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How to Learn Two Languages at the Same Time

For some people, learning languages is their passion and their calling. Learning foreign languages is fun for them. And for some, the desire to be bilingual or even trilingual is about necessity and upward mobility in life. For whatever reason you’re deciding to learn two languages at once, here are some great ways to make the most out of it without getting too confused in the process!

When learning two languages at once, you, of course, have to decide which languages you want to learn and how much time you’re willing to set aside for each one. There are some people who are more interested in one language than another, but still want to learn them all the same. In that case, you devote more time to learning the one you’re really excited for, and less time for the one you’re not as excited about.

I believe that you should study what you want to study. There are people who will rank languages in terms of their supposed “difficulty”, but what is easy for someone might be difficult for another. For me, Spanish comes easily and is really enjoyable… and French not so much. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to learn French, but if I were learning both languages at once, I would be more interested in Spanish and would devote more of my time to it.

It’s important to keep your goals in mind and be realistic.

That seems easy to say, but the quickest way to exhaust yourself is by not setting priorities and not scheduling your time. If you don’t have the time (or the ability to make time) for your language studies, you could end up feeling the pressure to study all at once rather than doing it methodically. Far too often, people get into the headspace of “if I’m going to give it my all, I have to do it equally and not fall behind in either language”… that kind of dedication to stay on top of things is admirable but not always realistic.

Set your priorities.

Don’t forget that you have other things going on in your life besides languages. That can really impact your studies and your schedules. You also have school, work, chores, your health, your social life, your relationships, and probably a hundred other things to keep in your mind. While learning languages might be the goal, it’s far too easy to have tunnel vision and find yourself neglecting something else that’s equally important.

Assuming you have your languages in mind, the next part of this is examining what the challenges of that language actually will be and if they cause problems for learning the other language.

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Learning two languages from one linguistic family tree e.g. the Romance Languages has its pros and cons. The pros are that the grammar is very similar, the words tend to be similar in a lot of cases, the culture is quite similar, and some idioms are very close to each other. Even when learning two different languages, you might find that one language helps you learn another one. Learning Spanish helped improve my English because now I understand “who” and “whom” and have a greater understanding of “thou”; I can recognize subjunctive when it happens, and I’m more aware of the difference between different parts of speech… and since Spanish is related to Latin, I also end up learning new English words like castigar “to punish” is related to “castigate” in English, which is “to punish”.

When I was learning other languages, I could use the knowledge I had acquired to help me understand them. By knowing what a direct object and an indirect object was, I more readily understood German’s accusative and dative cases. And my knowledge of subjunctive helped me grasp subjunctive mood in other languages when it showed up. Your accumulated knowledge and your ability to see patterns and similarities or differences does help you greatly.

The big con of the idea of learning two languages at once is the fear that you’re going to mix your languages up. And that’s a legitimate worry, and probably an inevitability.

Even learning two wholly different languages can end up with you confusing things. That more or less comes with the territory. One language can interfere with a different one, even one you’re not actively studying. I can’t tell you how many times my English has interfered with my Spanish and vice versa. It helps to find the humor in the situation, but also to try and enter a different “mode”, if you will. When I’m in “English mode”, I think and speak and write in English. When I’m in “Spanish mode”, I try to do what I normally do just in Spanish. Keeping your languages separate can really help you in the grand scheme of things.

In the interest of keeping things separate, I advise keeping your notes and study materials separate as much as possible. Keep different notebooks, flashcards, books, papers, and reading/listening material separate as much as possible. Maybe keep different binders.

I would even recommend different color schemes if possible. It could be as simple as blue and black ink; write one language in blue, one in black. Maybe print in one language, use cursive for the other. Keep folders or binders or notebooks different colors. Do what you need to do to keep them separate when they should be separate.

Another important idea which is in keeping with the idea of separation is something known as “block scheduling”. This is a classic study technique and something I wish I had known about much, much earlier in my life.

The idea of block scheduling is to organize your time effectively on a schedule. Instead of focusing on completing all your tasks in one day and feeling upset or frazzled when you forget to do something, it becomes much easier to say what you’re going to do and when.

Devote one or two hours to one language, and one or two to another (more time or less time depending on your own preferences). In this way you eliminate distractions and enter a “mode”. If you have to study Spanish, do your homework, go to work, and then clean… divide it up on your schedule.

For example, say you’re doing work from 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM, and then from 5:30-6:00 you study Spanish, then from 6:00-8:00 you’re cleaning, and you do your homework from 8:00-9:00. This schedule leaves out things like breaks, bathing, or food, but you get the idea. What’s important is that you’re wholly focused on one thing for a duration of time and then once it’s up, you move on to a different task. You don’t have to freak out about one chore and when you’ll do it, because it’s scheduled and your job is to focus on the task at hand.

And as much as being organized and methodical is important – and it is very important – you also need to be flexible and forgiving of yourself. If you don’t feel like studying something one day, or something comes up and you don’t have the time, then you don’t have to cram everything in and just do the best you can doing everything at once. Be realistic with yourself, and be flexible. If something comes up, you can devote more time to it later.

What’s most important is that you take things as they come, have a plan in mind, and try not to stress out too much. It’s also not a bad idea to get extra help for a language if you’re serious about learning it and have the opportunity, and also to check in with yourself and evaluate your goals.

Above all, do what makes you happy. But be smart about it!

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