You Speak What?: Tips for Learning Multiple Languages (At Once)!

*To be updated with more pictures when I am not cramming for finals!

Sorry I have not posted anything recently; second year has truly begun. Exams are coming soon!

I am taking the basic linguistics classes for my majors as well as, here we go, 3 different language courses. Throughout the day, I find myself asking – What am I doing? Then, I get back to studying. Sigh.

Hooray, studying for 3 hours! (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

As a result of my schedule, this post will be dedicated to one of my favorite subjects: language education. I’ve attempted and been taught a handful of languages thus far and in this post, I will be sharing some tips and advice I have about the fun process of learning another worldview, specifically focusing on how one can learn multiple languages at once in a formal setting (e.g. classes).

It is tough (do not get me wrong), but I truly believe anyone can learn a language. No language in it of itself is more difficult to learn than another, but if we imagine it like a race to fluency, which is not a great simile because it is never a competition, effective language learning relies on knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses and just getting to the starting line. And, that is where we begin with tip …

#1 Choose Wisely!

Let’s look at the languages I am learning. Currently, I am taking German, Korean, and also hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ (an indigenous language). At the moment, I cannot go much more into hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ and I will explain shortly.

We know languages fall into different families (i.e. French, Spanish, and Portuguese are Italic/Romance), which means they come from the same proto-form. In this mindset, any spoken language today is not any older than another. Misunderstanding this concept is where some people can get the impression that languages like Navajo, Mapudungun, and the Khoi-San languages (the famous southwestern African click languages) are older (codeword: more ‘primitive’). They are not. Proto-Navajo, which would go back to Proto-Athabaskan, now that would be an old language like Proto-Germanic would be in relation to English and German.

So, why do we care about language families when we learn languages?

We care because related languages have similarities. Lexical, morphological, syntactic (word order) properties and items! The things people dread while learning languages! Related languages often have commonalities in these categories.

The languages I am taking classes in are from three different, completely unrelated language families. They have no genetic relation — anywhere. German is Germanic thus Indo-European (which includes Russian, Hindi/Urdu, Farsi, and Occitan). Korean is Koreanic and generally considered a language isolate, which means it has no other relatives. There is a small population that speaks Jeju-eo (저주어) on Jeju Island, which is another Koreanic language, but its status as a dialect of Korean vs. language is controversial. I will go into it another time.

*And last and certaintly not least, hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ is Salish, which is a language family of North America with its relatives spoken in the Pacific Northwest. However, I cannot go into detail about hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ because of the protocol agreement I signed. Language is powerful and something that has been taken and misused by anthropologists historically in Canada and many other parts of the world. This language is protected by the Musqueam people and is not shared freely without prior consent. Neither are the goings on in the class. All this information I have shared thus far is searchable online and I encourage everyone to go to the Musqueam Indian Band website for more information and First Voices to explore many of the other interesting indigenous languages of Canada.

Ultimately, this diversity in my studies means I cannot use any language to help fill in the blanks for the others. Learning multiple languages that are similar to each other is a double edged sword mind you (especially at once). It can be easy to confuse languages, and mixing up words and expressions with subtly different meanings is a downside to learning perhaps Italian and Spanish at the same time.

My suggestions are firstly, stick to one language, maybe two, learning three languages in a formal setting is difficult to manage especially languages that are not generally considered “easy” ones. Secondly if you are going to juggle a few, choose languages you have some knowledge of or at least with which you have some prior exposure (even if that is just through related languages). I am a heritage learner with Korean and am a native English speaker with vernacular Yiddish from his childhood, so Korean and German are good choices. Play to your strengths when you must.

#2 Start with Sounds and Orthography

Depending on which languages you learn and know prior, this task can vary in difficulty. All three of the languages I am learning have different orthographies (ways of writing). Each sound inventory is noticeably dissimilar as well.

This fact proves challenging, but again being a heritage learner and a future linguist who is literate in English, I can manage and simply need to improve my speed and fluency, not learn any entirely new scripts.

This may not be the case however if one is interested in learning Mandarin, Russian, and Arabic at the same time. Understanding what each orthography is before devoting yourself to a language is also important. Is it an actual alphabet? Or is it based in logograms? Syllabic? These are salient questions and not something to pridefully shirk or ignore beforehand. Even the double ‘ll’ in Spanish still trips some people up. Do not underestimate orthographies and how they affect pronunciation.

That being said, really focus on producing sounds properly – roll your ‘r’s in Spanish, draw the ‘ll’s out in Quechua, force out those ‘ㄸ’s in Korean. I remember speaking to my Mother about something with German, and she corrected me on my pronunciation. Firstly, I did not know my Mother was that perceptive in German. Secondly, she was correct in calling me out on my consonants. Your image and credibility as a speaker correlate to production, and one cannot advance into accents and dialects without mastering this first initial stage.

Simply, pronunciation is crucial. Without proper pronunciation and literacy (if you are learning a language with a literary corpus since oral languages still exist), your understanding and progress will simply be slower. There is no way around it.

#3 Time Management

As mentioned before, learning multiple languages that are similar at the same time can be in some ways more challenging than learning different languages. Unless one is a precociously avid language learner or has a specific interest in an area of the world, one will probably find him or herself learning a Indo-European language or multiple Indo-European languages. It is not that they are necessarily easier, but that world languages have more advanced and marketed language learning tools. Regardless, some sometimes tasks can still appear too challenging.

Chinese, Arabic, and Hindi also have their place in the global mainstream, but some are detered by their orthographies and sound productions with varying tones, pharingealized sounds and retroflexes respectively.

Language learning, even if it is with commonly perceived to be “easy” languages, require time and effort. My trick for learning three at once is simply setting time to practice each of them separately. For example, I would not study German then switch to Korean immediately after. However, I might do my FNEL (First Nations and Endangered Languages) homework in the morning and then German at night.

Make a schedule, stick to it, and take it slow.

Also, do not be disappointed if one language emerges faster as the most compatible. Everyone learns differently, and this revelation (when it comes) only means less time needs to be parsed to study a language. Do not neglect, but redirect.

Language learning is a commitment. Even polyglots have to work to some degree. The process is slow and the level in which one can dream in the language takes years to reach, but I like to think it gets easier and easier as time goes on as well. Recently while working with a friend in German, I was surprised I was able to recall words I did not think I remembered. Give it time (but also make time yourself).

#4 Do You Like Grammar?

This is an honest question.

Do you enjoy it?

For many of us, languages do not come naturally after exiting the critical period in childhood. And, second language learning is full of learning new syntax, conjugations, and declensions. We have to memorize irregulars and new concepts of time and place. It is tough, but it is better to enjoy it sooner rather than later.

My best advice here is honestly, try to forget what you learned in high school or middle school, maybe. I am not sure what y’alls’ schools were like, but I had to do so many grammar exercises about predicates and subjects I thought my mind was going to explode from grade 6 to 9. Who would think I would become a linguistics major?

Well, I did learn to like it.

However in reflection, the issue I had with these exercises was largely that I knew all this stuff already. I may not have gotten As, but as an English speaker (a native English speaker), I did not have to think through these processes. I knew what sounded right; I did not care if I had to correct example sentences for arbitrary reasons.

In second language learning, I think it is extremely important to distinguish these memories to prescriptivist exercises that might put off anyone when it comes to language in general and approach learning new grammars in a different light. You are older. You are wiser. You are aware. Do not look at grammar comparing it to rules you already know and exercises you disliked, but rather look at it as a game or code or even mathematically. It is a system, function, in some ways, art. Second language grammar does not feel arbitrary in the same sense as one’s native language’s grammar. It can be bleak because there is memorization, but it is always new.

If grammar is not for you (that’s rough, buddy, and have fun learning multiple languages), but do try to disassociate it with what you perceive it to be and look at it for what it is linguistically. Grammar is composition, the borders of puzzle pieces. It takes time to be familiar with each piece to make the picture whole, but they are all in the box and are not going anywhere.

Have fun with it – at least approach it at a different angle.

#5 Be a Fool

Attempt to use idioms.

Drop the honorifics and live on the wild side.
Try singing along to songs even if you do not know the lyrics.

Learning a language means making an ass of yourself sometimes. This call to foolishness does not mean being disrespectful to the language and its speakers through purposeful errors. It means one can learn all the theory, all the grammar, have perfect writing, but still have a terrible accent and little confidence in the oral aspect of languages because they did not make the mistakes when it was the time to make mistakes.

Languages started out oral (some still are). One has to be familiar and comfortable enough to try. If you are not, then frankly, I would ask you to reconsider why you are learning different languages.

Resumes? Ego? Party trick? I do not really know.

However, I do know that no one speaks any language perfectly. Give yourself some slack. Generally, people are happy someone is trying to speak their language even if one does mess up. This observation goes extra so with speakers of less spoken languages. And, always, always, always take the opportunity to practice and speak no matter the outcome.

One of my best memories with Quechua is speaking with a café worker around Machu Picchu about how expensive and horrible the tourist traps were and how she agreed! She could understand me in Quechua and Spanish (which the conversation eventually devolved into). I took a chance; it worked out.

Do not miss a moment like this. Always ask, sumaq p’unchay, riki?

As I am a linguistics major, be prepared for more language related posts. It is not a explicitly travel oriented topic per say … do not fret, I will work more interesting, adventurous themes into these types of posts ASAP. I have just been swamped with work y’all; I apologize.

More posts to come about imminent excursions, internships, and preliminary study abroad plans. I will repeat myself and say we are at least going to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco in February! Hooray! What else is to happening soon? Y’all got to stick around to find out … stay safe and travel often!