How to Learn Several Languages At The Same Time

It's the dream of many language learners...to study more than one language at the same time and start speaking in more languages within just a year, or maybe even in months. But is this realistic? And what about rules like "don't study languages from the same family"?

In this episode of the podcast, Lindsay and I looked deep into the topic and shared our own experience and best tips. Some of those rules out there didn't hold up!

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What Gets Easier When You Study More Languages?

People often ask me how many languages I speak. But recently, I was asked one question that made me think more deeply about why and how learning more languages works for me:

Does it get easier when you are learning more languages?

The short answer is "yes". It definitely does.

Here are the things that are helpful, relevant, and different when you are learning your 7th language.

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The 5 Golden Rules of Adult Language Learning

golden rules

Ever heard that you should be language learning like a child?

"Kids are like a language sponge" is a belief continued in the media. The mantra goes like this: Little kids are like a language sponge, they pick up any word and phrase you throw at them and will learn a language very easily.

And the myth goes on to claim that adults have missed the boat. They are starting way too late to ever reach any respectable level of expertise in a foreign language, and they'll definitely never sound like a native speaker.

Why? Because science.

This myth is about as widespread as it is infuriating. For examples, see the headlines on this article about babies and sound, or this inevitable product selling you on an invented cut-off age of seven years.

Adult Learners Can Learn A Foreign Language Quickly And Easily

In this article, I won't dwell on the volumes of research that have been done on human brains, language acquisition, speech therapy, ageing, and so forth. In a very tiny nutshell: Learning anything is harder when you're an adult, and the best evidence for any critical period is in the area of accent development (27 page ref to knock yourself out with at this URL).

There's a great selection of research on the topic, and for a primer check out the sources listed in Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language. The book is an awesome collection of helpful information, and was a fabulous resource for me as I was writing this article.

For today, I'd ask you to forget about anything you've ever heard about the childlike brain. Open your mind, and let's explore some realistic ways of making language learning work for you - at any age.

1. Analyse and Repeat Patterns

Adults can learn languages in a deliberate way. The structure of practicing new sentences is one of these keys - analyse, understand, apply, repeat.

There is no need to cram your way through grammar books as you learn a new language. It's totally possible to speak when you haven't even touched on any grammar yet. I did it in Icelandic last week, and I have helped my own German students to do this from the start.

But the key to using grammar to your advantage is in using it to answer your questions. Next time you hear someone say a sentence in your target language, repeat it and try saying something different with the same structure. If you're talking to a native, get them to give you more examples with that structure. If you're learning by yourself, consult a grammar book or text book.

What you are doing now is learning a pattern or chunk of language (like a child), and at the same time satisfying your curiosity by discovering the rule behind it (like an adult).

2. Set Goals and Track Your Progress

Goals! Projects! Missions! Whatever you call them, they are the lifeblood of sticking with where you are at as a language learner. Since you are a busy person, being accountable for your own time is one of the best ways of feeling both accomplished and efficient.

Tracking your progress is not only a good way of structuring how you learn. It will also help you combat the dangers of motivation loss. The longer you stick with what you've already studied, the easier it will be to keep going. In other words: It's easier to break a 2-day streak than to break a 2-month streak.

Tracking can work in many different ways. It can be as simple as keeping up with habit streaks on apps (Duolingo, Memrise, or just type "habit" into any App Store). Or it can be a flexible and thorough system like the Language Habit Toolkit..

The Language Habit Toolkit is a set of resources designed to help adult learners set meaningful goals, get motivated and stay a lot more organized than most other learners will ever be. Learn more here.

3. Move On From Setbacks

I like to tell my learners that even the brightest student won't remember a new word immediately, and instead needs to encounter it up to 15 times before it truly sticks. Anyone who has experienced that cold sweaty feeling of forgetting words mid-conversation Knows what a language setback feels like.

But there is no reason to give up at that point. Remember progress tracking? The small wall you are hitting today is a result of the long way that you have come so far. You would never have dreamed of that wall back at the beginning.

Moving on from setbacks is largely a challenge to your mindset. Remember that language learning is not a straightforward line. In fact, it doesn't even have an end point. You just go along the path every single day and become a little better with each step.

For a bit of positive thinking "in a bottle", my pre-made set of affirmations will be a great resource to check out. Remember that growth mindset - at any age, you're just getting started.

4. Know And Respond To Your Learning Style

It's impossible to predict your success based on superficial facts: Your age or your native language are practically useless in helping you figure out how to learn German vocabulary faster. Neither will your star sign, for that matter.

However, the more you understand your own preferences and habits, the easier it becomes for you to learn a language successfully.

Being aware of your social learning style can go a long way to helping you create a language learning routine that you'll enjoy for a long time. For example, the difference between extroverts and introverts shows in how they practice, read and speak languages.

Knowing the time of day when you're at your best, or recognising signs that you are tired and need to rest, are other important factors.

And don't forget the ongoing debate about learning styles. Even if the classic "visual-auditory-kinetic" styles are no longer supported in research, it's worth finding out how you best process new information. As Edutopia puts it:

It is critical to not classify students as being specific types of learners nor as having an innate or fixed type of intelligence.

Find a style that you enjoy, that doesn't zap your energy, and that helps you set habits. And if that means speaking comes on day 100, so be it.

On that note..

5. Build Great Habits

If you want to get a better handle about how to build winning habits, start with how you make habits stick in other areas of your life. For example, some people stay fit by scheduling regular workout times, while others need accountability and love tracking their runs online. I recommend you start digging into this with help from Episode 32 of the Creative Language Learning Podcast, in which we discussed habits, styles and tendencies based on the work of writer Gretchen Rubin.

Conclusion

So this article actually started out over three years ago, when I was first blogging about the many myths in language learning. I've always been bothered by this kid-language-sponge idea because it does nothing to help adult learners progress.

If you have the opportunity to expose your kids to other languages, go for it. They will do awesome.

But more importantly, do not ever believe that you are over the hill.

Here's how I finished my article in 2013.

Start thinking about this one from the other point of view: If little kids can do it, then anyone can.

I still believe the exact same thing.

What are your biggest problems as an adult language learner?

Leave me a comment below or get in touch - I'd love to hear more about what you think of the research behind this and the study methods I listed.

If you're feeling all fired up to get started and make progress with a new language right now, download the FREE Guide to the Best Resources in Language Learning by registering below:

What a 60 Minute Yoga Class Taught Me About Language Learning

Did you know that I used to try to be absolutely perfect in English? That even today it bothers me a tiny bit when people tell me they can hear my German accent?

I remember that I used to be the best in my class in English. Then I changed schools and better people came along. I was the best IELTS taker my university had ever seen at IELTS 9.0. Then I went out to the pub and understood no one. One thing I learnt in that progress is that trying to be flawless is like guaranteeing yourself a failure. Turns out perfectionism doesn't work if you want to learn a language. We don't have to be the best to be good.

In the haze of ambitious new year's goals, let's have a look at how to achieve everything you want without pressure and perfectionism.

Perfectionism By Another Name

You are probably already aware that "perfectionism is bad". There are many who warn about its dangers. It makes logical sense to start before you're ready and keep practicing until you achieve fluency, but in reality I've seen many learners who never seem to be ready. A former German student of mine had this habit of pausing in the middle of the sentence because he forgot a word. He'd switch to English very quickly, exclaiming that he's tired and today just isn't the right day. He asked for grammar exercises instead, trying to rule out any language learning flaws before he even started.

The "I have to be perfect" feeling is sneaky. It doesn't hide in a labelled box inside your mind and heart. Perfectionism works hard to keep its hold on you. Funnily enough, the feeling loves it most when you are trying to speak in your target language. This is when perfectionism has a good day. Here are statements to look out for. Ever had a thought like this?

  • "I need to be ready before I can speak"

(and what exactly is ready?)

  • "I just want to make sure I get this right"

(what if there is no right?)

  • "Is this how a native speaker would say it?"

(native speakers aren't perfect)

  • "Am I making enough progress?"

(if you are learning, the answer is yes)

  • "Am I good enough?!"

(yes)

Perfectionism is Bad Because..

It paralyzes you, because your high ambition will stop you from trying before you are "ready". It's never worse than when the task is to speak. The fear of what others may think of you, the instant vulnerability of being on the spot, and the stress of thinking so fast are good nutrition for perfectionism. This is why you may prefer to keep quiet or spend another few days preparing. And before you know it, a year of study has passed and you've spoken to nobody.

It frustrates you and kills your will to try again. Last week, I was chatting to a girl at a friend's party and mentioned that I'm a Welsh learner. She exclaimed "wyt ti'n dysgu cymraeg?!" and revealed that Welsh is her native language. Oh my! I had to speak! After a few sentences of conversation she complimented me on my skills (which is ridiculous since half the conversation was "how do I say .... in Welsh?"). Then came the fatal moment. I said something, and she replied "that's not how we would say it in Wales", then explained to me how the locals shorten words in slang. And of course I felt embarrassed! Of course I was gutted to have been so uncool and use stilted uncomfortable Welsh.

The frustration of that moment must not stop me from learning more and trying again. I'll have to keep speaking in textbook Welsh for now. I have to stay on my own path, and the same goes for you if you're learning another language. Never let yourself feel frustrated enough to stop, just because you made a mistake once before.

Remember that being bad at your target language is good, because you'll get better. But when you stop, that's the single way you will fail at learning a language.

The Yoga Analogy

In yoga, there is a philosophy that freedom in the practice means freeing yourself from the desire to achieve perfect poses at all times. It's about letting go of your ego and of having to be right all the time. You work with recognizing your own body and its capabilities. You accept good days and bad days, and you thank yourself for doing what you can. Your prize is not a perfect yoga pose, but a better relationship with your body.

In language learning, that wonderful freedom is waiting for you too. I have received feedback about my failings time and time again, and have had to remind myself that language is a living and evolving tool, never used in the perfect way. Now at age 32, I guess my way through Welsh conversations and feel excited when mistakes are corrected. I work on my mindset much more than my "conversation prep", and trust that everything others correct will be the best and most useful vocabulary I could possibly acquire.

Something magical happens when we put aside those high standards and just surrender. Surrender to mistakes as and when they happen. Surrender to looking like a non-expert. Surrender to trusting the process and letting yourself learn.

With allowing your mind to simply engage and progress at its own speed, you get to discover how capable you really are. The question of being "good enough?" becomes irrelevant as you discover that you are truly the best that you can be. And verb endings, imperfect accents, all those things that trip you up in speaking your target language become things that you learn as you go along.

Mistakes are visitors you bump into on your journey. They are added training bonuses that show you where to focus. They're what keeps you in the game when you risk complacency. I wish we would reframe the way we think about mistakes in language learning and accept that they are boosters, power-ups, encouragers - whatever you want to call them, mistakes are that perfection you're looking for.

3 Practical Tips for Being Perfectly Non-Perfectionist

1) Start Before You're Ready, But Start Easy

So you've studied Polish for 3 weeks and not talked yet? Come on now. Just get yourself to the Polish shop, to a community class, or to italki, or on HelloTalk and quit having excuses.

Language learning is not about being the best or the most impressive person out there. Your interest in another language is enough validation, so go with the journey and take it super-easy at the start. It is NOT embarrassing to aim for saying one sentence correctly before you say another. Remember that yoga pose: You want to ease into it, not muscle into it.

2) Prep 5 Stock Phrases

Stock sentences are useful phrases that you can always say to buy yourself a little time, to enter or exit a conversation. They're useful things like "What does _ mean" and "How do I say _", along with asking the other person to slow down and be patient. Stock phrases also contain polite formulas like please and thank you, and maybe "Do you want a drink?". When I say prep, what I mean is you should have these stock phrases down so well that you could recite them at 3 in the morning if I shake you out of your sleep.

These stock sentences are your safety blanket, the lines you know you've got right no matter what. The reason I recommend you learn no more than 5 is that studying stock phrases isn't the point of learning a language.

You need enough to help you manage, but not so much that it stops your creativity. Remember - this is all about embracing restrictions so that you

3) Keep A Log

Instead of remembering the times that you made a mistake and "looked like an idiot", make sure you make a note of every correction that you get. Focus on what you're learning and how the other person is helping you improve. Even if you post a pronunciation video on YouTube and get "Your Russian Sucks!", so what! Ask the commenter what exactly you did wrong and upload another one. Remember that Yoga pose, where you are building your strength and easing into it.

Love Yoga? Love Languages?

If you enjoyed this blog article, check out my regular newsletter and please leave me a comment letting me know what your own perspective on mistakes and perfection in language learning is.

Losing Motivation is Not Failing: 4 Smart Tips for Positive Language Learning

I recently found myself so tired of languages that my mind refused to even learn how to say "thank you" in another language. Has that ever happened to you?

Are you normal?

Have you failed as a polyglot?

In today's article, let's dive into this phenomenon called "language learning burnout". I've gone through several types of "burnout" in my life, and never ended up as a desolate burnt-out shell. Since "burnout" is a rubbish word, I'll be calling it "fatigue" in this article.

How Alarming is Language Learning Fatigue?

It can hit you any time. You go blank. You're tired. You check out and disengage, not caring how to say anything in your target language.

For me this happened in week 3 of the honeymoon. We were at breakfast in our B&B and learnt that the other guests were Spanish. I tried to speak Spanish to them and nothing happened. My brain couldn't think of a single word. Spanish is a language in which I am usually quite comfortable. I'm not good or "fluent" but usually I have a good enough time keeping up a basic conversation. On this occasion, things were different. My mind went blank, I quickly apologised and chose to speak English.

A few hours later my husband asked a shop assistant how to say "Thank You" in Flemish and I could feel myself tensing up. I actually didn't even want to know. My language energy was spent and I could not have spoken a word in a new language if I tried.

Does Anyone Talk About This?

Language learning fatigue is much-discussed on the internet, but rarely examined in depth. For example, look at this article on the Huffington Post in which the author advises "Just take a break and try again." Yes, thanks, and the sky is blue.

For more in-depth and comprehensive perspectives, I'd recommend Actual Fluency Episode 47 as well as most of what J at the Compassionate Language Learner shares.

In some cases, the advice can lack compassion to a point that is intimidating. My eyes widened when I read Steve Kaufmann's description on his own video about burnout. It says:

Do you experience burnout when learning a language? Do you feel you don't want to go on? I don't.

Good on Steve that he doesn't have a problem, but on first impressions I felt that his thoughts on why he is so lucky (or is this implying superior skill?) were lacking a deeper understanding. Was he saying he's better than you if you have a problem that he doesn't know? Saying "if I had more time, I'd definitely do more in Czech" is not a statement that answers questions relating to mental overload or the erosion of motivation.

But towards the end of the video, Steve got down to a deeper point that I did feel comfortable with. He says

If your goal is just to learn the language and nail down these declension tables or whatever, I can see why you'd get burned out.

There's something in there. A purely technical drive to learning languages is just not enough to keep you motivated. No fake framework of goal setting and time stamps is going to get you through that one. This is why it's so flippin' hard to start off in language learning. That whole point between "I'm excited, I'm starting" and "I am reading newspaper articles" has the highest potential for burnout.

In other words:

No one likes being in the middle of things.

How much of your "burnout" feeling hits you when you find yourself in the middle of something? When you cannot see the end and you can't remember the start?

No matter if we're talking marathons or dieting or language learning, the recognition here remains the same. And the "take a break" advice feels feeble when you're lost in the weeds and struggling to remember what was on the horizon in the first place.

So, what advice can I give here? The following thoughts don't come from experience any more than common sense. Hopefully they'll provide a bit of both.

What Can You Do When You Feel %&!* About Language Learning

Here are ways to deal with Language Burnout when it happens, and to re-light that language fire.

1) Prepare Interesting Materials

Avoiding burnout starts with you and your attitude. Consider your motivations carefully, set up a positive image of what you want to achieve. I don't mean that you should put some words on a picture and post it on Facebook. Instead, focus on what interesting

For me as a new Welsh learner, it's the simple things that keep me interested. Covering another episode of Say Something In Welsh is all right, but really I want to know what happens to Siân and Ed in the BBC Welsh learning soap. Soon I may be able to watch Pobl y Cwm and one day there'll be a Kerstin party at the Eisteddfod. Such milestones are not about how many words I know or whether I'm technically proficient yet, but they work well when it comes to my own motivation.

Similarly, I urge you to stay away from wondering "how long does it take to become fluent in another language" or aiming for "a 15 minute conversation". For guidance on whether you are doing goalsetting wrong and what a constructive goal looks like, refer to episode 21 of the podcast.

2) Trust Yourself

No one knows you better than you know yourself. I hope that this also means you know you are awesome and that you chose to learn another language for a reason.

We have a tendency to push on and blame ourselves for lacking productivity, missing the "miracle morning" if we sleep past 6am. But deep down, a need for self-care is important in language learning too. Don't allow guilty thoughts to eat up your energy by telling you that you aren't "performing". Go slower than others and enjoy the journey.

This piece of advice is difficult for me to turn into something truly practical, so instead I'll bring out my coaching personality and tell you this:

If you shut off that internet for today and study nothing but your pillow for the next 48 hours, that is fine. The world will allow you that space. I believe in you, and I know you'll re-emerge with more motivation and strength than before. And all your work will still be here and wonderful when you return to it. You're not missing out.

3) Get What You Came For

If you didn't think that point 2 was hippy enough, here is an even more compassionate concept:

Pay attention to your inner wisdom

If you were excited about studying Chinese three weeks ago, and then the excitement turned into boredom and excuses, and you just don't want to do it, then you don't have to do it. As Barbara Sher puts it in Refuse to Choose, maybe you already got what you came for. For example, I feel that my motivation to learn Russian was mostly grounded in curiosity about Cyrillic writing. Once I discovered how this works, the language itself fizzled out for me. But I still got what I came for: Now I can read Cyrillic. And if I start travelling to Russia again, I'll be studying more Russian.

When you find your attention shifting to other languages, remember that line between discipline and compassion for yourself, and trust that you will return to what excites you in due time.

4) Combat Your Inner Critic

Maybe you'd like to think that you don't get tired, but most of us know ourselves too well for that. You are not a robot or a battery-operated productivity machine. Quite the opposite: You probably have plenty of stuff on your mind before you even pick up that language book.

When critical inner voices are telling you that you're a lazy learner who won't ever reach higher language levels, there are two key actions you must take.

Firstly, check the facts. Focus on what you can do and what you have learnt so far. Is it really nothing? Are you really stupid or failing?

Secondly, check whether you are catastrophising. This means thinking that all is lost, that one day of lost study means you're incapable of anything, or that your break in the Duolingo streak means you'll never be as good as anyone else. Take pride in resting, find a positive angle on it and vow to return when you are ready.

These mindset adjustments feel small, but you'll soon find that they all make a huge difference to your confidence and...believe it or not...your fluency!

Your Number One Job Is Being Happy

I hope that this collection of tips and perspectives will support you in a moment of weakness or tiredness.

Remember that your number one job is not to perform. Your number one job is to keep yourself as happy as healthy as possible, and language learning should fuel this (not the other way round).

Click here to share this message with others on Twitter.

Have you dealt with self doubt and language learning burnout before? Share your stories in the comments below, or for added privacy feel free to contact me to share your thoughts.

How to enjoy Language Learning more by being lousy at it

If you are a long-term follower of the Fluent blog, you might already be familiar with my love of Pinterest. I spend the odd free minute over on that website, admiring pictures, getting inspiration and using it to learn about education and teaching..

The Growth Mindset

Today I came across a really great graphic illustrating the growth mindset (previously discussed in episode 9 of the podcast), which is such a helpful way for language learners and strivers of any kind to treat perfectionism and become ongoing learners. Adopting a growth mindset has been proven to contribute to both learning success and happiness in scientific studies. In fact, it is absolutely invaluable for adult learners because it does away with this nonsensical myth of talent.

Here's the amazing core message:

Learn to enjoy being lousy.

That is all. Mind blown? Let's move on to this graphic showing how you can do it.

Thank you,  Ryan Thomas

Thank you, Ryan Thomas

Online Perfection

When you admire people's well-prepared Youtube videos and considered posts that outline their study routines, it is all too easy to feel inferior. A fixed mindset keeps you trapped in those situations, it forces you to feel that the situation is unfair and you are lagging way behind. But the growth mindset would look at another person's success, then look at what you are accomplishing and say "I don't need approval, I want to gain more knowledge!". In fact, I cannot say this any better than Edudemic already has, so please head over and read the following article on the Growth Mindset. Inspiring, fantastic stuff.

Use Growth for Everything

If you are struggling with adopting this mindset for your language learning, think of other learning situations you have been in during your life. Driving, cooking, sewing, musical instruments. We all started out pretty terrible at those, and the more you do it, the better you get. Yes, that's all of us. German and Arabic and Tagalog are no different.

If you want to read more about using Pinterest in your language learning routine, you can read my step-by-step guide on this blog.

New Podcast! Episode 9 Benny Lewis from Fluent in 3 Months and The Growth Mindset

Welcome to episode 9, where I'm featuring an AMAZING article of the week and an interview with Benny Lewis from Fluent in 3 Months.

In this interview you'll be finding out about

  • The single one problem that's stopping everyone from language learning
  • Why the "Learn my language, I won't learn yours" is NOT just an English world view
  • Confidence vs Discipline: Which one is more important?
  • What you should focus on when you start learning a new language
  • How important it is to personalize your learning experience
  • How to be a creative language learner with very limited vocabulary
  • Where Benny is going to live next!
  • Top tips for travelling the world on a budget
  • How to create a virtual immersion environment without travelling even a single mile

"The fun part is at the end of a lesson when I realise I've made some progress."

benny lewis interviewed

You can hear that Benny and I had some debate on the following issues - what do you think of this:

  1. Textbooks and Group Classes - Are they useless?

  2. If it really is all that important to take the personal approach, why is the mass approach of Duolingo so popular?

Article of the Week

Why The Growth Mindset is the Only Way to Learn on Edudemic

Very Highly Recommended!

Tips of the Week

Out of the following fabulous three tips, Benny chose number 1 as his Tip of the Week! He stated that he loves working with Mini-Missions and assessing his progress continuously as he goes a long.

1) System of Milestones and Post-mortems  

2) Tutor a fellow learner

3) HiNative

Tips and Links from this Podcast

Tune In Radio

Wikipedia, accessible in hundreds of languages

Meetup.com, where you can find local language friends

Couchsurfing.com, for affordable travel

Motivation: Why "This Language is Hard!" Is No Reason

Ahh, procrastination. It's a beautiful thing to be doing. On my lazy Sunday morning journey through the wilderness of Pinterest, I discovered a powerful thought and wanted to share it with you language learners. The quote is from John Green, author of The Fault In Our Stars and various other novels.

learning-hard is not fun.jpg

To me, the most important part that Mr Green points out in this quote is

Hard is often seen as the opposite of fun.

All the successful language learners I know have done one major thing at a point in their journey, and that's been to change their attitude and let in fun and curiosity. Sometimes you do go about a project thinking it's going to be easy, and language learning is no different from anything else. But when reality hits and you encounter something that is difficult, hard, complicated or a hassle, it's the real test of a great learner.

Remember my great student I told you about a few weeks ago, who said "For some reason I've got it in my head that there is nothing I can't learn"? If you want to become fluent in another language, then that's an attitude you can adopt for yourself, because it really is true. There is definitely nothing in this language that you can't learn. Like a videogame, you'll get better at it the more you do it - whether you want to or not.

You also would never expect yourself to finish every Angry Birds level the first time. In a videogame, you will expect to work harder as you move into the higher levels. The harder it gets, the better you are. Ever considered how this applies to your learning process?

Motivation In A Nutshell

The main messages that I take from this beautiful quote are these:

  • You've already got all you need for language learning. You've got time, you need commitment.
  • Failing and trying again is what we do all the time, and if there's no shame in it with Angry Birds then there's no shame in it with irregular verbs either.
  • Hard can be really fun. The two are not opposites.

For me, it's Threes by the way. It's bloody hard, yet I still play it and keep trying.

Thanks for reading this article on Fluent - The Language Learning Blog. Don't forget - if you sign up to our newsletter, you will receive a free Guide to the Best Language Learning Resources!