time we had our final exams before going to university, we had lessons in 5 languages every week: German, English, Latin, French and Italian. And a lot of my classmates had another mother tongue than German - mostly Hungarian, Turkish or Serbian. Nowadays foreign language lessons start even earlier - in the first grade at age 6.

Learning more languages than one is pretty common. You can do it too!

Some tips:

  • Don't start two languages at once. Leave at least a few months between them.

  • Don't worry about mixing things up. This is normal in the beginning. Once you get better in a language, your brain will start to remember which word belongs to which language. (Disclaimer: When I am really tired, I still mix things up. I think it's rather charming and not a big problem).

  • Enjoy what you do! Study the languages you love!

  • Don't over-complicate things. It's not rocket science - just one of the most basic functions of the human brain: language acquisition.

  • Dont't worry. Study and practice regularely and you will learn the language. It is really that easy!


This is great advice and really inspirational!!


Thank you!

I forgot to add that a lot of my classmates studied languages at university. I took couses in Russian, Slovak and Czech - and I'm definitely not Einstein. Other friends took Spanish or Chinese courses.

For me, studying new languages gets easier with each language, especially if I know a related language. Russian was a bit if a challenge as it was my first Slavic language. Slovak was not that hard and learning Czech to the A2 was really easy. Once you reach around B2 and start reading books/watching youtube/... in the language you are leaning, learning new vocabulary and grammar is comes mostly automatically. The hardest part is definitely the beginning.

I have not used Italian for around 12 years. I am still pretty good at rwading and listening, bur speaking is nearly impossible for me. I would need a week or two to polish it up - which I think is fine, as I do not plan to go to Italy any time soon. Therefore I do not think that you can really forget a language. It's still there, hidden somewhere in your brain. Digging it out again might take a little effort, but is usually really fast.


Don't worry about mixing French in with your Spanish. That has nothing to do with Spanish having somehow diminished your capacity to learn new languages. In my experience, it's more a matter of your brain grabbing for whatever is more familiar out of habit. As your Spanish skills improve, that should stop being a problem.

I don't believe that the brain has a specific set limit as far as learning languages goes. There is a degree of self-limiting going on, sure--learning a language properly is an enormous commitment, so the average person isn't going to be able to put that sort of effort into multiple numerous languages or figure out how to properly maintain them, but I would not say that learning one language makes you less capable of learning another one because your brain is just going to start rejecting them eventually. Quite the opposite, really.


Thanks for your input! Hopefully you are right that the only limit is effort.


Εxactly! When I first started learning German I always confused it with French (A1-A2) level). Now that I'm B1-B2 in German, if I try to speak french I'm pretty sure that I will use some words in german. Funny though, I don't confuse french nor german with english (C2)


You must find what languages do you want to learn, and what languages do you ENJOY, cause if you don't enjoy them, that means nothing. I am learning a lot of languages on Duolingo, but I am not learning all of them, for example, I took some Guaraní lessons, and I did not like them, but I took some Greek lessons, and I fall in love with tha language. It's your decision. Greetings from Perú! :D


You are right - learn what you love! However, I enjoy many languages, not just Spanish, and that's the problem. Everything is so much fun to learn and understand, if you take too much at once, you won't really be learning anything at all, or you may at least confuse everything together.


I agree with Naomh.Padraig but I'm going to add that if you need a language for communication then you should probably learn that language too.


Good Idea, I totally forgot that!

[deactivated user]

    If you are worried about forgetfulness, try brain training games! There are several good apps and online logic puzzles that can help (don't forget regular handheld logic puzzles). It doesn't specifically help with learning a certain language - but it trains your memory (which is a huge part of language learning!!!

    As for "learning the wrong language," any language you want to learn is worth while! You often see lots of users with long long long long (etc) strings of languages, and most of the time - they have no intentions to be fluent in every single one of those languages! They are just experimenting and seeing which ones they like! That's what I recommend you do! A few times I've run into the problem where I really like a language, but then there's some weird grammar rules or something like that and it kinda discouraged me from learning the language.

    If you decide that you really like a language - keep studying, use other resources, and (most importantly!) have fun while doing it!!!

    Then again, if you do love a language - you can always just learn it. By that, I mean don't go all out trying to study it - you're just learning it to learn it not really worrying about being fluent!

    I hope this helps!!! :-D


    YES. For sure. I hate the thought of wasting time, too, realizing I'll never use a language after a long time using it. I also feel like i have only a few slots, but I also want to at least learn one actually fluently, so I've fought with myself over which -one- to learn, to devote so much time to, to really learn the small details of a language. And it's best to know one thing well instead of many things intermediate-level or lower. I want to learn a language/languages that can benefit me someday, especially with employment, so I've switched through a lot of languages to figure out which one is best for me.

    But also, it's like my brain feels a need to categorize languages of which ones go together, so I'd have to have a good combination if I were to learn multiple ones, a combination that complimented each other in a way that my mind validates it.


    I think you are overthinking the whole matter. You know, the more languages you learn, the easier it is to pick a new one. I am fluent in 3 (ES, EN, PT) and going for a fourth one. Actually, I used to speak a decent Italian but then I forgot it when I started learning Portuguese. For some time I would mix them both but it ended up being in me forgetting my Italian. It is normal to mix up languages. When I took French I mixed English in all the time. Then I took German and would throw in some French. This sort of thing happens all the time. It means your brain is moving in the right direction!


    That is an interesting way to look at it.

    I don't fear mixing them up. I enjoy the journey no matter where it takes me. Even if it takes me somewhere where I am speaking some weird mix of Italian and Hebrew.


    "for average people, it's amazing if you can get up to only 4 or 5"

    Average people can learn more than 4 or 5 without much of an issue. I'd say the limit for "average" people is more like in the direction of 10 or even 15.

    I myself speak 6 languages (3 of which are not my mother tongue but were taught in school) to varying degrees (of which I have no doubt that I could master them all fully) without being particularly good at memorizing or languages in general. An average dedicated person who decides to spend a lot of time on learning a language can easily reach B1 level in 2 months and C2 in a year. Even less, depending on a lot of things.

    The biggest issue / limiting factor for many people probably is a poor general learning method. For example doing too little repetition (like doing a tree with 0 repetition of anything) or doing too much repetition (repeat the same thing 20 times and never / rarely adding new content) - among other things someone can do wrong.

    About confusing words between languages: I think that mostly happens when you start learning new languages before having decently learned the previous one (mainly for languages that share similarities). If I look at my own situation, I never confuse / rarely confuse words of a language I know quite well, but when you're learning 2 similar languages of which you both know relatively little it's easy to start confusing words.


    I think you are correct about all of this.

    I once met a young man who claimed to know 6 languages fluently. He said he was raised in a tiny country where multilingualism was the norm. Talking to him was very inspirational for me.

    The human brain is capable of so many amazing things.


    Your brain is big enough to hold as much as you take on, do not worry about it (unless you are Kelly Bundy).


    The human mind can remember more than a computer. I think you can learn way more than 4 or 5 languages, the trouble will be juggling the practice of all of them, as well as not mixing them up.


    Yes, I totally agree. Unless you grew up in an area where they already spoke several languages within a few miles from each other, only bother with a language that you are passionate about... not just the language, but also the sound of the language... the country, the culture, the people, the music, etc., etc.,

    Learn a language in just 5 minutes a day. For free.