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Learning Romance Languages in Parallel

Today was a busy day for me on Duolingo. I got to level 4 in both Italian and Portuguese, and then I got to level 5 in French. Now it's back to Spanish for a while, my main target.

I'm really enjoying the ability to switch between languages whenever I feel like it. In the past, I've generally focused on learning one language for months or years and then switched to another. I have my own opinions on the matter, but I'd like to ask all of you whether you think this frequent switching is a good idea or not.

It's especially interesting when learning closely related languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French. One the one hand, they are similar to each other, so knowing "leche" in Spanish certainly makes "leite" easier to pick up in Portuguese. But then again, the word is feminine in Spanish but masculine in Portuguese, so that could be confusing.

Really, it seems to me people make too big a deal of differences like this. So far, it hasn't been hard to keep the words I learn in one language separate from those of another. Does anyone have any opinions, tips, or stories to share on the matter? How do you keep "leche", "leite", "latte", and "lait" from getting all mixed up into one big lactic stew?

July 7, 2014



Before Duolingo was around, there was one time where I was studying Italian, Spanish, French, Arabic and Japanese in different classes simultaneously - that did my head in, like properly I was losing my mind, I began forgetting words and spelling in English. I remember going to a Japanese class where I started writing in hiragana characters but the words I was trying to use were Spanish. I'd go to Italian and start writing on the wrong side of the page. I'd always have 5 languages screaming in my head every time I was unsure of a word or a phrase, and that made speaking fluently really hard. So I cut back, because I felt like I was at my limit and going to lose my mind - I just didn't have the time to dedicate to each one that I needed to in order to nut out all the crisscrossing that was taking place (I was also a full time uni student at the time).

So I dropped everything except Italian and Spanish... and I was still having similar issues with mix ups, but I tackled it by sitting down and doing a lot of memorising of the similar words to make sure I had the differences down between each language, and became really purposeful and careful when I used either Italian or Spanish. If I wrote in Italian, afterward I'd go through and check for ANYTHING that I might've picked up from Spanish and vice versa. I don't think I have as much of an issue with it anymore compared to what I did, but it really just came down to how careful I was being.

So I think no matter how many languages you're doing or how similar/different they are, it all comes down to how much time you can dedicate to identifying and resolving these kinds of issues.


Haha, wow. I've never been in a situation like that. If I were trying to study all these languages in parallel for a grade, then yeah, that sounds terrible. A little here and there for fun is different though, I think.


For sure, I never said it was bad, I was having a great time, but I'd just bitten off more than I could chew! Haha.


I'm a native speaker of Portuguese, so I already know a lot of Spanish, and learning French and Italian was much easier. Another thing to keep in mind is that I know basic Latin, so that helps me with all Romance languages. It is true that genders change among languages (this is especially true for Italian and Portuguese), and knowing the neuter in Latin kind of complicates things a bit for me.

The good side to knowing all of these languages (for me, at least) is that I can pick up spelling and gender similarities much more easily. Portuguese and Latin have many genders in common. Grammatical structure becomes much easier--French has very complicated grammar, in my opinion, but luckily, it became simple after a while.

Since you're specifically talking about vocabulary and word memorization, this brings up topics already discussed called lexical similarity and mutual intelligibility. Some Romance languages are considered more conservative than others, meaning they retained most of the spellings, genders, syntax, and grammar from Latin over the centuries. French is considered the least conservative of all the Romance languages, due to the very different pronunciation and the addition of simple and historic tenses, some removed tenses, etc...Italian, as you would expect, is the most conservative, having remained in the same region and not moving from the Roman domain.

The word for milk in all four of those languages comes from Latin lac, lactis, n. All of its derived forms, "leche", "leite", "latte", "lait", are called cognates. Cognates are defined not by their similarities between languages, but by the parent languages from which they come from. If two words in different languages come from the same proto-language or sub-family, they are referred to as cognates.

As for how to distinguish cognates between languages, I would recommend trying to fit in certain words into the context of those languages and see if the words sound "right" in those languages. Think about the following: Does the pronunciation fit in the language? Is there a substitution that sounds better for the word? Most of the time, if it doesn't seem correct, it probably isn't.

I know this was a very long explanation, going all the way into the "genealogy", so to speak, of languages, but I hope I could help you out in understanding how these similarities come to be and how we should think of them to avoid confusion.

Good luck with your studies!


I've already completed Spanish, but I am learning French and Portuguese at the same time. Sometimes I find that I can only remember the Spanish word for a Portuguese question, or a French word when I'm typing in Spanish. That can be fun. ;) But, I do enjoy the similarities, and it makes learning the languages easier. I'm finding that Portuguese is a mix of Spanish and French, so time will tell how the previous two will help me complete the tree.

But overall, I don't really have trouble with word mixing. For some, it's harder, and for some, it's easier.


Through experimentation, I've found that I must devote no less than one hour / per language / per day to maintain forward momentum in learning, and three languages is the limit of what I can realistically juggle at once.

I've developed various routines and tricks to keep languages separate in my mind. For example, when I was taking university classes in all three simultaneously, I would study Latin, first, Japanese, second, and Italian, third. Putting a meal or other activity between sessions helped, but, on days when that was not possible, simply sandwiching the least related (Japanese) between the most related (Latin and Italian) did a lot to minimize "contamination".

Another technique I've developed is the use of language specific stimuli (like music) to shift between sessions and serve as a background reminder (so I don't accidentally switch languages). A good source for finding music in Duolingo's current target languages is here: http://lyricstraining.com/


I tried to learn Italian, Portuguese, and German at the same as trying to keep my Spanish and French trees golden. Time was the factor for me. I did not have enough time to do the necessary amount of lessons here. However, now I do have the time since I got laid off at the beginning of June. :-(

One of the things that I found very helpful in keeping the similar words separate was doing the course from another language. For instance, currently I am learning Portuguese from English and Spanish, and I am also doing the Spanish from Portuguese.

So, besides trying to learn Portuguese, I am also trying to make my Spanish and French trees golden. I am also doing the French for Spanish tree and the Spanish for French tree, but this is helping me keep my knowledge in both.


Hi, I am currently learning French (mostly) and a little Italian. My mother tongue is Spanish, but I am using an English interface (second language, I am completely fluent). From your experience, would it be helpful for me to change the interface to Spanish, since I am learning two Romance languages, and possibly make my learning faster? I thought your answer above was interesting, so I wanted to ask your advice. Btw, I am not worried about my English as I use it all the time, I just want to learn French as quickly as possible :)


This is a very interesting idea, switching the source language to attack two languages at once from a different angle. I've thought about it, but I don't think my Spanish is quite far along enough yet to try it. Sounds fun anyway. I might try it before I actually feel "ready", because when does that happen anyway?


That's really cool.....i've always had the idea of learning languages in the same family after already having learnt one of them....I had been learning Spanish for four years prior to installing duelling..so i can complete the Spanish tree quite easily...I still wouldn't consider my Spanish fluent but i'd be a good idea to do the Italian from Spanish course!


I personally love learning more than one at a time. It gets me in the language learning zone, and really keeps me on my toes. Before Duo, I used to do half an hour of Portuguese and then half an hour of French, both on Rosetta Stone. It would take a few minutes to switch my thinking from one language to the other, but once I did, it felt awesome.


It's good to hear a different angle on this subject. When it comes to language study, people usually talk about how quickly you can become fluent, the relative difficulty, time constraints, etc. You've basically just pointed out how fun it is to do this kind of juggling. I agree!


Hey there.

I majored in linguistics back in the day, so I think I'm coming from a similar angle. I too started with Spanish, French, and Italian. But I would do the courses back to back, and I too got really confused because they are very similar but just different enough to knock me sideways.

So, what I've been doing nowadays is I add a non-romance language in between the romance ones. So I do (in this order) French, dutch, Italian, Irish, Spanish. It feels like just enough of a mental break that my brain can settle between the close romance languages.

I'm not doing it to become fluent, more just curious I guess. In terms of the close but different spelling of words, I think you start to figure out what letters and sounds go with the particular languages...

No idea if that helped or not. But I'm glad I'm not the only one doing that many languages. Lol. I get a kick out of noticing which words relate back to the other romance language words in English. Dutch and English have similarities since they're both German related which can be a hoot. Even some Irish words are similar (sounding) in English, which was awesome to discover.


Yeah, it sounds like we have similar goals with Duolingo. I actually want to become fluent in Spanish, but the other languages are just an academic exercise for now. I don't think I have any real reason for studying Dutch other than the fun of comparing it to English and German.


It's so much fun to learn multiple languages at the same time, even if they are from the same family. The similiraties is a good thing, you can compare them so you memorize the words more easily.


I would not recommend learning three languages of the same language family. Also, unless you have 8 hours or free time, I would not recommend that you study more than 2 languages. Learning more than two languages with little free time and little prior experience will not work. I don't know if your aim is to be fluent though. If you want to be able to communicate well in each language, then you could. Maybe you should find some other non-Romance ones? You could learn something different and interesting like Japanese, Turkish, Hungarian, or German.


Thanks for your concern, but I'm really just bringing up this topic because I'm interested in people's differing attitudes on the subject. I'm a linguist, so I'm not a typical language learner. Spanish is the only language I'm actually trying for fluency in right now. The others are to give me a broader view of language in general (and for fun).

By the way, you mentioned Japanese... I taught English in Japan for a while, so I know a little. I would LOVE to use Duolingo to learn more, but unfortunately that's not possible yet. I know there is a demand, but I'm guessing the writing system makes things a bit difficult. I can't wait to see how they deal with that in Russian.


I am currently learning both French and Spanish on Duolingo. I basically give them both equal time and am at the same level at both; although I feel I am slightly more advanced in Spanish. It can be a challenge. I know I will not finish either tree as quickly as I would if I just focussed on one or the other. I find it is the simple things that trip me up: using "ella" instead of "elle" or trying to remember whether "tomate" is masculine or feminine in French.

Earlier on, I would do one language, take a break, and then attack the other. Nowadays, I try to switch quickly from one to the other and back again. My theory is that doing this will force me to think more quickly on my feet. I've had no way to confirm it or not, but time will tell, I suppose.

I am still enjoying doing both at the same time and until such time as it becomes a hassle, I will do continue to do so.


Now I've got everything but Spanish at the same level (6). I'm getting far enough along that I get some cross-linguistic contamination now and then, mostly when trying to recall a particular word, a couple times when conjugating a verb. Really though, it hasn't presented a problem yet.

I'm enjoying how the Duolingo system helps you along quite a bit with hover text and everything, so you don't have to feel worried about not remembering everything. I've used a few Michel Thomas courses, and they always stress the importance of that relaxed state of mind. Given what I know about language acquisition from my own studies, I believe it.


It's better for you to go with one of them first until you start to "feel the language" and have very clear the VERB CONJUGATION part (that's the hard one) or you'll be mixing them.


Personally, I find it to be a great way to compliment the learning process; however, I say this because I am a visual learner who can easily categorize different-looking words. Nouns, adjectives and verbs are easy for me to categorize, but I will occasionally slip up and mix my articles (this may be a natural habit/mistake, as I do this within languages as well). I had been learning Spanish from December 2014 to August 2016, and when I added Portuguese so I could learn the basics for a Brazil trip, I found it effortless to learn the first few skills; pronunciation was the only tricky part. Once I had hit level 5 or 6, I was confident enough to use the basics around Rio and had endeared myself to the locals who ran the shops around my hostel!

I hope to be fluent in Spanish/French/Italian/Portuguese (I'm near fluent in writing/reading with Spanish, but my listening skills are poor) for personal and professional reasons, so Duolingo is a godsend in this regard.

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