My Plan For Learning Multiple Languages Simultaneously

I spent all of 2015 learning French without actually going to a French speaking country, nor attending classes or getting private tuition. Part of the reason for this was that I am currently strapped for time finishing my PhD and also I just didn’t want to fork out $100s or even potentially $1000s of dollars going to classes. I knew in the age of the internet there was definitely some way I could learn French to fluency, within a year, without going to the country and without emptying my bank account.

Shortly after I started gaining ground moving from fumbling beginner to slightly competent advanced speaker when learning first foreign language I got a little more ambitious. By this point I had seen the numerous Polyglot videos on YouTube and blogs, which had blown me away. The more humble and down to earth polyglots assure us that they are no savants, just normal people with a passion for languages and no fear of putting in the time and effort required to learn them. So I decided that if they could do it maybe I could too, albeit definitely to a lesser extent. I figured a realistic personal goal would be aiming for basic fluency in five languages in five years.

I quickly realised that I would need some kind of plan in order to streamline the process of acquiring all these languages. Stumbling through each one of them in the dark with no bearing was going to be a very inefficient way of doing so. Having a background in research science I knew I needed to experiment with as many different resources and methods as possible whilst learning French. This would help me develop a basic plan for the four languages to come. So 2015 was a year in the theme of the Bruce Lee quote, “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” as I spent it testing resources and methods, and discovering how best I learn.

At first I had only planned to learn a single language at once each year, but soon realised that my ever wandering interest and level of motivation for any specific thing would tend to vary over time. For instance, once French was at an intermediate level I realised just how much I missed the initially stages of learning a new language like its basic grammar, pronunciation, and cultural background, etc, not to mention the initial gains and how quickly they come. Six months into learning French I got antsy and picked up Portuguese on Duolingo doing the bare minimum each day.

This year in 2016 I began focusing primarily on learning Portuguese to fluency and away from French, whilst also aiming to learn the basics of Swedish. Now that I’m learning several languages at the same time, each of which are at different stages, the fun really begins. So my plan for learning multiple languages simultaneously comprises three phases which I compare to bike riding.

Phase 1. ‘The First Pass’:

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Learning to ride. This phase is the initial exposure to a language you want to learn to fluency in the future. It’s also a good chance to wet your toes in a language and decide whether or not it’s something you can see yourself pursuing longterm. In this phase my aim is to get the language towards upper beginner level. I use simple apps like Duolingo or Memrise to get a shallow exposure to the basics of the language. They give me a familiarity with the language’s 2000 or so most common words, as well as exposure to its more basic grammar and pronunciation, etc. It occupies ~10% of my total language learning time.

Phase 2. ‘The Main Focus’:

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Climbing the mountain. This phase requires the most intensive effort with the aim of getting a language from upper beginner level to lower advanced level, i.e. basic fluency. Personally, whilst not learning a language in a full immersion environment, i.e. learning French in France, I aim to spend 6-12 months on a language in this phase until I feel it has reached basic fluency (obviously this depends a great deal on the language, and other life factors). In this phase I focus on learning grammar, acquiring vocabulary and speaking the language. I use use numerous resources such as grammar and exercise books, podcasts, SRS programs (e.g. Anki), as well as speaking as often as possible with native speakers on Skype or in person. It occupies 70-80% of my total language learning time.

Phase 3. ‘Maintenance+’:

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Downhill, but still bumpy. This phase is where I aim to maintain a language I have gotten to an advanced level. Ideally, I would put in enough to slowly and steadily increase my proficiency. I feel that once at this stage a language requires much less intensive time spent on it as I now learn mostly through constant exposure and use of the language whether reading, speaking, listening or writing. I no longer spend a lot of time on learning grammar rules and acquiring masses of new vocabulary compared to when in Phase 2. This phase occupies 10-20% of my total language learning time.

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The image above is a way of conceptualising how languages move through the three phases. One iteration includes the 6-12 months spent on a single language after it moves from Phase 1 to Phase 2. Once it is ready to move into Phase 3 and a new language added to Phase 1 the next iteration begins. Iteration 1 in the image above is where my languages currently sit with Swedish in Phase 1: the ‘First Pass’, Brazilian Portuguese in Phase 2: the “Main Focus”, and French in Phase 3 “Maintenance+”. Ultimately, the aim is to get all my languages to Phase 3 where I slowly improve their proficiency or at least maintain them.

So there you have it. This is my plan for learning multiple languages simultaneously so far. It’s a work in progress that I definitely hope to further improve upon. As I gain more experience using this method I’ll write more posts going into more detail about the specifics of what I do in each of the three phases.

All the best,

Pete

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Author: Pete Smissen

I'm a PhD student with an ever developing passion for learning foreign languages. I started this blog to flesh out and share my thoughts and ideas on how to go about learning foreign languages to fluency. I am more interested in concept based approaches that each individual can tailor to their own personal living situation, interests, attention span, etc.

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