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Learning Multiple Languages at a Time

Do you think it's too confusing to learn multiple languages concurrently or should you master one before starting another?

July 14, 2013



It depends on the person. I will tell you my humble opinion, and tell how it works for me. For me, it is better to deal with multiple languages. For example, I'm learning three languages (Portuguese, Polish, German), and I'm doing well. If I have concentrated on only one language, of course I would progress faster on that language; however, concurrently learning multiple languages makes more improvement on your language knowledge in total, even if it may yield less for each language. Ah, let me explain you with an example: if I learn one language, I will proceed "6 steps" in that language everyday. Not bad. But if I learn two languages, I will move on "4 steps" everyday for each, so "8 steps" daily in total. And even more, if I learn three, I would get further "3 steps" for each, so makes "9 steps" in total. 9 > 8 > 6 . Therefore, the more languages I learn, the more total utility I get. This is my formula, and works well for me. It can be different for other people, of course.

I run an experiment myself. I found out that, I can learn and memorize an average maximum of 20 new words per day if I study just one language. On the other hand, when I learn words from two, three or four different languages, then this number can reach 35, or even 40 words in total, per day.

Also, this is not so relevant to the topic, but just I want to tell because some people have already talked about it: I believe knowing a similar language makes easier to learn the other. For instance, speaking Spanish is a significant advantage for learning Portuguese. Yes, it can be confusing sometimes (Ex: I used to write “é” (the equivalent of Spanish “es” in Portuguese) while I was doing timed practice in Spanish), but after few mistakes, you get to know your mistakes and you don't do it again. And if you know the pattern, you can easily make a Portuguese word by its Spanish equivalent without knowing the Portuguese one, and it'll mostly be correct.

Or, if a person learnt Polish and knows well the seven cases of Polish, then, when that person starts learning German, the four cases of German will be “as easy as pie” for that person, meanwhile many people are struggling and whining about those cases.

Lastly, the more you learn languages, the more your capacity of learning languages increases and the more your brain distinguishes them, consequently you commit less clashes and confusions between languages.

So every person has his/her own efficient way of learning languages. Some people can learn one language in a short time, some can learn many languages at the same time. So just find the best way for you, and learn =)


we should translate this in the five languages for duolingo! amazing reply. just what i wanted to know. thanks! :D


Thanks alot for your comment. I am learning Spanish, also I was doubtful about starting German and French. now I gonna do that


hah, i am czech and german cases are still mess for me :( But good reply, this was what i was looking for <3


i was thinking that if i learn too many languages, then i could forget alot of details, i i was trying to minimize my courses. before i knew this though, i had no insights on the languages i wanted to learn and i had to minimize some


I wouldn't start as a complete beginner at two similar languages at once. If I want to start with two languages at once I would rather do something like German and Chinese rather than German and Dutch. If you are already intermediate in German I don't see any reason not to start with Dutch though. Personally I already have some previous knowledge in German so I started it not as a complete beginner and I'm learning it through Spanish. At the same time I'm doing some maintenance on my Spanish grammar and some of the more advanced vocab in Thai. While doing all that, my main focus is learning Chinese. I rarely ever confuse anything between the languages. I would probably have confused some Thai and Chinese though if I was a complete beginner in both.


As long as you have the time to dedicate to each language every day (so you meet the "100 coin" daily requirement for each language, for example), I don't see it being too confusing. I'm currently learning Spanish and Italian on Duolingo; however, I am fairly proficient in Spanish (I am currently taking my 5th year of Spanish in school). It is definitely a lot easier for me to see the connections between Spanish and Italian because the Spanish vocabulary comes to me easily. Portuguese and Spanish even more so.

Like others have said, choosing two similar languages will really help. Spanish and Italian have some similar vocabulary (as I've encountered so far), so working on those two languages concurrently will strengthen your knowledge of vocabulary.

I am so interested in languages thanks to Duolingo that I want to study etymology in my spare time. It's fascinating. If you find later on that you feel the same way, why not pick up a third language?

Best of luck :)


Potentially, especially when the languages all derive from each other. You may end up mixing up words from Spanish, French, and Italian. Even worse is the possible grammatical confusion that may arise.


I learned French in school many years ago and started to learn Spanish later in life. I found it confusing learning Spanish already knowing French and would often times confuse words. I'm revisiting Spanish now but really want to learn Italian and I'm just a little impatient when I want to do something. I think you're right and should wait until I've finished with Spanish so that I don't get too confused.


That was my experience, too. I was brushing up on my French from years ago and trying to learn Spanish at the same time and kept putting French into my Spanish lessons. I decided to wait on the Spanish for a while.


I'm definitely afraid of this. I'm brushing up on my French (honestly I learned more in a week of Duolingo than 2 years of the language in Jr High), and I think I'll buffer myself from my next Romance language (Italian? Spanish?) by using German as an intermediary. I wish there were more diverse languages though... even if generally restricted to the roman alphabet.


'Master' is such a high bar. I say go for it, especially if you are learning more than one romance language at a time. Better I think to have a working knowledge of three languages, than mastery of one. How many words and verb forms does one use on an everyday basis, anyway?


I think it's fun to switch back and forth, between less-related languages (German and Spanish). Maybe if I were trying Spanish and Italian or Spanish and Portuges I'd get confused. Spanish: "La Manzana". German: "Der Apfel". Different gender. There you are.


What I did, or what I am doing now is I took a year of japanese and at that time I studied/ improved my grammar and vocabulary etc. on my own (due to a lousy teacher). I can understand 7/10 words in a TV show or Song and overall I am proud of my progress. Anyway, I am starting to learn Korean since the overall structure is the same and I am learning norwegian. I just learn norwegian words. I dont really focus too much on grammar because it is relatively close to english. I go hardcore on Korean grammar because i think when I learn one of those asian languages with grammar first it is easier to pick out words and learn them. So occasionally I add to my japanese vocabulary. And to make sure those new words stick (from any language I learned), When ever I have a test for school, I write my little cheatsheet in words from all the languages im currently studying. Its really fun because nobody can read it even if they speak one of the languages. Its just a big bundle of mixed languages. Only I can read it.


Wow, I do that too! I write flash cards, but I often define it in some other language besides my native language (English). For me, it feels like getting 2 vocabulary for the price of one (well, learning one, and reviewing the other).

Speaking of Japanese though, since I'm a bit more proficient in Chinese than I am at Japanese, so kanji are relatively easy for me to learn. But sometimes I do come across unfamiliar kanji, and in those cases, I'll often try to learn the Chinese readings along with the Japanese ones, in an effort to "make the most of my brain power."


I started out learning 7 languages at the same time and then added another one for a total of 8. They were French, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, German, Swedish, Italian and then Chinese. People told me that I cannot learn 7 or 8 languages at the same time but I proved them wrong as I was doing it. BUT.... :) At some point as I delved deeper into more intense learning, there were not enough hours in the day to keep up with all of them plus all the other things I was doing.

One very cool thing about learning all these at once was that I did not have to make very much effort to memorize anything. In some weird way it just happened naturally. If i were just learning one, I think it would have taken more effort to memorize and I think I would have become bored. It actually facilitated remembering everything in some natural way.

It also helped by seeing the similarities and differences among multiple languages. This helped to learn about language in general or put another way, to learn the mechanics of language. Just a side note.... It made me realize how totally illogical language is and made me question the intelligence of the people thousands of years ago that developed each language. I think English has a lot of strange, illogical quirks, but one of the most ridiculous and unintelligent things I see in a lot of languages, is having gender for words. I am not saying anything derogatory about any of the people or the culture of the countries with languages that do this. Underline and put that last sentence in bold... :) I am talking about ancient times when the languages were being developed. :) It makes no sense and has no purpose. I think grammar was created after the language was developed and they tried to make up rules to force fit the language as it was spoken, after the fact... :) Then again....I could be wrong but that is my opinion and analysis...:)

With multiple languages you will find similar words among them and you can sense how some things were derived especially among countries that are geographically close to one another. For example similarities if not the same words in German and Swedish.

There are some areas of confusion though. Learning Spanish and Italian at the same time was very confusing. They are so close that it made it more difficult. This is probably the same or similar cognition/ brain function involved in why learning 7 or 8 different languages at the same time made it easier to memorize and learn. Also, for example, the Cyrillic alphabet used with Russian, has letters that look just like, if not exactly the same as the English / Latin alphabet. So sometimes when I am trying to read Russian and I see the Russian 'р' , 'г' or 'с' , which have the English sounds of 'r', 'g' and 's' respectively, my mind is thinking of the English sound of 'pa', 'rra' and 'sss'. :) The Russian letter 'н' has the English sound of 'n' but for some reason I never confuse this with our 'ha' sound. Whereas Japanese Kana which is Hiragana and Katakana, are completely unique compared to the Latin alphabet and there is zero confusion.

I think learning multiple languages at once is very good for you brain and from things I have read, this can even help avoid dementia and Alzheimer's when you get older. It helps to keep your brain sharp and, like a muscle, in good shape and well exercised. Think 2,3,4.... think 2,3,4 :)

One of the problems is in the way and the level a person wants to learn. If you follow what some of these people are saying int TED talks or what Benny Lewis teaches, which I think is more the way children learn to speak, then you can probably learn to speak (but not understand grammar etc.) more quickly and without it taking as much time as learning in more conventional / academic ways. Unfortunately for me, I feel like I have learned a little about a lot of languages, but no a lot about any one and therefore, not fluent in any. In the beginning I had a good plan which I followed and it paid off. But after that when I tried to learn at a much more intense and deeper level, I did not have a good plan or structure and my learning became very haphazard and chaotic. In fact today I started working on developing a plan and schedule to try to fix this. This is how I stumbled onto this discussion. :)


You managed to learn those 8 languages because basics of all languages are more or less quite simple and you are obvisously intelligent enough to grasp them all. But there is no way to reach fluency in all of them simultaneously in a few years. The progress would be very slow and you would feel demotivated soon. You just need to focus on one or maybe two at the time. When learning two languages concurrently it is always good idea to give more attention (like 80% of time) to your main target language and the second one consider as your side project just for fun. You are obviously very curious mind, so I guess learning two languages is suitable for you. But you also need to be more disciplined as is always easy to start slipping away and not really learn anything on more proficient level - B2/C1 in terms of language learning. I have the same problem. But 8 languages at once? Wow! That is really daring.


I agree totally, the gender issue is so annoying. I am learning French , German, Spanish, Greek and Arabic. (The latter sadly not yet duolingoed) I think it is important not to use only Duolingo but also Michel Thomas, useful when driving or ironing etc. I think learning different languages simultaneously is a great idea. The language learning pathway in the brain is the same for all languages and doing a couple of lessons daily in each enables faster progress in all of them.


It has its pros and cons. I think it's easier because when you study two similar languages, they often have similar words, and when you associate a word from one language with the same word from another language, it's a lot easier to memorize both than if you were learning one at a time.

Of course, that also increases the chance of mixing them up, but there are ways to circumvent that problem. Every language sounds unique and has its own "musicality". Think about the stereotypes of German sounding angry and French sounding romantic for example; while they're not really true, it's a reflex of this perception of "musicality". Try to incorporate that mode of thinking in your language learning, by associating each language to your perception of their unique sound. That way you'll associate each vocabulary with the music of the respective language, and it'll be harder to mix them up.


You asked this a year ago, but I will nonetheless give my answer.

I am currently learning Spanish and German in duolingo while I learn Russian in Memrise. Only for Russian do I buy other material (like books) to help me learn.

In my little experience, I personally believe that it's easier to learn totally different languases (like the three I mentioned) than closely related ones (like Spanish and Portuguese or German and Dutch).

DuoLingo isn't too intensive. It's a useful tool. I plan to complete the language courses on the app and THEN go into the details of the grammar and such.

But yes, you can learn more than one at a time. Though I don't pressure myself too much.


I think that how you approach learning languages can drastically impact your ability to learn them.

When I started learning languages, I learned them in school. I studied a few years of Latin, then one year of Spanish while taking Latin, and then three years of German while still taking Latin. I found that in school I wasn't learning language very efficiently or thoroughly. I never learned proper grammar in Spanish or German, nor did I learn proper pronunciation.

I found that I was sometimes confusing words between Spanish and German too...there was noticeable "linguistic interference" as I've heard it called.

More recently, I came back to learning languages on DuoLingo. I focused on getting the pronunciation right with both German and Spanish. Something remarkable happened: when I started pronouncing the languages more the way they are actually pronounced by native speakers, I found that my brain started switching gears between the languages more seamlessly, and I found that my level of linguistic interference dropped dramatically. It wasn't quite at zero, but it was much diminished and I found I was able to push past it and focus on advancing both languages at once.

I then decided to start dabbling in Russian and Portuguese. I have found surprisingly little linguistic interference between Spanish and Portuguese. I think that focusing up-front on pronunciation was super helpful to me. Spanish is structurally super similar to Portuguese, so much that many words are spelled identically. Yet when it's spoken, it's super different...some of the words don't even resemble each other in sounds even when they look the same on the page.

Lastly, I've heard other people recommend that when learning new languages, it's best to focus on mastering at most two (relatively dissimilar) languages for the first two years, and develop a core in them before progressing onward. I definitely did this. First I focused on learning German, then Spanish. My German is still much more solid than my Spanish, but those two languages are more solid than anything else I know, I just know little bits of other things.

So I'd recommend, if you want to do multiple languages at once, stagger it...start one or at most two, maybe work on that language or languages for a year or two, then start another one. Then, as you find you are able to keep improving your first two languages while learning a third, then you can introduce a fourth, fifth, etc. I would not recommend taking on three or more languages cold.

My experience too is that with each new language, the process of learning becomes easier and quicker...it's like my brain has developed the machinery for learning languages. Staggering languages like this enables me to minimize the interference while maximizing the gain from improved ability to learn languages in general.

I hope you find this helpful!


I am glad there are people with positive experiences about learning several languages concurrently. I moved to France and studied French, then because we are near the Spanish border added Spanish. There is no duolingo Arabic but I do that with Memrise (annual holidays in Morocco), then my son got engaged to a Greek girl, so I added Greek so I can communicate with her family. I'd done German in school and we have German neighbours so added that one. I sometimes get a mental block when switching to a different language lesson, but because the languages are all so different I rarely confuse words. Reading the different scripts for Greek and Arabic helps avoid confusion between those languages.


Actually, that too is my current dilemma. I originally wanted to learn Arabic, but since Italian and French captivated me I enrolled on both. Little did I know that they had the same root language, Latin.

Right now, I'm just doing it little by little just to avoid confusion. It actually got worse when I enrolled German and Sweden (they sound so similar). Long story short, my pace of learning's very slow. But I'm learning through constant priming. For example: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are dedicated to French and German; while Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays are for Swedish and Italian.

Pretty sure I'll add up more languages in the future because of the other interesting selections in the Incubator, but this is my setup for now.

Another thing is I can recommend is to write notes on separate notebooks for each language. Think of it as your own curriculum from a school that you made. In the future I'm planning to buy dictionaries too.

I know some of my methods are very traditional, and I know that it can be boring but you'll notice yourself get better. Alright, I said too much. Ciao!


I think you're hitting on a key issue here.

I find it is easiest for me to learn two dissimilar languages, if I am starting fresh with two new languages at once. If I'm learning two similar languages, I find it is easiest for me to go fairly deep in one, before I start the other. This allows me to learn the new, similar language with a conscious awareness of how it is different from the first. But I need to have a solid enough mastery of the first language, to be able to make mental notes of those things as I'm learning the second language, without getting confused, in order for this to work.

As an example, I already know quite a bit of Spanish, and I recently started Portuguese, and am not having much trouble with interference because I know Spanish well enough and am very conscious of the distinctions as I go through the basics of Portuguese. I also started Russian around the same time as Portuguese, and I'm not having much interference with that because it's so radically different.


I actually agree now. Learning two different languages that have the same root language offers way too much confusion.

So, for this time I dropped the Swedish and Italian languages and switched them with actual Nihonggo, and Arabic classes... well not really classes but informal lessons from my neighbours who worked there for long periods of time.

It was getting frustrating that I end up sometimes using words from a language to another that's similar to the other. For now, I'm currently priming the languages again.


Seems like a lot of very interesting responses on this topic, which reflect the diversity of ways in which we all learn languages.

Speaking from personal experience, I have not had any problems simultaneously studying relatively dissimilar languages; in university I once did Chinese, Japanese, and French, and in another semester, I did Chinese, French, and German. And when making flash cards, I often defined words in a language I was less proficient in using words from another language that I was more dominant in.

Where I did come across some problems though, was when I studied similar languages in sequence. After taking a few semester of Spanish, I self-studied Italian and Esperanto (I know, Esperanto isn't related to Spanish or Italian, but it does make heavy use of Latin roots). That's where the major challenges occurred; I ended up having trouble keeping all three languages straight. I remember getting frustrated in Peru when I was speaking Spanish, and I kept accidentally swapping in Italian words (which were sometimes understood by native Spanish speakers, but sometimes not). I used the Pimsleur language course in Spanish to try to "set my Spanish straight", but sadly, that caused my Italian (and Esperanto) to deteriorate.

I want to try experimenting with studying all three of those simultaneously (Spanish, Italian, Esperanto) and see if once and for all I can keep all three straight!


I think it is good for people to be able to choose how many or which languages they want to learn. It gives people the opportunity to learn at their own pace and difficulty. Also, this allows people to learn the basics of a language if they are planning on traveling to several diverse countries or locations. :)


As I love several languages, I love to start learning some of them simultaneously. I can learn at the same time, but I have problems in language production! So if you want to speak, I suggest one by one, otherwise learn them concurrently!


I am learning Spanish and Danish and I feel like trying out sign language (ASL) although I worry that it might be a bad idea to take much more on.

I feel like Spanish is more important to gain mastery in, because some Spanish-speakers where I live speak Spanish but not English. I enjoy Danish a lot more, though- my dad's side of the family is Danish and it's a fun way to connect with my family and heritage. However, I don't need to know Danish, even in Denmark most Danes are fairly fluent in English and can even be annoyed by foreigners (badly) speaking their language. Sometimes I feel like it is a distraction from Spanish, which I actually need to know.

I started doing Spanish with Pimsleur, a textbook and Duolingo and Danish just with Duolingo- I am hoping to keep going with the Spanish and, after gaining some more competence in Spanish, put more energy in to Danish.

As for learning ASL, it'll happen when it happens but I just don't know if I have the life force within myself to start learning a third language.


It depends. If you've had experience in one language before, and it gets to a level, you could start another, but usually learning too many gets confusing. For example, if you're trying to learn Catalan for Spanish speakers, you might accidentally switch to Italian mid-sentence due to similarities between the languages. In summary, be careful not to spread yourself too thin.


I'm here learning 5 languages at once gurll


It is so easy, if you feel confused because of learning more than one language, then learn one only.


I am giving it a go, let's see what happens. I actually wonder if my brain will physically change structure, but without expensive tests, there is no way to know for sure.

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