It’s the question that most every aspiring polyglot struggles with: should I just stick to the few languages I know, and learn to speak them fluently, or should I move on to another, then another, then another language, just learning the basics of each one?
Believe me, I understand that sudden fascination with a new language and that impulse to learn it. It is hard to stay focused when there are so many languages out there! But is pursuing every language that tickles our fancy really the best strategy for polyglot mastery?
There are a few things to consider when deciding if you want to learn many languages or stick to just a few:
What are your goals?
Why are you learning the language(s) you are?
The reason is different for everyone. You might want to be able to communicate with more people, or read poetry in more languages. Maybe you have a more specific goal, like finding a new job or moving to another country. Determining what you want to achieve from the languages you are learning will help you to decide whether you should learn to a deeper level, or whether knowing more languages on a superficial level will be more beneficial.
According to philologist Frederick Bodmer, if you are not aiming to speak any of your languages like a native, and the languages are from a similar family, the relative effort you put into learning each language decreases the more you learn. This means that learning four languages does not require a huge amount more effort than learning just one. So if your goal isn’t fluency, learning multiple languages makes sense.
How related are the languages you want to learn?
There have been multiple studies in favour of learning languages of the same family side by side. This is because there are generally similarities in vocabulary, syntax and phonology within languages in the same linguistic group. If you master the grammar structures in Spanish, for example, you won’t have much problem understanding the grammar of Italian. Instead of learning an entire grammatical system from scratch, you just have to remember the few minor differences. If you are learning multiple of these similar languages at once, it should be easier to learn them than if you were to tackle each one individually.
On the other hand, if the languages you want to learn are unrelated, you are less likely to get confused between them. But the benefit of learning them at the same time will probably be minimal.
How much time do you have?
If you have a limited amount of time that you can dedicate to language learning, you might want to stick to just one or two new languages. By focusing on a few, even with only short but regular study sessions you can pick up your skills relatively quickly. If you attempt to learn many languages with only a little free time, chances are you will either end up neglecting some of them. Either that or losing motivation and giving up on language learning completely. However, if you have the time needed to split up your time between multiple languages, you are more likely to be successful with this approach.
Are you getting confused?
Let’s be honest, not everyone is cut out for learning several languages simultaneously.
A good indicator that you are learning too many languages is if you start to mix them up in your head. Some people are more prone to this than others.
If you are the kind of person who accidentally switches languages midway through a sentence, who can find the word they want in every language except the one they are speaking, or who accidentally speaks to someone in the wrong language (i.e one they won’t understand), you might benefit from learning each language individually and therefore creating a separate place for it in your brain.
If you can easily switch between languages and think in multiple languages at a time, good on you! Learning languages simultaneously might be for you.
I hope this post helped you to decide if you should learn many languages or just a few. In reality, the question is: should you learn a lot of languages poorly or a few languages well? Unless you are a prodigy, learning many languages (usually more than 7) to fluency simply isn’t possible.
Personally, I prefer to focus on just a few languages, because I am a perfectionist and my goal is to reach a high level of fluency in each one. I also don’t like mixing up languages. That’s why at the moment (even though I am fascinated by all languages), I am just focusing on Portuguese and Chinese. I waited until I had a high level in Spanish before I even started learning Portuguese. I knew I would confuse myself if I learned them at the same time due to their similarities. For now, that’s it – I don’t know if I will start learning a new language in the future.
If you have decided to try learning many languages at once, start by reading this article about how to learn multiple languages at the same time.
->Do you prefer learning many languages or just a few? How did you figure out what works best for you? Leave a comment and let us know!
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