How to Learn Multiple Languages At Once

I’ve written on this topic before, but I feel I need to touch on it again, especially right now. I’ve been re-organizing my language learning schedule and strategies, since my work schedule has calmed down a little bit. Currently, I’m learning Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Korean, and Kannada. To be perfectly, it’s not entirely accurate to say “learning” for Hindi and Kannada. I already know how to speak both languages, and I’m just improving my vocabulary, since I really don’t like having to throw in English loanwords.

A lot of people, even in the polyglot community, think that learning multiple languages at once is impractical, a bad idea, impossible, or all three. This depends on who you are, your learning propensities, and your schedule. If you have a lot of work all the time, it’s not a good idea to be trying this. I was working on papers, presentations, and extracurricular activities, so I concentrated on Mandarin, because I was preparing for a placement test. This is because it was difficult for me to balance four languages and all my schoolwork, and so I prioritized. This is the key to learning multiple languages. When you’re thinking about how to organize your multiple-language learning, ask yourself these 3 questions:

  1. How important are these languages to me (in descending order)?
  2. How much time (per week) can I commit to studying?
  3. Do I have decent access to resources for these languages?

The first two are fairly self-explanatory, but the last one may confuse some people. This question is important, because you don’t want to be spending a lot of time looking for resources. You should make sure you have organized your materials before hand. Know what you’re using to study, and you’ll streamline your learning!

For example, I use Anki and Memrise for my vocabulary learning for all my languages, since I can usually find a decent set of vocabulary cards. For grammar, I locate a reliable and accessible grammar site or book to read from. Always keep your sources consistent, because even if you might learn something wrong, you can easily find where you wrong. The thing is: you should also cross-reference! Make sure that multiple sites or books on grammar say the same thing about certain principles, especially the ones that confuse you. I have some three or four different textbooks for Mandarin, and I always cross-reference if something stumps me. For some languages, I know there aren’t that many resources. For Indian languages and many minority languages, it can somewhat to very difficult to find decent resources. For Hindi, I recommend Hindi: An Essential Grammar by Rama Kant Agnihotri, from Routledge. I’m going to be very frank, but many websites out there for lesser-known Indian languages like Kannada or Tamil are absolutely terrible. Poor romanization methods, insufficient explanations, and other problems predominate.

Wikipedia is always an OK start to reading about grammar, but I warn you that Wikipedia is not only subject to change, but also can be very academic and not suited to the purposes of the language learner. I, myself, am an aspiring academic, so it’s a little easier for me, but I highly recommend finding sites written by and for language learners, like this one! I try to write explanations in the most down-to-earth way possible, even though I still believe in using the technical grammatical terms, like “conjugation” and “case declension”, because they’re convenient and acceptable ways to describe the way a language works.

Another key part of learning more than one language at once is what I call the “degrees of separation”. What this means are the ways you separate each language. A really basic one might be already be present: the languages are different structurally and historically. Mandarin, Korean, Hindi, and Kannada are all from different language families, and have very little intersections of vocabulary. Sure, Sanskrit is a common contributor to Hindi and Kannada, but Sanskrit is simply a generator of academic and specialized vocabulary for Kannada. In contrast, Hindi derives its internal structure and much of its vocabulary from Sanskrit. Similarly, Korean has borrowed quite a few words from Classical Chinese, but shares very little in common with Mandarin otherwise. There’s also temporal separation, where you study different languages at different times or on different days. You can also use methodical separation, using different methods or programs to study (ex. using Memrise for Hindi and Kannada; Mandarin and Korean on Anki). The only other one I could think of is spatial separation, where you physically study in different places for each language.

I hope this article was helpful and informative! Don’t forget to share, like, and follow my blog on Facebook and Tumblr!

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I'm a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I'm obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages. I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.