How to Learn Several Languages at Once
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This article is for the serious language learner who has the (un?)enviable task of knowing too many languages and finds it difficult to keep using them all. Most polyglots, at some point during their language career, will someday find themselves wondering how to maintain them all. Yes, we can just blag our way through life randomly learning languages, feeling confused as the ebb and flow of our language ability makes no sense, or we could build a house to put all of our furniture in to keep it nice and warm, out of the rain and away from the raging hordes of night rats.
I don’t like night rats. Well, thankfully Prof. Arguelles has built himself a house of over 50 languages and, after a lifetime’s dedication to polyglottery, he has revolutionised his own polymaintenance (after many less successful attempts along the way).
This article, like many on this site, owes its existence to the aforementioned professor’s revolutionary ideas on how to maintain several languages at once. This is my humble take on the subject and, while I don’t adhere 100% to his system, this article wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for his ideas.
The article introduces his method, why it’s a great one and how to implement it. I’ll also discuss how to add new languages strategically to the system in light of the ideas discussed, as well as strategies for tweaking the system to fit your own personal needs. I’ll also reintroduce a few tools to really flesh out your personal plan and take you through my creative process for choosing languages for 2021.
I hope you enjoy the article!
Polymaintenance refers to the pursuit of actively keeping alive four or more languages simultaneously. I have learned, with varying degrees of success, seven languages (I could count lots more, but my ability in the other languages is negligible). I’m counting languages which I have reached an intermediate level or above. These languages, from strongest to weakest, are as follows: English - Chinese - Spanish - Italian - French - Classical Chinese - Latin*.
Now, the way I was learning and maintaining these languages before was . . . wait, I had no method. This is why my overall linguistic prowess has dwindled embarrassingly. In fact, I never thought about it enough to develop a method or seek out others who did. Had I known about strategic approaches before, I imagine I’d be much closer to my goal of polyliteracy today (the ability to be able to read literature in several languages).
The extremely novel idea that Professor Arguelles developed was to:
1) Divide languages into linguistic subgroups;
2) Divide languages according to personal strengths/goals;
3) Assign a certain amount of time to study each language.
With my personal assortment of languages, the steps would look like this:
1) Divide languages into linguistic subgroups:
Group One: Latin, French, Spanish, Italian
Group Two: Chinese, Classical Chinese
2) Divide languages according to personal strengths/goals:
Chinese: Not important to actively maintain (my wife is Chinese and we communicate every day in Mandarin. I also use Mandarin every day in a professional capacity so don't need to actively study the language anymore)
Classical Chinese: Medium
3) Assign a certain amount of time to study each language.
Latin: Important = 3 weeks
French: Important = 3 weeks
Italian: Medium = 2 weeks
Spanish: Medium = 2 weeks
Chinese: Not important = 1 week
Classical Chinese: Mid = 2 weeks
The time frame he uses is, significantly, weeks and months in a cycle as opposed to minutes and hours. For example, one week he might be learning Swedish and the next Norwegian. This last point is crucial as the method requires that we “drop” several languages during a large part of the year before restarting them again further on**. The above cycle would look like this:
Now, we have a much more disciplined approach to the hitherto ultra scramble and are left with a cycle of languages- a perfect circle of personal languages.
So, why would we choose the cycle over the daily routine of ten minutes here and twenty minutes there? Read on to find out.
So why bother? There are 3 main reasons for using the cyclical approach. They can be understood as follows:
1) It lends itself to a more relaxed lifestyle;
2) Longer periods of exploration;
Yes, you didn’t read the last one wrong! The cycle is truly magical in its effects, but first, what of reason number one?
1) A more relaxed approach to language learning: By learning languages in a cycle made up of weeks and months rather than hours, we don’t find ourselves in a mad rush trying to fit in several languages within a day or two. If you saw Prof. Arguelle’s early video on Polymaintenance here, I’m sure you’d agree that it looks exhausting and not something you would want to keep up throughout a lifetime of learning. I certainly didn’t find it appealing (and the professor himself has criticised this early approach). Trying to fit in so many languages in such a short time leads to a flummoxed, scatterbrain approach that requires nothing less than a hyper-disciplined mindset on a daily basis. If you’ve read anything about social or organisational psychology, you may have come across the idea that willpower acts like a muscle in that it can experience fatigue. We have a finite resource pool of willpower, and draining it constantly trying to fit in so many languages, while being theoretically possible, would most probably leave little room for anything else:
Juggling several different languages is exhausting and makes extreme demands on our self-discipline
2) More intimate explorations in each language: Constantly jumping from one language to the next would not allow us to really get our teeth into a language. Prof. Arguelles was juggling at least 20 languages at that time, so his study sessions were very short: 15 minutes of Sanskrit, followed by 15 minutes of extensive reading in Persian before leaping towards 15 minutes of Arabic script. Last night I watched an amazing documentary about Buddhist philosophy for an hour and after that I returned to my book, which was discussing the antecedent political conditions that led to the English Civil War. I love English history, but last night I just couldn’t get into that drab, monochrome parliamentary mindset after intoxicating myself with the wonderful, polychrome world of ancient impermanence. Don’t get me wrong; another day and I would have been slurping down Presbyterian polemics like so much cool aid, but the adjustment from one mindset to another such radically different area of intellectual inquiry was too abrupt. Juggling languages is a bit like this. When I study Chinese, I want to be a Sinologist, but when I study Latin, I want to be poring over Medieval manuscripts written by some pious monk. Dedicating longer periods of time to one language gives us time to explore that language in much more depth. You may, and probably do, have very different interests from me, but the idea is simple:
Studying each language for longer periods is more enjoyable in terms of the particular worldview that is revealed in that language.
3) Magic: This is probably the most important of the reasons. I have grouped the languages into language families, or at least identifiable cultural spheres in terms of my East Asian cycle. The true picture of the languages that I’m learning is as follows:
Germanic: English, Old English (Yes, I still consider myself a learner of English, even though it's my native language)
Latin languages: Latin, Spanish, French, Old French, Italian
East Asian: Mandarin, Cantonese, Classical Chinese, Japanese, Classical Japanese***
Let’s do a magic trick:
1) Assign 1 week of study time to your languages:
2) Let’s give each of our languages an arbitrary language ability score (LAS) of 50:
This means that we’re equally competent in each of our languages. Now, let’s study our first language (Chinese) for 1 week and observe what happens to our LAS:
Whooaaa! Did you see what happened there? We would expect that our score in Chinese to increase (by 5 points in this case) as we have been studying that language directly for one week, but do you see what has happened to Classical Chinese and Japanese? Our score has gone up in those languages as well! Even without studying Japanese, I have still managed to improve by one point because of linguistic leverage.
Now, let’s study each of our languages for one week to see what happens:
I have managed to improve all languages considerably, even though I haven’t focused on them individually. This cashes in on the fact that languages in the same linguistic group have similarities, for example, the word sea in Latin and the Romance languages appears thus:
There are thousands of other examples as well and not just those limited to vocabulary***. Darting around all over the place learning languages in a piecemeal fashion may have a similar effect but, given what we know about the effect spaced repetition has on cognition, I suspect that it wouldn’t be nearly as efficient. Even if it is, I still believe grouping languages linguistically ties into the second reason to learn languages in blocks (exploration), as loose linguistic borders more often than not reveal relative cultural homogeneity. Whichever way you look at it, we can state the following as our third and final main reason for learning languages in a cycle:
By studying languages together, we can take huge advantage of linguistic leverage, which is the phenomenon by which we can progress indirectly in one language without actually studying it.
There are, naturally, a few considerations to be addressed with this method. The major one that Prof. Arguelles himself addresses is difference in strong/weak languages. He recognises that it takes him much longer to read a book in Swedish than in, say, French. To combat this, he advises assigning 1 month to strong languages and one week for weak languages within a cycle. This is completely arbitrary and depends on the needs of the learner. For example, I may wish to make a concerted effort to bring my Latin up to the level of my French. This might require 1 month of Latin versus 1 week of each of my Romance languages per cycle. However, no matter how you assign time per language, try and work in a language for at least one week so you can actually accomplish something in that language. We may have to go for long periods without studying our favourite language/s, but that’s a sacrifice we’ll have to make as active polyglots.
Another consideration is that of missed days. Imagine the following crisis of catastrophic proportions:
“I went on holiday for a week and missed three days of French! Now, I only have four days left!”
Yes, this is obviously a huge concern, but rest assured, the boffins down at CalTech are working around the clock to find a solution. But seriously, if such a horrid event such as a holiday were to ruin your language learning, the system is robust enough to survive being put on hold for a few days (heaven forbid).
The next part of the article will show you briefly how to implement the method/system, while also exploring the available options for adding new languages.
We briefly looked at how to structure languages in our cycle earlier on, but know let’s learn how to implement the system in its glorious entirety so you can make a personal plan.
Step One: Group your languages into linguistic groups.
Step Two: Decide how you want to study the languages. You could consider whether you want to group them into strong vs weak or important vs less important. Assign a time to each language of between one and three weeks.
Step Three: Make a decision about your next language.
Step Four: Start your cycle.
Let me embellish on Stage Three, which may hopefully give you some ideas about which language(s) to approach next. Earlier in the year, I was at odds about which language I should tackle next. The decision was between Japanese, German, and modern Greek. Each language has pros and cons for my particular situation. Here are a few of the considerations that went through my head in order to choose (never easy!):
Japanese: Japanese is much easier for me than for someone who hasn’t studied Chinese in depth, but is not related per se to Chinese grammatically as Spanish is to Italian. However, they are related in the important fact that they share a major script. This is hugely important as the script is one of the most formidable aspects of both Chinese and Japanese. In choosing Japanese, I won’t have to relearn a huge percentage of the characters from scratch. Here are a few examples:
You can see that knowing Chinese will prove to be a considerable advantage when studying Japanese (or vice versa). Even though the two languages don’t belong to the same linguistic group, they share an incredible amount of language because of historical reasons. Also, as Japanese and Korean do belong to the same linguistic group****, I plan to eventually use Japanese as a stepping stone for Korean and to benefit from a PanEast Asian route which would look like this:
German: Even despite my advantages in Japanese, German would be much easier for me than as my native language is English. By choosing German, I could also make other Germanic languages much more readily available, such as Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Old English and Old Norse. Obviously, this is a tantalising win-fall of languages that would open up an Aladdin’s cave of amazing possibilities and intellectual enquiry.
Greek: The least attractive of the aforementioned languages is Greek, but not because it isn’t a wonderful language. I love Latin and, much like Phidias’ statuary, feel naked without knowledge of its classical sibling and its historic variations. My concern is that it’s not an economical language in terms of leverage. Modern Greek is a bit of a linguistic outlier in that it isn’t related to anything, apart from its ancestral form. Greek is hard, and I’m not sure I want to dedicate 5-10 years on one language when I could, to paraphrase the words of a polyglot friend, “topple several European languages in the same amount of time”*****.
So, what have I chosen? How will my cycle look for 2021? Here it is laid bare for the world to see:
A quick explanation of the table:
Week: This is the cumulative number of weeks in my cycle. For the first two weeks, I study English, for the next two, I study Italian, etc.
Language: This is the main focus of my study. Whatever else I do, I’ll make sure I find at least half an hour a day during the period to study this language.
Time: How much time I’ve allocated for each language: 1w=1week.
Pimsleur: An absolutely amazing resource that I unashamedly recommend. Every day I help out with the housework and this would be insanely dull if it weren’t for Pimsleur’s spoken language courses. I’ve strategically incorporated Pimsleur into my cycle. You can sign up for a free trial, or seek them out locally at a library.
Clouds: I’ve talked about how I don’t like to scramble from one language to the next, but I must admit that’s not entirely true. There is one other tool I use to maintain my languages, and that’s my growing arsenal of CI Clouds. I’m in the process of preparing a catalogue of drills that are suitable for daily exercise (click on the jpeg for more A1 French drills):
I can immediately generate hundreds of sentences in less than five minutes with one CI Cloud and use them with several languages when I have a few minutes to spare. If I forget, don’t have time or can’t be bothered, no problem as the cycle will take care of itself.
Ancient Language: Sometimes during the evening I have an hour or so to myself so try and learn the parent language of the language I’m learning. I treat this as a hobby and don’t beat myself up if I miss a day (as I would with the main focus of my cycle).
Polymaintenance is an issue that most polyglots must deal with at some point or other. By dividing our languages into groups and studying them strategically, we can benefit from indirect learning.
By learning languages for longer periods, we can also enjoy and experience the world view of that language and its cultural sphere as we can explore it in depth. This is generally more enjoyable than dividing up a day into short time slots and frantically cramming in short study sessions. However, studying languages within a longer timeframe necessarily means that we must discontinue work on another language for what might be several months. The learner may be unwilling to disrupt his/her studies in a favourite language for so long, although the specified time slots for each language may be easily changed to remedy this. We can also supplement our cycle with some powerful tools, such as Pimsleur and CI Clouds. This will give us greater flexibility and open up several new possibilities of integrating languages within the system.
So what are you waiting for? If you’re having trouble learning several languages at once, why not give cyclical learning a go? If you do, please share your comments below. If you find value in these pages, please support us by sharing with this article with the polyglot community!
Challenge: Create a cycle. You may want to also think about Pimsleur and ancient languages, but this is optional.
* This order doesn’t reflect dedication; between Latin and Classical Chinese, I have spent thousands of hours and almost 4 times the amount of time that I have on French, yet I’m still much stronger in French than I am in those two languages.
**Old English, Old French, Japanese and Classical Japanese are “new” languages for me to attempt in 2021. However, with such a structured approach, I feel I’m ready to add this many at once.
***See the article here on Triangulation
****Sadly denied vehemently by many Japanese and Korean linguists, but more for political reasons than anything else.
*****That friend is Kyle, who has written a wonderful article for CI Polyglot which you can find here.