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Learning Two Languages at Once: How it’s Done


What factors should you consider when you're thinking of learning two languages at once?

The Dual Language approach

A new international school in Singapore is taking a novel approach to childhood language learning.

The Sunday Times reports that Dulwich College, which opened its doors to students for the first time this past August, holds lessons in English and Mandarin simultaneously. For children ages two to seven, each lesson is run by two teachers: one teaching in English and the other in Mandarin.

The aim of this dual language approach is to allow students to move seamlessly between the two languages.

Early exposure to multiple languages is not unheard of. A child raised in Beirut, Lebanon, for example, is likely to grow up communicating in Arabic, English and French. What is particularly novel about Dulwich College’s approach, however, may be the simultaneous instruction in a single classroom.

At the university level, learning two or more languages is also a common practice. Many Comparative Literature courses of study emphasize the dual approach, optimizing the ability to engage with different cultural texts, untranslated and as originally written, for exciting academic development.

The Staggering Approach

Many people prefer to stagger learning multiple languages. Luca Lampariello, who runs The Polyglot Dream and was also featured on the Polyglot Club website, illustrates this principle through a hypothetical example of two students who set out to learn ten languages in ten years.

Student A tackled two languages at a time and attained fluency in five, with varying levels in each of the others. Student B tried to learn all of them at once, which proved impractical, and did not get beyond the basic level in any of them.

Lampariello advises first and foremost against haste and recommends a 70/30% division of time between languages.

Some university programs likewise require students to choose a primary and secondary language. New York University’s Romance Languages and Princeton University’s Comparative Literature are among these programs.

Is there an Ideal Combination of Languages?

Lampariello also advises against learning very two similar languages at the same time, such as Spanish and Portuguese. He insists on the importance of building a language core – an emotional, intellectual connection with a language – and learning similar vocabularies at the same time could interfere with this process.

While many other bloggers also recommend learning two very different languages simultaneously (i.e. English and Mandarin or Spanish and German), the existing number of university programs in Romance Languages suggests that learning similar languages simultaneously is not at all impossible.

A recent graduate of the Harvard Romance Studies program reflected that even though learning Italian and Portuguese together was initially confusing, he was ultimately able to better measure his progress in each language. Once his "language cores" had developed, he was able to make distinctions intuitively.

The Benefits of Learning Simultaneously

Simultaneous learning can help not only to measure progress, but can also reinforce learning through comparison, contrast and carrying over of new concepts, ideas and vocabularies. Even though learning two languages simultaneously can be a very exciting, the best approach is ultimately decided by each individual's preferences.

Consistency and dedication are what matter most. If you don't learn time management, dedication and motivation early in your language learning journey, you will not get the daily exposure that is so essential. Whichever languages and whichever approach seem most appealing to you may be the best.

Think you're about ready and brave enough to take on the dual approach and learn two languages? Embracing this method to mastering foreign languages might seem daunting, but it offers unparalleled potential for intellectual growth and extreme satisfaction. Contact us today to start your journey towards fluency!