I get it. I really do.

If you're learning one language, you've probably thought about learning another. (More realistically, multiple).

I'm personally shooting for ten.

Currently, I'm at four — Spanish, Japanese, Russian, and Mandarin.

One of the more important realizations I've had over the course of these four languages (and the shin-kicking that's more commonly referred to as Korean) is that the hurdles you've got to overcome with each stage are different.

street busker juggling balls in Old Québec
Photo by Yi Liu / Unsplash

In practical terms, I'm saying that juggling two new languages is much more taxing than juggling one new language plus one that you've already got a decent level in.

(Skip to the end of the article for a TL;DR on how I go about juggling languages.)

Consideration 1: Different proficiency levels entail different challenges

You might have looked at the US Foreign Service Institute's language difficulty page and seen that it takes (language-learning professionals who are being paid to study a language full-time) an average of ~600 in-class hours to achieve professional working fluency in Spanish or French...and then decided to divide and conquer.

While a reasonable idea at first glance — an hour a day each in Spanish and French means you'd have an alright level in both after a year or so, right? — things aren't quite so straightforward in practice.

The challenges associated with different proficiency levels are different: they spike in different places. In my experience, stacking them is much more difficult than mixing-and-matching them.

Here's an overview of the hurdles you'll deal with:

Beginner stage — everything is a chore

I'll be honest: the beginning stage mostly sucks.

  • Everything is confusing
  • Even the simplest of content feels like a brick wall
  • Words just don't stick in your memory, even after multiple reviews
  • Grammar is complicated and there seem to be more exceptions than rules
  • You can't really do anything but keep your nose to your flashcards or a textbook

As cool as French and all the the things you can do with it are, French is little more to you right now than homework. Rather than being a way to relax at the end of a long day, it's something that demands effort and discipline from you. It takes, rather than giving.

When you try tackling two beginner languages at once, you're likely doing one of two things:

  1. At best, you're (at least) doubling the amount of time you spend in this boring beginner stage
  2. At worst, this doubled burden on your willpower may push you from "comfortably progressing" to "burned out"

Just think about somebody juggling. You can't half juggle. It's not the case that you can comfortably juggle three balls but slightly-less-efficiently juggle four balls. You're either juggling three balls or dropping four balls.  

Getting through the beginner stage

I said that the beginner stage mostly sucks, not that it completely sucks. It does have its boons. You're learning to express new ideas almost every single day, and that's genuinely exciting. It's also pretty straightforward — so long as you keep adding pennies to the stack, you'll eventually come away with a dollar. All it really comes down to is consistency: pick a resource and work through it.

You'll have holes in your knowledge, but that's OK. Think about Swiss cheese. Each slice has holes, but when you stack several on top of each other, you end up with an impassible block of deliciousness. Language is similar. You won't learn everything from your first (or second) resource... but when you start consuming content, you're going to stumble into those holes. If a vocab word or grammar point really is so basic, you'll stumble into it multiple times. Eventually you'll fill it; be Swiss cheesed.

(Note: If you struggle with consistency, look into building a "mini" habit — it's the most reliable way I know to build good habits.)


Once you've got a routine going, pick a consistent time to check in with your language and try doing whatever it is you really want to do with it. Check out a Netflix series, book an Italki conversation, or open up a book. It'll be Greek for a long time but, at some point, you'll discover that you can sort of handle it.

At this point you've graduated from the beginner stage and can shift your priorities from studying to learning by doing.

Intermediate stage — learning is a byproduct of entertaining yourself

The intermediate stage is pretty cool. Just do stuff in your target language — literally anything — and, as a natural byproduct of enjoying yourself, you'll make progress. There is so much low-hanging fruit to be had in terms of vocabulary and phrases. Even when it doesn't seem like you're learning anything concrete, the sheer exposure you're getting to your target language will be serving to build your familiarity with it — to make everything a little more automatic. I dare say that you can't help but improve, so long as you're doing something.

Whatever you're doing, it'll get easier and easier until the scales eventually shift again: whatever it is you've been doing goes from being edutainment to purely entertainment.

Photo by Piret Ilver / Unsplash

And then you finally stumble into a French person in real life and try talking, or perhaps you decide to watch a movie based on a book you loved... and it doesn't go as well as you'd expected.

What you're discovering is that, while interrelated, the skills (reading, writing. listening, speaking) aren't identical. If your thing is reading, you'll be pretty good at reading after twenty or thirty books, but you won't feel nearly as comfortable watching movies or having conversations or writing emails. The skills you've built by reading (a big vocabulary and intuitive feel for how sentence structures work) will help you, so you won't be starting totally from zero, but you'll have to bite the bullet again (and again, and again) — to stumble through conversations and movies and emails until, eventually, you feel pretty comfortable doing all those things, too.

Getting through the intermediate stage

This is where the real choices start coming into play. Most people don't need anything near an advanced level of proficiency in their target language. Do you really need to be discussing Parisian fiscal policy or exploring the behavior of valence electrons? Do you even do those things in English?

This is where I expect to stop with most of my languages: I learn languages because I want to read. I don't enjoy watching movies or TV shows, so I don't really care if my Spanish listening comprehension never reaches that point. I can understand people when they talk to me, so that added proficiency wouldn't really add any value to my life. If I really want to watch some telenovela, I'll just read the subtitles.

But if you do want to make the push towards advanced proficiency, I have two pieces of advice for you:

  1. For now, trust that quantity will eventually become quality. Find stuff you want to read or watch, then enjoy yourself as your to-watch list hits fifty series. By doing these things, you'll be building the unique skills you need in order to do the things that are important to you.
  2. Eventually you'll reach a point where your desired skill has become pretty solid and you don't feel like you're growing anymore. At this point, you need something that will push you to be more precise. Somehow, you need to have your mistakes explicitly pointed out so that you can start fixing them. I personally got a lot of value from going through reading/listening comprehension books here, plus a grammar workbook. Your hard-earned familiarity with the language will now allow you to appreciate nuances that were previously over your head.


Advanced stage — learning becomes very targeted

Whereas the intermediate stage was about breadth, the advanced stage is about depth (and ludicrous amounts more breadth). You're now at a point where you can do anything, and the few mistakes you do make aren't significant enough to really cause problems... but they're there. Most of the stuff you're learning are things that other people will live perfectly fine without.

This is a big topic, and if you're interested in learning more in it, I recommend the book Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. It'll leave you with plenty to think about:

Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of "acceptable" performance and automaticity, the additional years of "practice" don't lead to improvement. (p13)

More simply put, progress at this stage (and the intermediate stage, to a lesser extent) requires that you move from naive practice toward deliberate practice.

Consideration 2: Learning languages gets easier as you go

When you're learning your first foreign language, you're actually learning a lot more than just that language:

  • You'll learn about how to learn — I especially benefitted from Kolb's experiential learning cycle and lateral vs vertical thinking
  • You'll learn a lot about memory — how do you deal with the forgetting curve?
  • You'll learn about your learning preferences — do you like structured study (like with flashcards and textbooks) or do you prefer a more flexible approach (learning what you need as you need it)?
  • You'll be learning about productivity — what time of the day are you most effective? Do you do better working in small chunks throughout the day or in one big dedicated block of time?
  • You'll be learing a lot of "theoretical" stuff about linguistics — how to use the international phonetic alphabet, all the different types of verbs, and stuff like that
  • You'll be finding out which (sort of) resources do and don't work for you

More simply put: you only have to learn the subjunctive once. After you understand how it works, you just have to learn how it's represented in each new language. You go from what the hell is this? to in X situation(s), use Y verb ending.

The exact formula is different for everyone — we all have different resources, preferences, and strengths. Rather than going through that trial-and-error process while struggling with two languages, I think you'll have a much easier time figuring it out with one language, then afterwards applying that successful strategy to subsequent languages.

Plus, your brain will literally adapt to become better at learning languages.

Consideration 3: Learning vs maintaining a language

It takes a lot of effort and knowledge to build a house. Once you've got one, however, you've mostly just got to pay your bills and keep things tidy.

Small house on an autumn’s day
Photo by Scott Webb / Unsplash

I'm sure that's overly simplistic, but it's pretty true to my experience. Right now I'm learning Korean — every day I do flashcards, I do a bit of my textbook, and once a week I meet with a teacher. All that takes effort. In contrast, I just finished reading Dune in Spanish. I have to force myself to do Korean, but sometimes I went to bed early because I couldn't wait to read Dune.

It's not a perfectly efficient system: passive ones (reading/listening) tend to stick around, but active abilities (speaking/writing) decay quickly with disuse. I mostly stopped using Japanese after I came to Taiwan, but recently I read Convenience Store Woman without any trouble. I feel much less confident speaking Japanese than I used to, but my past experience (I studied abroad twice) was that it only took a month or so in Japan before I mostly regained what I'd lost.

However nitty-gritty you want to get: maintaining a language takes much less effort than learning one.

Note that it still takes time, and that fact is painful. We only have so much time in a day. I genuinely enjoy several Japanese authors... but time I'm reading in Japanese is time I can't be reading in Spanish. Time I'm reading in Spanish is time that I can't read or write in English, and I hope to publish fiction someday. We haven't even talked about Russian, but language isn't my only hobby — I like playing piano, doing yoga, going on walks, and I follow a few streamers.

Ultimately, maintaining a language (or adding a new one) is an opportunity cost — the more langauges you add, the harder it gets to balance all of your bills.

How I would juggle languages, if I were you

In so many words: instead of being a beginner stumbling through two languages, first stumble through one language and then speed through another.

  1. Stage one: Focus on one language until you reach an intermediate level — one where you can stumble through some sort of content that you genuinely enjoy.
  2. Stage two: As much as possible, start consuming media in your intermediate-level target language instead of your native language, and then take the "intentional study time" from your intermediate-level language and give it to a new language. Now you're enjoying yourself in your second language while grinding out a third language — progressing in both, but progressing through different stages and overcoming different hurdles.
  3. Stage three: Now you've got two+ intermediate languages. Learn about habit triggers and build a trigger-action plan. Pick a specific time for your second language and another for your third. For example, I used to listen to Japanese podcasts while commuting to work and would read Spanish books before bed. Once again, transfer your 'intentional study time" from language three to language four.
  4. Stage four: From here on out it's the same old stuff. You're now confident in your ability to learn languages, but increasingly more languages are competing for increasingly less time. You must become increasingly more efficient, begin giving up other hobbies, or accept that X language is less important to you and you thus don't need to achieve a high level in it. Probably some combination of all three. There are many (many) things I would eventually like to read in Russian, but Mandarin and Korean are infinitely more relevant to my current needs and goals.

It's kind of like that metaphor about the rocks, pebbles, and sand. Your "actively-learning language" is a rock, and you can only fit so many of them into a jar... but if you're savvy, there's still quite a bit of space in the jar to work with.

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  1. How many words do you need to know to speak another language?
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