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How To Learn Multiple Languages Without Getting Confused: The Laddering Method

June 19, 2007
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It can safely be said that almost everything I’ve written on this site is backed up by personal experience — and personal success. Certainly, when it comes to methods that I’ve shared, I share them because I have used them myself and gotten great results.

One of the reasons I stopped visiting online forums for Japanese learners early in my path to Japanese is that there is, in a lot of cases, too much talking and whining and not enough doing. Heat and no light. Theorizing without experimentation. It became abundantly clear that if I ever wanted to get anywhere, I would have to shut up and start walking the road, rather than discussing the map, the trip, the territory and whether the journey was even worth taking.

So I hesitate to share something that is still “in development” as it were, but here it is anyway.

As you may know, Japanese was, in a sense, a detour I took on my way to studying Chinese. Of course, because of the intermittency and lack of consistency with which I have studied Chinese, I suck at it (for now). There was a time when I sucked at both Japanese and Chinese simultaneously, until one of my friends, Marcelle, gave me the impetus to “stop sucking at two languages and get good at one”. So I picked Japanese for economic reasons. Japanese speakers were getting sweet-looking jobs; I wanted a sweet-looking job; I should become a Japanese speaker. Very straightforward.

But I still want to be good at Chinese. Every time I see, hear or meet a Chinese person I’m like “Come on, man!!! Look at all the fun they’re having!! They live in a world of all kanji all the time, and here you are still wading in the kanji-kana kiddie pool (no offense to modern Japanese writing intended)! Get on it, dewd!”

Which leads to the idea of laddering languages. It’s kind of a compromise between “learn many languages, perhaps simultaneously” and “stop sucking at two languages and get good at one”. Now, I don’t know about you, but I know people (including myself) who have gotten themselves confused when trying to learn multiple languages. Two of my sisters attempted to learn Spanish and French simultaneously and got so mixed up they nixed the whole project. And after taking almost 10 straight years of French in school and then starting to learn Chinese, I started unintentionally mixing Chinese into my French and vice versa. “Je voudrais 一個…” Hmm…not good.

I wondered why this was and quickly realized the reason. I had used the same “analogies” in my brain that I made for French in order to learn Chinese, so they were overlapping. Kind of like…trying to write on a piece of paper that has been under the previous piece of paper you were writing on, and so has all these pen impressions on it. The problem was that I had used English as a base language for both Chinese and French. Bad.

The idea with laddering languages is to (as far as possible) never use the same “base language” twice. For example, I used English as a springboard (base language) for learning Japanese. But I will not use it as a springboard for future languages. Japanese is now my base language for learning Mandarin Chinese, and Mandarin will be my base language for learning Cantonese…I get the impression that Cantonese may be kind of a dead end in terms of lacking materials for learning other languages. Hopefully I am wrong on that, but if not, I may have to re-use a different language as a base (I would recommend one use the most recent base language available, i.e. not going back all the way to English but just stepping back onto (in my case) Mandarin or Japanese); this is admittedly dangerous, but perhaps unavoidable — unless I bust out a purely monolingual Norsk Experiment. Of course, in each case, as with Japanese, I will eventually switch to only learning in the language in question using the language in question (Autolearning? Monolingual Acquisiton? No idea how to phrase this one…). So, I will go Chinese-Chinese only at some point.

The beauty of laddering is that it requires you to be pretty darn good at the base language before you use it to learn another language. But even if you aren’t perfect, the worst that can happen is that you’ll increase your proficiency in the base language by necessity. Laddering also prevents deterioration of proficiency in the base language, which is always a danger when taking on a new language — you wouldn’t want to start sucking at something you had worked so hard to get good at. So, I am currently using Japanese translations when learning Chinese sentences (my electronic dictionary has Chinese-Japanese-Chinese on it…and a buttload of example sentences — however, my environment is not yet Sinified, so the pace remains slow for now). This way, Japanese remains firmly on my radar, and I even learn some obscure Japanese words, but I also get to spread my wings into Chinese. Very much a win-win situation. I never make reference to English for a Chinese word. And I never find myself getting confused between Japanese and Chinese.

Anyway, that’s about the gist of it. Sorry for discussing something that’s still incomplete, but I thought I might share it with you.

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51 Responses to How To Learn Multiple Languages Without Getting Confused: The Laddering Method

  1. Paul D on June 19, 2007 at 22:00

    I’d add that there are very good resources in Japanese for learning other languages — especially Chinese, Korean, and the major European ones. In some cases, better than what you’d find in English.

  2. khatzumoto on June 19, 2007 at 22:06

    You’re absolutely right, Paul. I am blown away by the amouit of stuff in Japanese for language-learning. The popularity/presence/preponderance of electronic dictionaries (and their high quality) is also really cool. Once you go electronic you can never return to paper. Never, I say!

    …I actually own a J-J kanji dictionary in paper form, but I only use it to browse for fun new kanji to learn, not for actually looking up information.

  3. Anna on June 19, 2007 at 23:43

    Interesting! I was actually thinking about your method and Chinese (I’m still ony whimpy European languages, maybe one day).

    I mean, you always hear these people moan and whine about Chinese, how hard it is, and how they’ve been learning it for one-frillion years and they’re still only intermediate. Japanese and Chinese (tones aside) can’t be that different to learn, but I’ve never seen a single Chinese success story even though there are lots of people (like yourself) who have had major success with Japanese.

    Why is it? Do the tones really screw people up? A lack of desire/materials? Or the same reason most people don’t learn Japanese correctly (textbooks, classes, etc)?

  4. khatzumoto on June 19, 2007 at 23:59

    Hey Anna!

    >Why is it? Do the tones really screw people up? A lack of desire/materials? Or the same reason most people don’t learn Japanese correctly (textbooks, classes, etc)?

    Yeah, good question. I really honestly believe that human languages are, fundamentally, nothing but dialects of one another. So I don’t think it’s anything inherent in Chinese. About a sixth of humanity speaks, reads and yes, writes it just fine [any illiteracy is a function of economics, not linguistics; plenty of people find themselves unable to read alphabetic languages; meanwhile Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan have some of the highest literacy rates in the world, but I digress].

    I’d have to go with bad methods being the cause. Us blaming the Chinese language for our suckage is very much akin to a physicist blaming the universe for her inability to understand it. “It’s all those stoopid sub-atomic particles’ fault! Other universes are so easy to understand!”…mmm hmm, pull the other one. And the reason methods for learning Chinese are so poor still, and success stories so few, is that China and the Chinese world simply have not been on enough non-East-Asian people’s radar screens for long enough. Mainland China was either too far away or too Communist until at least the 1970s, and still an economic backwater for years after that. Back then, Taiwan was still being called “Formosa”–too small, too irrelevant, too apt to learn Japanese or English. Hong Kong was a British colony, and the only British colonists who ever bother to learn a language are those who are born and raised locally and make friends with fellow children of the land. That leaves Japan–wide open since at least the 1950s. Economically significant since the 1970s and 80s. So a head-start of 20-30 years in international interaction compared to China. Fifty years from now I imagine everybody and their dog will know some amount of Chinese.

    • A.F on September 15, 2012 at 09:30

      Although the Chinese economy is growing really fast, I am still rather skeptical weather millions and millions of foreigners will be able to speak mandarin by 2050. In the past, people from developing countries often might have thought that learning the English language meant that you would (in the most cases) have connections to a country which had an economical advantage over yours. So by learning English you might be able to move from a job that earns you like a few hundred dollars a month to a job that earns a few thousand. This must have been a huge motivator and one of the more common reasons why people wanted to learn English so desperately. I think for foreigners learning mandarin today, it is rather the connections that you will make and the opportunities you get out of that which might help you economically during your career. Entering the Chinese workforce will not give you any direct economic advantage. Obviously if you can live as an expat in China earning the same amount of money as you do in most western countries, then yes…you will definitely be benefiting on that.

      The difference is Opportunity (indirect benefit that has to be recognized first) VS. Money (direct benefit that is easy to recognize)

      Opportunities have to be recognized before there is any motivation to create action. I still find that a lot of people are still ignorant or unaware to what benefits there are when learning a new language. (However it’s great to see so many people learning Japanese on this website)

      For those who learn or learned English in the past, it’s pretty clear what the motivation was. Everyone knew the benefits.

  5. Colin on June 20, 2007 at 11:30

    Hello,
    I’ve heard this idea somewhere else and thought it sounded good. I am have just started studying Chinese, and although most of my study is using English materials, I often like to see translations in Japanese. I’d like to try learning Chinese using Japanese as a base language more seriously, but I lack the money to buy textbooks or the sort. Do you know any good websites for learning Chinese in Japanese? Do you have any methods you could suggest? (that are free haha)

  6. khatzumoto on June 20, 2007 at 12:19

    Hey Colin

    I’m afraid I don’t know of any good websites yet. Since most Chinese study in Japan is done with a view to doing business in Mainland China, the sites tend to use the jiantizi. I’m a big fantizi bigot, so don’t do much on them. Also, the general language learning trend in Japan, as with the rest of the world, is still biased towards over-analysis and under-pragmatics. Too much grammar explanation, not enough examples. But my biggest problem of all with many J-websites for Chinese is that there is a tendency to use images, not text, to display the Chinese. Very freaking inelegant.

    Having said that, there are lots of good materials out there for Japanese learners of Chinese. I happen to think myself the cheapest git to ever walk this Earth, but…none of these materials are very high on the “free” department. Like I said, I tend to view learning a language at least in part as a financial investment, so I have picked economically viable languages to learn, knowing that there will be some return down the line. That’s the only way I can justify spending hundreds of bucks on an electronic dictionary to my frugal side. But I commend you for looking for cheaper ways to do things; it’s a worthy effort.

    My main study materials (in order of importance) are:
    x Electronic dictionary (Canon V90 Wordtank) [example sentences up the wazoo, Chinese+Japanese+full pinyin to save time looking up a reading]
    x Chinese translations of some of my favorite Japanese manga (Crayon Shin-chan, Keroro Gunsou)
    x Taiwan dramas (they come with Chinese subtitles. Woohoo!)
    x Books of Japanese-Chinese example sentences
    x 中国語ジャーナル (similar to Nihongo Journal…I don’t subscribe to it or anything, I just bought a couple of volumes; the content is a bit hit-and-miss for me)

    No textbooks in sight; textbooks are, generally speaking, the devil. The dictionary set me back US$250 or so, the books are US$5 to US$10 apiece. If you had to start somewhere I would say go for the electronic dictionary (it has J/J, E/E, C/C, J/E/J, C/J/C, E/C/E…something on the order of 20 books combined into one package, so it actually is a good price when looked at in terms of content). I didn’t buy these materials all at once. Just little by little, on the order of $10 to $40 a month. Chinese books and videos are a category in my monthly budget.

    Finally, as far as getting TV shows…there’s always the, shall we say, more “Robin Hoodian” sectors of the Internet ;). Let me be frank: before coming to Japan, I downloaded Japanese content in large amounts (I did buy some–just under US$1000 worth over 18 months–but I d/led a heckuva lot, which gives you some idea of just how much Japanese media was in my life)–I felt justified in being a poor college student using it for educational purposes and in the fact that there are effectively no distribution networks for Japanese content outside of Japan; Japanese media production houses still haven’t gotten the memo that Japan is cool; they still have no idea that people outside Japan are thirsty for Japanese materials other than anime; they still don’t know that they are making some world-class stories that anyone anywhere could enjoy and relate to (see? nihonjinron hurts everyone!) so there’s really no attempt at or expectation of sales outside of Japan. Anyway, since coming to Japan, I’ve tried to atone by buying and renting a lot of stuff. But if you are in the same situation as I was (college student whose best idea for making money was a US$10/hour job), I cannot fault you for making the download choice. Perhaps think of it as borrowing (?)…there’s an ethical slippery slope! Anyway, if the feds come, I don’t you and I didn’t say anything (haha!).

    One final thing–you could just keep studying Japanese for now, but start gradually assembling Chinese materials in preparation for your Chinese project…that was my approach.

  7. Glenn on June 20, 2007 at 21:11

    Interesting topic, and I want to thank you for a fascinating website. I’d already acquired an advanced or so level of Japanese when I found this site (incidentally I happened to come across it while taking a detour from a Chinese forum), but I still find myself lacking in areas that I shouldn’t be. It’s mostly lack of effort on my part, but anyway…

    You use the Canon V90 for Chinese, right? That uses jiantizi if I’m not mistaken, doesn’t it? Unfortunately most dictionaries are biased that way, it seems. But you’ve already gone through all the hanzi in Rick Harbaugh’s book, so you should be fine with them, right?

    I have the Casio EX-word XD-SW6400, and just ordered the Chinese and Korean dictionaries that can be appended to it. It has a writing pad, so it’s really great for when I come across that kanji with some funny okurigana (you know what I mean; it’s like you’ve already gone through the trouble of learning a kun-yomi, then out of nowhere you get hit with something you’ve never seen before). Loads of stuff on it, but I’d rather it had 大辞林 than 広辞苑. It has a good 和英辞典, though: “Progressive” — it has more example sentences than it does entries, and I often use it instead of the Japanese dictionary for just that reason.

    Some questions about Chinese learning materials, though. Taiwan usage and mainland usage differ at times if I’m not mistaken, so do you make a note that you found a certain sentence in a Taiwan drama or mainland drama when you enter your example sentences? I’m not sure about the dialect situation with Chinese, either. With Japanese shows it seems that you either get the standard language, or some variant of it (some dialect around Tokyo), or you get Kansai-ben, so it’s not too bad. But do Chinese shows stick to the standard in their respective areas? For instance, are mainland shows based mostly on the Beijing dialect, or do they sometimes have some southern dialects in there with there crazy sound changes like tone reversals (2nd becoming 4th) or using different readings for hanzi (like “shi” turning into “si” or even “xi”)? It seems like it should all be pretty standard, but I’m never sure about these things.

    Another question: I’m assuming you have a different account for Chinese than Japanese. I’ve been wondering about this for a few weeks now (at least), but do you have a separate account for characters than for the language (sentences)? I was wondering if that would be a better way to go, but it would really eat up a lot of time. Also, when you do your Chinese sentences, do you put the sentences in hantizi and jiantizi, and then put the readings and meanings in the “answer” box? I was thinking that would be the way to go, to get used to seeing both sets and acquiring reading proficiency in both of them, even if I only intend on writing hantizi, but do you have any different ideas?

    I guess that’s all for questions for now. Sorry for the long, and aimlessly rambling post. I’ve had some of these questions for a while, and figured since you were tackling Chinese with this post this would be the time to ask them. Also, it’s possible I’ll be back later to ask more. ^^;; At any rate, here’s a little おまけ about why Chinese is so difficult; it’s tongue-in-cheek, and quite hilarious: www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html

  8. james on June 20, 2007 at 22:53

    This is a dumb question but it’s been frustrating me no end. Example,  保守党政権下の経済改革の結果、という側面もある。

    how do you pronounce the 下 on the end of 政権. I see this everywhere but it’s one of those things I can’t look up that easily.

    enlighten me katzumoto

    james

  9. Glenn on June 21, 2007 at 20:29

    Not sure what happened to my last comment, but since it was all over the place, I guess it’s for the best. I’ll make this one shorter.

    First of all, interesting post, as they pretty much all are. I have some questions for you.

    1. I was thinking that maybe it would be a good idea to have separate accounts for hanzi/hanja/kanji and for sentences (separate accounts for different languages seems like a no-brainer), but I was wondering how you handled that. Did you lump all of the characters with the sentences, or split them up and review them separately? It seems like it might be a good idea, but it would take up twice the time. I guess it’s all about how much free time you have.

    2. Do you know what the dialect situation is with Chinese TV shows/movies/etc.? I assume that anything from the mainland would be close to the standard dialect, which is something like the language spoken around Beijing, but I wonder if there isn’t the same sort of situation with Mandarin as with Japanese. That is, sometimes in Japanese shows there’ll be a character that speaks a non-standard dialect (usually Kansai-ben, but sometimes more rural ones), which can be really confusing if you don’t know any better, and pretty tough even if you do if you aren’t used to it yet. I’ve heard that in southern China there’ll be differences like “shi” being pronounced like “si” or “xi,” and 2nd tone becoming 4th tone and other stuff like that, so I wonder how far that’s made it into mass media.

    3. Did you decide on either mainland Mandarin or Taiwanese Mandarin, or are you tackling both at the same time? From what I understand the differences are fairly minor (like different words for “week” and variant pronunciations like the ones listed above), but I think it’s still a pretty important distinction to make. When you put in example sentences, do you mark them as mainland versus Taiwanese usage?

    4. Just out of curiosity, do you put both hantizi and jiantizi for your example sentences, or do you just put hantizi? Seems like putting both would be the best way to go, as that way you would become familiar with both, even if you only plan on writing one.

    Finally, I want to personally thank you for starting and keeping up this site, as it’s been a strong motivation and an inspiration for me. Er, I hope that doesn’t sound too corny, but I mean it. Anyway, for a little おまけ: this page is about why it’s so hard to learn Chinese. It’s pretty funny, and has some interesting information in it too. (And in case you were wondering, yes, I do think this one is shorter)

  10. Glenn on June 21, 2007 at 20:30

    I’m an idiot. I forgot the link to the page I was talking about. Here it is: www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html

  11. khatzumoto on June 21, 2007 at 20:47

    Hey Glenn, thanks for commenting!

    1. I’ve done both the separate account thing and the lump-em-in-one thing. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Right now, I’m choosing lumping.

    2. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about Chinese TV shows to answer that. I mostly watch shows from Taiwan. From personal experience in Chinese and Japanese, a variant accent is hard to begin with, but you do get used to it after a while. Remember, you only have to *understand* it, not to be able to reproduce it. My Chinese calligraphy teacher at college had a weird northern accent (not Beijing), he slurs his Chinese like crazy; I hated it at first, because I couldn’t understand it, but it grew on me–I learned to parse it–and now I miss it!!

    3. I’m kind of mixing it up…a mix of Mainland and Taiwan Mandarin (Nanjing Mandarin?). I work on speaking clearly and keeping my tones. My teacher at college (a lady from Taiwan) advised not having too strong of a regional accent, so I imagine I may well end up with Chinese that is very good but also very neutral. As an aside, I don’t like saying “shi” as “si”, because it seems like it would just confuse matters; it’s not like there are that many sounds in Chinese to begin with….so I guess the bias is toward Mainland pronunciation standards(?).

    4. My dictionary shows jianti in the examples and body text (jianti/fanti in the headings), so I get to read some jianti (ugh), but my sentences only contain fanti. Since jianti come from fanti, I find it easy enough, if aesthetically displeasing, to make the jump down. So I do get to see both quite against my will…Like I said, I’m a bigot.

    5. Thanks for the encouragement! It means a lot to know that it’s had any impact. Sometimes it’s hard to tell! And no it isn’t corny. P.S. that link didn’t come up :(

  12. Glenn on June 21, 2007 at 21:34

    Ah, I see. Indeed, whatever you have the most exposure to will be the easiest to understand.

    About the TV shows, where are you getting them from? An aside about subtitles: I’ve been renting Japanese DVDs from Tsutaya expecting them to have Japanese subtitles, but no luck so far. The dubs that I’ve watched only had subs from the English versions, so they didn’t match the dubbed dialogue. Have you not had that problem?

    Yes, unfortunately, it does seem that most dictionaries exclusively use jiantizi, including the ones I just ordered as add-ons to my electronic dictionary (Casio EX-word XD-SW6400, in case you were wondering. By the way, the Progressive 和英辞典 in this dictionary is great — it has more example sentences than entries!) I’m somewhat of a hantizi bigot myself; I even want to write things like 本來なら會話を愉(たの)しめるのがいちばんいいと思うのですが、苦手意識があるうちは難しいし、ある程度會話が樂にできるようになってからだと思います。(ripped shamelessly off of this site: nayami.shiawasehp.net/ningen/kaizen/kaiwanigate.html).

    And the reason the link didn’t come up is because I’m an idiot and forgot to put it up. By the way, can we use HTML tags on this board? Anyway, here it is, for real this time: www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html

  13. khatzumoto on June 22, 2007 at 01:42

    James!

    Sorry, dude! Your post got marked as spam! Right down there with “tight ebony models” and stuff…OK, so to answer your question:

    保守党政権下の経済改革の結果、という側面もある。

    “下” in this case is read “か”. On the authority of my both my personal experience and my Super 日本語大辞典 
    か【下】《接尾語》「…のした」「ある状態のもと」の意を表す。「支配下」「占領下」

    I LOVE these kind of questions, btw, because they ARE hard to look up. I used to randomly asked Japanese friends these kinds of things a lot. Feel free to ask me any time.

  14. khatzumoto on June 22, 2007 at 01:52

    Glenn

    “I even want to write things like 本來なら會話を愉(たの)しめるのがいちばんいいと思うのですが、苦手意識があるうちは難しいし、ある程度會話が樂にできるようになってからだと思います。”

    I know EXACTLY what you mean, man…I know that kanji have undergone changes in the past, but they’ve been stable for a long time. The post-WW2 changes were an emotional knee-jerk reaction by war-ravaged East Asian governments with a massive cultural inferiority complex…It was a huge baby-with-the-bath-water move, the culmination of all that late-19th century “Let’s write in the vernacular, like the Europeans. Let’s dress like the Europeans. Let’s colonize and exploit militarily weaker people, like the Europeans. Heck, let’s BECOME the Europeans.” But if you look at 漢文(かんぶん)/文言文 (wen2yan2wen2), it makes perfect sense. You do not necessarily need to write as you speak…in a sense, writing is already an abstraction from speech. That 漢文 took that abstraction to the point that people with completely different spoken languages could all communicate with each other in text, I think is so, so cool. With the Internet, we can share text worldwide, simultaneously now. As I see it, the times are even MORE appropriate for a system like 文言文.

    Anyway, I could whine about this all day. You can use HTML here!

  15. khatzumoto on June 22, 2007 at 03:03

    Glenn,

    As for where to get Chinese TV shows:

    x Tsutaya Discas has quite a few Taiwan dramas (search by country of origin), but they mostly have J-subs.
    x Ebay was a place I used to shop for shows.
    x Books.com.tw, is like Taiwan’s Amazon.com. Lots of good shows. Cost of living is slightly lower in TW, so your yen goes far. Shipping is fast (my books came in two days…to Japan…from Taiwan) and very reasonably priced.
    x Friends
    x Chinese shops
    x Online (PPLiveTV, etc.)

  16. Anna on June 22, 2007 at 20:31

    Wow, thanks Khatzumoto! Maybe there is hope for Chinese students after all, heh.

  17. reineke on June 23, 2007 at 04:18

    Hi

    Thanks for the link to the Norsk experiment. It is similar to your springboard idea, only the man is studying a language from scratch only using original materials. He says he’s having fun but it looks rather painful – for most language learners. I suppose he’s more hard core than you :) I’m not sure how effective this method would be with Japanese. It would be intriguing to try something like this for a closely related language. Spanish – Portuguese for example. I like the springboard idea. The only problem is that I have invested too much into my learning materials and that a lot of languages don’t have sufficient materials for some other languages. Japanese > Chinese is an excellent idea, though.

  18. Kick Ass 2007 | PodLearner on June 26, 2007 at 07:18

    [...] My Chinese is several orders of magnitudes better than my Japanese, and thus I’ve decided to use Khatzumoto’s laddering method to learn Japanese — that is, learning Japanese through Chinese. Living in Shanghai makes Chinese material for Japanese learning inexpensive, and Japanese is the second most commonly learned foreign language in China behind English, meaning that resources are plentiful. Hopefully approaching Japanese through Chinese will both help to separate them in my mind and improve my Chinese. [...]

  19. Katherine on November 3, 2007 at 07:30

    For Chinese materials, try Kinokuniya Books (www.kinokuniya.com/). At least their Seattle store has lots of both Chinese and Japanese materials. I haven’t looked for Chinese-Japanese bilingual stuff, but since their core audience is Japanese I would guess it’s as good as their (excellent) Japanese-English selection.

    Physical stores are located at
    www.kinokuniya.co.jp/english/contents/network04.html (outside Japan)
    www.kinokuniya.co.jp/english/contents/network02.html (in Japan)
    I’d recommend visiting a store if you can: their web page is terrible. (Maybe the Japanese version is better?)

  20. Ashman on March 25, 2008 at 13:03

    Greetings!

    First of all, Khatzumoto, I honestly do believe you are a living legend. I have been studying Japanese since elementary school, through middle/high school and two years at university, and after all that time I think sadly I can still only call myself upper intermediate in speaking, and lower intermediate/totally crap at reading/writing.

    HOWEVER, all that changed when I discovered your site a few months ago. I am now powering through Remembering The Kanji, and I’m just itching to get onto the 10,000 sentences. And (no offence), it’s not actually those two tools which have made the real difference…..it’s that I had completely forgotten to ENJOY studying Japanese (my university teachers contributed to that a lot). Suddenly, i’m having fun again and learning much more.

    In fact, I was so worn out by my futile efforts in Japanese, that about 4 months ago I decided to take a break, and try something new. I went to Taiwan for 3 months to learn Chinese. It was fantastic. And to all the sceptics: LEARNING CHINESE IS NOT DIFFICULT. Seriously. In many ways I believe it’s easier than Japanese. The grammar is far simpler (no excessive verb conjugating); and the Chinese Characters tend to only have one yomikata, making them a thousand times easier to remember. As for pronunciation and tones, certainly Chinese phonetics are much harder than Japanese for a native-English speaker to get their tongue around. BUT, after about two weeks intensively studying the tones and phonemes of Chinese, I know them like the back of my hand. And in the scheme of things, two weeks is a VERY short time. After that, if you can pronounce Chinese, the rest is easy! Jia you!

    Now I’m in Japan for 3 months, and am attempting an almost full-time AJATT approach to Japanese study, while keeping up a bit of Chinese as well. Your laddering method sounds great, but I still don’t think my Japanese is quite ready for use in learning Chinese (given i’ve still not finished RTK, nor started the 10,000 sentences). Do you think if I continue both my Chinese and Japanese study for now using English as the base language for both, that I will get confused? I want to try laddering, but until my Japanese is good enough, should I ditch Chinese and wait? Or just continue with English for both?

  21. khatzumoto on March 28, 2008 at 10:13

    Some say 一石二鳥 (hit two birds with one stone), and that can work sometimes.
    But, the idea that 二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず (the hunter who chases two catches neither) applies even more often.

    Do one. Then the other. I know it’s a tough choice, but you’ll be grateful later.

  22. [...] you may be aware, Cantonese has been “on my radar” for quite some time. When I made the decision to learn it, I was already focusing on learning Mandarin. The reasonable [...]

  23. Peter on June 21, 2008 at 15:02

    khatzumoto,

    I understand that Chinese and Japanese differ, but they share kanji. What about languages that are entirely unrelated (at least, apparently)? For instance, can one use Japanese as a base language from which to learn french?

    Thanks again for the great website and congratulations on the “book launch”.

  24. Alec on June 21, 2008 at 18:52

    Peter:
    I’m not Khatzumoto but here’s what I think: Learning French from English at first will probably be more efficient as the words and their uses are more similar. There’ll be less explanation (Eg; The usage of ‘Comment ça va ?’ is more similar to ‘How are you’ than ‘Genki desuka’.) and you’ll end up more accurate than if you learnt from Japanese. However, this won’t be benefit your Japanese obviously. If you learnt French at first from Japanese, your French might suffer but your Japanese will benefit. It’s just a balancing act I imagine. If you’re learning a language unrelated to both, I would think it would make sense to go the second language (Japanese) which you’re trying to learn and don’t want to forget.

  25. All Mandarin, All The Time on July 13, 2008 at 17:02

    [...] writes about mixing up languages when learning more than one at the same time on his blog. I read this, but at the time I thought it was total hogwash. I’ve tried to learn many [...]

  26. Victoria on July 27, 2008 at 16:26

    > Why is it? Do the tones really screw people up? A lack of desire/materials? Or the
    > same reason most people don’t learn Japanese correctly (textbooks, classes, etc)?

    From my personal experience with Mandarin, I’d say its tones that screw people up, but that’s not to suggest they’re actually that difficult. The problem is that people don’t expect them, think their “weird” so lack confidence that they will learn them, don’t know how to approach them and don’t have realistic expectations about how long it will take to learn them.

    To learn tones you need to do a lot of listening; as with all language study, there’s a lot of people who don’t appreciate the need to actually *do* the homework. With Mandarin, listening is very important – you need to give your brain a chance to realise it needs to start paying attention to aspects of speech its usually ignored (unless you’re coming from another tonal language). Its possible your brain has actually put effort into ignoring it, to cancel out the effects of regional dialect so it can figure out what the word is.

    It took about a year for me to start tuning into tones, and that was with 2 hours lessons a week and probably about 2-3 hours listening a week in my own time. If I was starting now, I’d get some Mandarin podcast burned to cd and put it in my radio alarm, watch a lot more Mandarin TV/film, and just try to increase my exposure to it as much as possible. People give up before they get to that stage, because nobody tells them how long it will take, or gives them confidence that it can be achieved.

    Secondly, there’s speaking it. You have to accept that to speak Mandarin, its probably more akin to singing. I heard so many people try to “speak” Mandarin, I found it hard to take seriously in the end. They just didn’t get it – which is a shame because I know some of them really wanted to. You’ve got to sing it. Let go, do it in private – you *will* feel self conscious. Start SLOWLY – you have to slow things down massively to get to grips with articulating sounds in a different way. Only when the tones are coming out right should you speed it up. Everyone wants to have learned their basics yesterday, so they speak, or try to tone too quick, and “Hi its great to meet you” comes out as “You! Very fat please postbox” or something random like that. Saves embarassment, FAILS as communication.

    To sum it up, if you’re going to learn Mandarin, just give yourself a goddamned break. Don’t expect to tune in for a year or so, but know that if you put the time in you will.

  27. Alec on July 28, 2008 at 07:25

    Thanks for the advice, Victoria! I’m about to start studying Mandarin in September and the thing that scares me the most is the tones. I realise I have to do a lot of listening but I’d not heard of “singing” the language. I can see how useful this will be and I’ll try singing Mandarin when I start. Thank! =) (*Runs to check out Victoria’s blog.*)

  28. [...] mental and financial energies divided between two languages, better to acquire one first and then use it a mental and financial hook for the second: emotionally this decision can be painful, but methinks you’re better off making it than [...]

  29. Sonja on November 29, 2008 at 05:09

    Hey! That was some pretty good advice… I’m pretty (overly) ambitious when it comes to learning languages, and find myself mixing up various languages all the time – no matter how grammatically different they are (like you mixing French and Chinese)… ridiculous. Laddering sounds like a great way, and I know it works because I tried learning Russian in French, and voila, aucun probleme.

    Is this the only solution though? I guess the problem is that learning another language becomes a slightly more tedious task, having to think in two foreign languages simultaneously. Right now I’m learning Japanese in English (English being my mother tongue), but find French popping up occasionally when I speak. Really annoying…

  30. Melanie on December 16, 2008 at 07:05

    Hey,
    something is really bothering me at the moment. Its a nice idea, but I just found some problems for me: I’m German and I’ve started Heisig in English. But the difference to the German variant seems not so little. Some of his stories are just not fit for anyone who isnt English, example: nighttide. In Eng, of course you associate water with that. In German, the word is kind of like evening times O_o , no water… So should I jump back and forth from English to German? I’m a bit clueless and confused about how to study at the moment. Hope you got a solution for this ( just please dont say: study more English…)

  31. Anathema196 on February 2, 2009 at 15:53

    Hey,

    I have a question about learning 2 languages at one. I went to Korea for a month and now I’m trying to learn it at the moment using your methods, I can already read Hanguel 한글, and I am also trying to learn Japanese at the same time. The RTK book doesn’t come until later this week.
    So my question would be, would it be advisable to start doing my sentences for Korean all while learning the Kanji from RTK, and then when I finish learning all of the Kanji and Kana, start using Korean as the base language or Japanese? or could I use English for both?

  32. Kira on April 17, 2009 at 20:44

    Hey! I like this idea, I’m learning Japanese now. In high school I have to take Spanish >.< By then, I think I’ll finish both RTK 1 and 3. I’m afraid that I won’t have a solid enough base for Spanish from Japanese. Also, I really wanted Japanese to be the springboard for learning Korean. Wouldn’t it be odd if I went English-Japanese-Spanish-Korean? I have no interest in learning Spanish, or continuing it after the required 3 years. I know you said to use another language for the springboard, but what if the class is taught in English (I have to take them… not my idea choice). Should I just use English for both Spanish and Japanese?

    Thanks!

  33. Stephen on May 30, 2009 at 15:46

    First off I just wanted to thank you for this AWESOME site. I really appreciate all the work and humour that goes into it!

    I have been learning Japanese for a little bit, but I can’t help but be almost equally interested in Chinese (mandarin).

    My studies have kind of suffered because I tend to dwell between the two, but as you mentioned I think I need to, SOMEHOW, go with one for now and THEN move onto the other one……sigh, that’s NOT going to be easy xD

    Anyway, I wanted to ask you how you’re Chinese is coming along? Having heard all your experiences and success in Japanese, I am curious as to how your Chinese studies/learning exp. compared to Japanese.

    Thank You and again keep up the great work!

    Cheers

  34. Chris on September 14, 2009 at 21:31

    Here’s an interesting perspective on learning multiple languages:

  35. [...] language-laddering thing seems like an exception, but the laddering is really about how to keep your L2, while also [...]

  36. Candice on December 11, 2009 at 07:43

    Great site! The most helpful thing I’ve found on language learning so far!

    The article about laddering is very true. I am a Peace Corps volunteer living in an African francophone (French speaking) country. I am learning the African language in French, and I notice both languages go much faster when it’s done this way verses learning the African language in English (my native tongue). I think it’s very important that the two languages you are learning are at different levels; one needs to be at least a comfortable intermediate level. A bonus of laddering is that if your base language isn’t very strong, you’ll not only NOT forget any of it (which is a problem when learning multiple languages), but laddering provides a great support for the base lang.

    My best advice for language learning is exactly the main point of this website: immersion. When you have no choice or outlet, the language will come. Language learning can be very intimidating (especially for Americans) but it really is all in our heads. To learn multiple languages fluently is not a miracle or just something you read about online. The proof is in the hundreds of thousands of Peace Corps volunteers who can converse in a foreign language in two months and are fluent within two years.

    My question:
    Anyone who’s learned multiple languages at once, do you feel that your progress was slower because of it? I’m wondering if spending equal time on two languages means both will move at a slower pace than if i put all my efforts into one language (which seems like common sense, but seeing everyones comments about laddering, it seems like learning two using the laddering system wouldn’t slow things down all that much?). Sure, laddering works much better than learning two languages NOT laddering, but does it slow down progress compared to learning just one?

  37. Francis on January 4, 2010 at 16:03

    Wow, I’ve taken Japanese for a while now, and started Chinese a year after Japanese and never took the risk of studying Chinese in Japanese! I can’t wait to try it out this quarter!

  38. Patrick on August 28, 2010 at 16:09

    Hello !
    Really GREAT website.
    I discover it this morning and will be back very often.
    I totally agree with this article. I am french and I started learning japanese
    last month.
    Material in french to study Japanese is pretty poor, so I decided to use english
    material to do it. It works fine for me.
    English and Japanese do not mix in my head.
    I was using the “laddering method” without kwowing it :-)
    Bonne journée à tous ! Jaa mata !

  39. Chinoisfrancais on June 23, 2011 at 09:21

    Merci beaucoup pour cette méthode.

    I’ve been speaking French for about half a year now, and have kicked up my approaching fluency by immersing myself after reading of your ideas for doing that. I’m also very glad that I bought a monolingual dictionary relatively soon. It keeps me from having to context switch back into English every time I need to look up a word (I can’t give you credit for that idea though, unfortunately).

    Now, I was thinking for some time about which language to learn next. I thought that I would want to learn Spanish next, but the more that I thought about it the less it held my immediate interest. I had wanted to learn Chinese for a long time, but all of the information about how hard it was turned me off to it. The characters scared me, and the tones didn’t help that.

    I read a wealth of information on your site, and I realized how possible it was for me to learn Chinese. I finally decided to go for it and get some studying materials for Chinese in French. I’m pretty excited about it, although I know to succeed I will need to have a similar approach as my French that got me where I am, able to handle conversations as long as they aren’t too fast. I’m in the process of looking for podcasts and other material to start listening right away, while the books travel to me from France.

  40. [...] my mouth and my brain are in two different places. Khatzumoto has written a lot about laddering on AJATT, and I know that there are other people who highly recommend [...]

  41. Darly on April 29, 2012 at 08:22

    Honestly, I never looked at this issue from this point of view, though I guess I’ve been doing it kind of unconciously… I am Brazilian, so I’m a native Portuguese speaker. English came very smoothly to me, cause even though I’ve never studied it in an English school, I’ve learned it quite effortlessly. So, a couple of years ago I “discovered” Japan and I completly and blindly fell in love with it. Learning the language became an obligation to me. I decided to dedicate some time to study it daily, but I couldn’t (and still can’t) reach the level of fluency I long for… this year I’ve started a French course, and as a “base language” I’m using what I know from the Japanese and it’s amazing how fast I’m improving both, my Japanese and French. Thanks for sharing this awesome tip with us! 

  42. Toby on May 28, 2012 at 05:11

    The best recommendation I can give is if you are going to learn multiple languages, make them spread far apart. I’m learning both Spanish and Japanese and those are different in many many ways so it is hard to have confusion. However, whenever I want to practice french, it gets very confusing due to the similarities to Spanish.

  43. Paul on June 20, 2012 at 19:01

    I think this is a really interesting idea and I agree that are many benefits to it. And for my case, I’m also learning Chinese using English.
    And using this method would also mean that one would proceed with a new language only when one has mastered the current language. And learning another new language using the newly-mastered language as a base language provides an excellent opportunity to review and improve that base language as well.
    Thanks.

  44. [...] After last week’s link about learning languages in 22 hours, All Japanese All the Time has a suggestion for learning multiple languages at the same time without getting confused: the laddering method. [...]

  45. Shahe on January 1, 2013 at 04:38

    The only language I’ve learnt through English is German. Must I use German as a base, or can I use English? I’d rather use English since there are far more resources. Will this be okay since they’re very different, except in terms of grammar (Both SOV). Thanks.

  46. Quita on August 2, 2013 at 07:07

    I just saw this and I think it is great. I started doing this recently by using Spanish as a base language for Korean… we will see how that goes.

  47. […] multiple languages, it is tempting to consider Khatzumoto’s laddering method as described somewhere in the AJATT archives; you learn one language to fluency, and then you use materials in that language to learn yet […]

  48. […] How to Learn Multiple Languages Without Getting Confused | AJATT […]

  49. Aki on February 27, 2014 at 22:05

    Khatz!! I have a question regarding this as a person starting their 3rd language.

    I’m a native English speaker, and in 2 years I became fluent in Japanese (whether speaking/reading/writing/listening).
    I’ve started Spanish using English again as my base language.

    Now I’d love to use Japanese as my base language, however it seems (from what I hear, and from the early stages) that Spanish and English are quite clearly WAY closer together than Japanese and Spanish. Grammatically and in terms of vocab.

    I can see why one would go from Japanese-Chinese, but would you still ‘ladder’ the languages so different like Spanish-Japanese?

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