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Learning Two Languages At Once: Italian, Spanish, Both?

Does learning two languages at once have a positive or negative effect on your language learning? Do you want to learn Italian, Spanish, or perhaps both? That is a question I have asked myself several times throughout my language learning career. Before I drop my wisdom-bomb on you, let me clarify a few things that are going to be important as we go forward.

People are essentially always learning language. As I’ve stated many times, language learning is a journey and not a destination. If you speak more than one language, you are learning two languages at once all the time; your native language and your second language. We continue to learn our native language until the day we die. If you speak Italian, you will still be learning new words and phrases in Italian. Spanish speakers, you will continue to learn Spanish. You never completely master your language.

Now that I’ve climbed down off my soapbox, the question remains as to whether or not it is more efficient, or faster, if we go about learning two languages at once or if we just pick one language and focus all of our efforts on that language. Surprisingly there are conflicting viewpoints on this issue. Due to my oh-so-fair nature, I will be presenting both sides of the coin below:

learning two languages at once

Photo Credit: Hamed.

Side #1: Learning Two Languages At Once Is A Horrible Idea

If you’re one of those who thinks “Italian. Spanish.” and not “Italian and Spanish” then this is your time to be validated. Learning two languages at the same time can be confusing; especially similar languages like Italian and Spanish (now do you see why I keep mentioning them?).

In Spanish, you say: Buen dia! [good day]

In Italian, you say: Buongiorno! [good day]

    As you can imagine, the buon and buen may get confusing. When trying to learn two languages in this situation one might find themselves saying buengiorno or buon dia! This is what I like to call language interference. It’s actually called code switching. Either way, It’s annoying. It happens to me in Spanish and English, however mostly when I’m speaking English and a Spanish word pops out. It’s pretty easy to control once you have a good command of the languages, but getting over the interference hump in the learning phase may be difficult.

    Even after tackling the Tyrannosaurus Rex  of language learning that is interference, one still has the problem of splitting their attention between two languages. Language learning requires consistent and persistent effort. This is hard to do when you’re just learning one language. It’s even harder when you’re learning two languages at once. Staying motivated is difficult enough with the slower progress you see at the beginning stages with one language. When learning two, it’s going to either require double the effort or you will learn at half the speed. That means instead of putting in hundreds of hours to have a decent conversation in a relatively easy language, you will be putting in hundreds of hours to say creo que necesito estudiar mas [I think I need to study more]. This may be a problem for some learners.

    Side #2: Learning Two Languages At Once Is Super-Awesome-Fantastico

    Now, if you’re learning to say merhaba in Turkish and hola at the same time in Spanish, you may not have to slay the interference dragon. Two different-enough languages like Turkish and Spanish will also help to keep things interesting. The vocabulary, grammar, and everything else will be different enough to not get overly confused between the two. That dreamy difference may be just what the doctor ordered to keep the spice in your language life. Sometimes, language learning can be boring. I know, it’s hard to admit. But I said it.

    Being able to switch from I’m-bored-of-language-#1 to slightly-less-bored-in-language-#2 may be what you need to push through when it’s fourth and goal and it feels like you are forever-away from the end zone (which ironically doesn’t exist… unless your end zone is ‘good enough.’)

    The two sides of this proverbial coin are different; each with their own pros and cons. Whichever side appeals most to you will probably be the answer to the inner nagging question about learning two languages at once. Hopefully, this quick synopsis has given you a starting point to continue your language search and keep walkin’ the straight and narrow down that path towards the language learners Valhalla: fluency!

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    About Jeffrey Nelson

    Jeffrey Nelson is a husband, father, author and bilingual living and working in the Midwestern United States. He lives with his Mexican wife and their son, Liam, who is currently being raised bilingual in English and Spanish.

    7 comments… add one

    1. Judith

      Hi Jeffrey,

      Interesting topic :-)
      You’re absolutely right, I think each method has its pros and cons BUT I prefer learning 2 (or even more!) languages at once. I studied English, German and Italian at the same time when I was a bit younger and I loved it! I never got bored with the learning process: as you said, I would switch to Italian or English when I didn’t want to study German grammar any more… I remember writing vocabulary lists in the 4 languages (in English, German, Italian + French, my mother tongue, one colum per language) and learning every word in the 3 “new” languages at once. As some words shared the same etymological roots, that helped me a lot to remember them.

      When it comes to young children, I think learning a second language and the monther tongue at once is a good thing. Children don’t necessarily have to master their mother tongue before being introduced to a new language.

    2. Paul

      I`m currently learning French and Arabic, and I don`t find that there`s any confusion or wire-crossing. I try to keep a separate “French mode” and “Arabic mode” that I can consciously shift into (ie. I`ll imagine I`m at a sidewalk cafe in Paris to shift into French mode; and imagine I`m in the Old City of Jerusalem to shift into Arabic mode). So far there has been very little confusion between the two. The one downside is, I would say, that you are dividing your time between two different languages so you progress more slowly. But in my case, I can only take so much of the same thing anyway so if I wasn`t studying another language I`d be playing video games or something else.

      1. Jeffrey Nelson

        Paul,

        That is actually a really good way to learn. They say imagination and language learning are tied together. This is one thing that helps kids learn languages so well – they do a lot of imaginative play and creatively use their language as they are developing it. Imagining you are in a coffee shop or in any other place where they speak the language is a fantastic way to learn! I hear you on the video game thing too… I have to occupy my time with something! It may as well be productive… :)

        Jeff

    3. Michael

      I find that German and Russian keep interfering – that was something I did not expect. But I think you can learn to live with harmless interference – nobody is going to get cross with you if you say the wrong form of hello – especially on a multi-country tour.

      Not only is it a good idea, but you see more connections between more languages if you do this.

      1. Jeffrey Nelson

        True true. I agree with you, it’s more annoying than life-threatening. That is weird – I wouldn’t have expected Russian/German to interfere that much! However, sometimes in Chinese restaurants I randomly answer the servers in Spanish. Languages can be odd… ? Thanks for the comment – very insightful!

        Jeff

    4. Sam

      I’ve found that interference was a problem when trying to learn Spanish and Latin at the same time. You get “sumus” and “somos” for “we are”, “sunt” and “son” for “they are” etc. I started learning Latin because I thought the case system was cool, but I think maybe I need to find a case-heavy language less closely related to Spanish!

      1. Jeffrey Nelson

        Interesting correlations between Spanish and Latin. Spanish obviously has a Latin base so I guess it makes sense… but not something I would generally lump together. Great points! :) Try something like Russian or Estonian!

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