Learning several languages at once

My daughter is 14, and wants to learn to speak lots of languages. She does French and Chinese at school, and wants to learn sign language outside of school. She also wants me to start talking to her in Dutch (my native language) so that she learns that too. She then wants to learn Russian, Japanese and German.

Im afraid she will confuse herself by trying to learn too many languages at once. Is it better to just study one or two languages at a time, or will she be able to sort out learning 4 languages at the same time, and can she go for 5?

That varies so much by the individual that it is not possible to give a single answer.

Your worry about “confusion,” however, is unfounded. Even if she is confused in the initial stages of language learning, the confusion will resolve as she advances in her studies. She won’t be speaking Russian ten years down the road and suddenly assume Russian nouns take German case endings.

Some confusion between non-native languages is inevitable, especially if she’s tired or stressed, but she’ll be fine. Let her pursue as many as she wants. Her progress will be slower in the individual languages, but without knowing her I can’t say if her overall progress will be slower, faster, or the same.

The confusion part kind of relates to concerns of raising a child multilingual, that they will be linguistically delayed. If there is any delay it is minimal, and the benefits are much greater. The only concern I would have is the effect on her grades if she has trouble juggling these.

Anecdote: I took French and Japanese at the same time (Intermediate-advanced and beginning, respectively. There were times when I got out of one class and was “thinking”* in the wrong language, but I could easily switch modes in a few minutes. Maybe it would be harder with French and Spanish, but not too difficult.
*I was hardly fluent enough to truly think in these languages.

I had a semester in college where I was taking Ancient Greek, Latin, and Modern Greek all at the same time. It was crazy - sometimes I didn’t even feel like I could speak English, much less the others. I did, however, pass all three of them. It was difficult, but not impossible.

That said, I wouldn’t advocate taking on more than a couple at once, unless there was some reason she has to. She’ll progress farther faster if she concentrates on just a couple at a time, and it’ll be less maddening all around.

Yeah, if you’re studying two or more languages at the same time, IMHO it’s better to study ones that differ widely. Studying French and Japanese at the same time leads to less confusion than studying French and Spanish.

(Disclaimer: I have never studied Spanish.)

IMHO it’s a retarded idea. Learning one language well takes years – if not a lifetime. Maybe Latin and Attic Greek work, or Italian and Spanish.

Passing a class != learning a language. People spend their entire lives learning one language well, and maybe learning another pretty well.

Different standards. Having a good accent and good Berlitz/US Diplomat training != knowing a language. IMHO it’s a fool’s errand learning a bunch of languages to order breakfast – lots of language students (in Comp. Lit. at least) think it earns them some cred, but they can’t decipher nuances in their target languages.

Well yes, but I mentioned passing because I assume NOT passing is a potential drawback and a poor outcome for the OP and daughter. Many are fine with just being able to read Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and Asahi Shimbun, but might not seem like a native if they’re dropped off in some random town.

There are also people who are language prodigies, and can learn languages much faster than the rest of us. Jerks.

As suggested, I do think it would be best if she staggered classes, like was taking Advanced French, Intermediate Hungarian, and Beginning Klingon instead of all three at the same level.

For a while I was learning German and French at school; and Greek, Latin, and Italian with a little Mandarin thrown in on my own. It’s not too hard, especially when they involve different alphabets (makes them easier to keep separate), but all in all it’s not that hard if you’re dedicated enough. You just can’t afford to space out for a while, or you’ll start mixing up grammar. Also takes a bit longer, since the time spent learning one language is time not spent learning another, and you usually have to take a step back every now and again to reinforce what you’ve learned.

True to an extent; it really depends on what level of fluency you want. If you want to sound like a native, yes, it takes years. My brother learned Spanish well enough to watch Spanish soap operas in about 2-3 years (if that), but it took him 5+ and a trip to Mexico to lose his accent and become perfectly fluent. Now people mistake him for a native speaker, especially since he’s picked up so much Mexican slang.

But if you’re just wanting to converse and you don’t care about having an accent or some of the cultural figures of speech, it certainly doesn’t take that long.

That doesn’t mean it’s never worth it to try and learn another language, or several. If I hadn’t had the good luck to get Micaela as a teacher for two years, my English would [del]probably[/del] never have become as good as it is; but the “English for foreigners” of many ESL-speakers or the “dees kool peh, ehl seRRRR bi sio porrr fa forr*” of polite no-Spanish-speaking-foreigners is worse than “que no t’entiendo, macho, habla en cristiano**” or “does anybody here speak my language?”; it’s very much better.

  • disculpe, ¿el servicio, por favor?; excuse me, where is the restroom please?
    ** me no comprende, dude, speak normal
    I think that, same as it happens with little kids, starting with several new languages at the same time may few make the first lessons (until the basic structures are in place) a bit slower than for other students, but it will eventually make her go faster. This is based on anecdata from people who already knew more than one language to a greater or lesser extent and were adding others: the things you know about language A become building blocks for your language B skills.
    And just for anecdata linked to the quote: French, Catalan and Spanish are all closely related. My first language is Spanish, my third language is Catalan. This actually used to interfere with my French, as there are many times I’m going to say something and think… “no wait, that’s in Catalan. How is it in French? Damnit!”
    90% of the time it turns out to be the same structure. I finally decided that when I find myself thinking that, I’ll just go ahead and use the dubious structure anyway.

The previous post should read:

…; but that doesn’t mean that the “English for foreigners”…

I just smile and give them a Vegemite sandwich.

FWIW (and I am aware that I am very possibly the exception rather than the rule), I speak, to different degrees of fluency, 13 languages.

I am fluent at a native (or almost native) level in four: Spanish (my mother tongue), English, French and Catalan.

I am fluent in Dutch (although I have a very noticeable accent and sometimes I miss nuances in meaning).

I have a high-level working knowledge of Russian, Japanese, Italian and Portuguese (I studied for my Ph.D. in Japan, in Japanese).

I have a working knowledge of German (I need it for my work).

I have basic knowledge of Romanian (I learned the basics of the language in 1 week because of a bet. Long story).

I am currently studying Arabic and Mandarin Chinese.

Long story short: I never thought that it was a retarded idea to learn all of these languages, some of them simultaneously (as I am doing now with Arabic and Mandarin Chinese, and as I did more than 10 years ago with Dutch and German – and let me tell you, it was peculiar: Sometimes it was easy because the two languages are pretty close to each other and there was some “synergy”. Other times it was a pain in the ass for exactly the same reason; I kept using one language when I was in the class for the other).

In my own (perhaps unique?) experience, I have found out that the more languages you learn the easier it is to learn a new one, no matter whether it is related to the ones you already know or not. I somehow “compartimentalize” linguistic objects into categories.

Also, of the languages I speak, I have had teachers for about half of them. The others, I learned by myself.

I studied French, Japanese, Dutch, German, Arabic and Chinese with teachers.

I am self-taught in the rest (English, Russian, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan).

Except when I was dealing with Dutch and German, I never had trouble about confusing two languages or mixing them up. And even in the Dutch-German situation, that only lasted during the learning period. Once I had “internalized” both of them, that problem disappeared. I have never mixed up languages I know (except when I am making deliberate fun).

Maybe I am one of those exceptional individuals that have it easy with foreign languages. However, I very strongly believe that my experience (to be precise, the fact that, the more languages you learn, the easier it becomes to learn a new one) is universally applicable.

I have travelled to many places in the world, and I must tell you that having all these languages at my disposal has been mighty useful. I also think that it has broadened my mind quite a bit.

Just my 2 eurocent!

If you wrote your PhD thesis in Japanese, you may not be very good at making puns in Japanese but it sure is more than most people can do with those languages they learned after infancy…

showoff. But I think Johanna still has you beat :wink:

Actually, no – they were kind enough to allow me to write my thesis in English. But the classes themselves and the day-to-day interaction in the lab was in Japanese. Although I was in one of the best (if not the best) universities in Japan, most people had a somewhat low level of English proficiency. But then, that is par for the course in Japan. Out in the street, you are lucky if you find one in ten people who can converse in English with you.

And I don’t know who Johanna is :wink: But I will take your word that she has me beat :wink:

This is a good parenting opportunity to teach the lesson “you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”

You just need to ask her one question: Do you intend to command any of these languages for a lifetime, or are you just playing at being a polyglot?

Having done both myself, I can tell you that if you want to waste time with a false sense of broad learning, study multiple languages simultaneously (note: I said simultaneously, not consecutively). It’s fun if you have time to waste, but it’s time you could have been mastering one language. Oh, and if you REALLY want to waste time, master German as a second language (firsthand experience, again)

It seems like most of the naysayers are presuming the kid’s goal is impossible, and ignoring the admittedly anecdotal evidence of people who say it’s possible. I’ll add to the chorus of those who have studied related languages at the same time with no problem.

A lot of people are taught badly and have little interest in learning at the time. If you are in either or both of those categories, please don’t think your experience was how it has to be. A motivated student can get a lot more out of a class than an unmotivated one, and someone with experience learning languages can work around a bad teacher easier than a first-timer.

These are the most important factors, because it seems the girl in question in the OP isn’t living in a community (and thereby highly motivated) for any of those target languages. The majority of “foreign” language instruction in the US still seems to be pretty bad, so it wouldn’t matter how many languages, as Nava correctly explains, if the manner in which is is trying to learn is ineffective.

But that isn’t the only possible source of high motivation. She likes languages, for starters: that in itself is high motivation. Others are professional, for example: wanting to turn a gift for languages into one’s profession, wanting to work in fields where multiple foreign languages are a requirement, or in a field in which many important papers were originally published in a foreign language. My German language classmates included an opera singer, a notary/property registrar and several engineering students: we were all there for professional reasons, not because we expected to be talking to many Germans in Barcelona.

In my junior and senior level years in high school my days consisted of:
1st period: Spanish
2nd period: English
3rd period: Japanese
4th period: Social Studies
5th period: French
6th period: German

My first year of college was in a submersive German school and I learned Swedish in German for fun.

My brain never had a problem switching back and forth between languages except when I knew a word in one language but didn’t know it in another or that I couldn’t remember the English word for something. As an adult, I’m soooo happy I learned all of those languages, it’s made it easier to pick up more, travel the world, and communicate with its inhabitants.

I’d say let her do it. In fact, if she loves languages,send her to my alma mater’s summer camps.
(Although I will say that I have never been able to pick up Dutch. It’s too close to German in my brain that I cannot separate the two and when I’ve been in the Netherlands, I end up reflexively speaking German back to people. I can understand what they say 95% of the time, but my replies don’t always work.)

I’m the same with Italian and Spanish. Even though I learned Spanish first, I end up speaking Italian to people. But it’s not a problem. I understand what the Spanish-speakers are saying, nobody seems offended, and if I were in an all-Spanish environment I could switch over after a while.

With language learning, you’re never going to get it 100%, but you can always improve. Too put it in math terms, I don’t understand the rush from preventing people from going from 0% to 5% just because 100% is unrealistic; 5% is still a good start, and even knowing a few words helps a lot with appreciating culture and literature.