Surely One Could Learn Multiple Languages At Once?

I got this really cool comment in response to this article where I urged people to calm down and focus on one language at a time:

Said Jimbo:

Surely, if a child can be raised natively in three languages, it would be just as possible and in fact easier as an adult to do the same thing? Surely one could simultaneously learn, say, Japanese, Chinese and…I dunno, French? Why just one at a time?

You know what? I have a feeling it could be done.

  1. I just don’t know how, but
  2. I do know that this frantic, type-A, “I HAVE TO DO THIS AND YOU’D BETTER TELL ME HOW OR ELSE THE WORLD IS GOING TO END” sort of breathless email that I occasionally get is going to cause more ulcers and heart attacks than language learning. There is such a thing perhaps as eustress and a healthy tension — I myself used to pretend that my life would depend on my ability to impersonate a Japanese person — but this isn’t that; this is panicking. This is headless chicken mode.
  3. I am not always impressed by the multi-lingual people I meet, to tell you the truth (there are definitely exceptions, of course). They often have annoying gaps in their knowledge. They function in the languages, but, for example, they can’t handle a lot of nuances, subtle humor or cultural allusions. That bugs me. Now I have to talk to them in a truncated, flavorless, sanitized version of the language. It’s like drinking flat Sprite. Having said that, any level of language skill is still useful, and you can’t (indeed, don’t need to) be good at everything, it’s just not always that much fun to interact with.

What really ticks me off is how these “I HAVE TO KNOW ALL THESE LANGUAGES AT AN ACADEMIC LEVEL — STAT!” kids write as if it were my responsibility to sort out their lives, and I’d BETTER GET ON IT RIGHT NOW, MISTER! Maybe that’s just me being oversensitive. But they’re so pushy, it’s like “OK, stwop it! Stwop it! Mmm kay?”

With patience — not procrastination, but patience — humilty, and a relaxed, stable frame of mind, I think it could be done. I feel like it would require a deep love for the languages and a tortoise-like attitude — habitual plodding rather than binge-and-purge franticness (“bulimic learning”).

It would require letting go of any attachment to speedy results, and latching onto just doing little things, all day every day. And not caring that people thought you were crazy and going nowhere — which is already the case with self-directed learners of just one language.

In that sense, it’s not unlike learning one language, just triple the patience, triple the humility, triple the thick-skinnedness, and triple the materials costs.

The hare-like, business-oriented, NOW NOW NOW people are not demonstrating the mental stamina to disconnect from the idyllic end and focus on their daily habits. With their current attitude, they are going to crash and burn mentally from the lack of instant ultimate gratification long before even the lack of short- and mid-term monetary and social return starts to hit them. And then, to top it off, they’re going to go looking for someone or something other than themselves to blame, as if they were tricked into it(!)

Which brings me to a pertinent topic — economics. Economically, all this language study could potentially detract from time and monetary resources needed to invest in other activities and/or skills. Depending on one’s location, there could be considerable cost issues involved with acquiring the native materials necessary to simulate “growing up”. Again, these issues are multiplied by as many languages as there are in question.

Learning a language is going to cost a lot of time and some amount of money before it pays back anything other than enjoyment; for a long time, it has to be an end unto itself and not a means to anything but a good time. All these costs are typically hidden from us growing up in our native language(s), because they are incorporated into daily life — a kid growing up in Japan doesn’t buy a “Japanese” comic book, she just buys a comic book; she doesn’t hang out with “Japanese” people, she just hangs out with people; she doesn’t watch “Japanese” TV, she just watches TV — but these same costs become very clearly visible when we’re now recreating a childhood remotely and from scratch.

But it could be done. I’m quite sure of it. It is totally doable. It’s not really a matter of the raw capability of the human hardware, more one of PPL: patience, priorities and logistics: the patience to continue priority-investing in the exposure and infrastructure necessary to acquire a language, all for no immediately visible return, over an indeterminate timescale, against any and all significantly deleterious objections and interruptions from other people, because it’s going to take as long as it’s freaking going to take, and if you stop, you lose.

And once you’ve built your beautiful linguistic house, you don’t just let out a satisfied sigh, wipe your hands and walk away; you keep maintaining it lest the termites of memory decay 1 should eat into your wonderful imported Brazilian hardwood frame and bring the whole thing crashing down.

One doesn’t so much learn a language as one does become a person who habitually comes into contact with it. Can you establish and maintain robust, high-bandwith, long-lasting, simultaneous input streams across all the languages you want to learn? If so, then go for it! 😉

I may be completely wrong in my caution; I may just be “projecting”; I would be happy — overjoyed — to be shown to have been too conservative. Either way — if you want to do something, don’t waste another moment of your time talking to people like me: the way to prove it…is to do it. In cases like this, you don’t win by being right, you’re right because you win.


  1. Since we’re belly-aching today, I might as well belly-ache you this: It really tugs on my tampon strings (what-the?!) when someone’s like “oh yeah, I know language X, I’m just a bit rusty”, and then proceeds to speak in such an incomprehensible accent and make so many fundamental grammatical errors, that you just want to move to the Netherlands and have yourself medically euthanized.

    I myself have lived in a few too many countries now, such that I have a unique tapestry (trainwreck) of an accent in English…an airport accent, but, I mean…I’m pretty tolerant of variation, so I think that my grievances actually carry even more weight than those of, say, an American who doesn’t own a passport and tells tourists from the UK that they: “need to learn English properly” (actually happened to a friend of a friend 🙂 ).

    Anyway! 😀

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  26 comments for “Surely One Could Learn Multiple Languages At Once?

  1. WC
    December 20, 2009 at 19:44

    Yup, it’s possible. I’m doing it.

    I haven’t given up on Japanese and I still spend as much time each day on it as before. But now I’m also working on another language. The other language is far, far easier to learn for an English speaker, though. That’s part of the reason I chose it, actually.

    “One doesn’t so much learn a language as one does become a person who habitually comes into contact with it.” – This comment is so amazingly on target that I think it nearly killed me. I’m at that point in Japanese where I just continually force myself to spend a little time studying, and a little time enjoying the language each day. My second language is still all study-time, but it’s easy enough that I will hit the ‘enjoy’ phase in a few weeks or months, I think.

  2. December 20, 2009 at 19:46

    Really good point!!!
    Just go and prove you’re wrong………
    Another thing………
    don’t spend so many times in blogs and commmenting……. go to your thing…….
    go study. practice……
    I found this blog weeks ago and I love it ’cause I’m tottally new in this japanese-learnin’ process ( but I love Japan so much and I had to find to get closer and closer to it) and the first thing I notice before readin’ it a lot is that i should stop and strad doin’………( of course I’m at the beginin’ of the beginin’)
    Thanks for the help………..
    p.s.: My first comment!!!!!!!!!!!!! Not the last I hope………

  3. Viharenknäppishär
    December 20, 2009 at 22:21

    I dunno how my post relates to this one, but anyway I want to thank you for this blog.
    Today I was bragging a little about how I am almost up to 500 Swedish sentences in a month or so (and still just a beginner) when my computer broke down for an hour and I was devastated. All of the sentences could have been lost, and I would have have to download all of the Swedish-dubbed Batman episodes again, not to mention the rest of my movie collection, including South Park. Anyway I’ll keep reading your posts and get more sentences in, I’ll also take backups of my precious sentences from now on 🙂

  4. December 21, 2009 at 01:09

    I agree!

    It also gets under my skin when people tell me, “oh I speak 4 languages fluently,” or, “I know 3 languages.” What does it mean to really KNOW a language.

    I’ve been at Japanese 10 years and I still pickup a dictionary at -least- once a week (and I’m being generous.) It takes a -really long time- to really -know- a language. The learning never stops.

    I’m going to China in Jan to study Chinese for 8 months. One-on-one lessons. Total immersion. But even after that I don’t think I’ll go around telling people, “I know Chinese and Japanese.” It’ll take -years- before my Chinese is anywhere near my Japanese skillz.

    Anyway. Yeah. I know what you mean man.

    This kind of reminds me of the way I twitch when people ask, “which should I learn first, Korean or Japanese?” Umm…. just get started on one… and call me when you’re done.


    – Harvey

  5. Patrick
    December 21, 2009 at 01:45

    I think I would suggest anyone trying to learn multiple languages at the same time to start with just one. Once you know how difficult (or not) it is to do just one, you can make a better judgment of the difficulty of learning multiple languages at once.

    As for me, I’m pretty sure I will never attempt to go for multiple languages simultaneously. I’m having enough trouble with just one already.(I just ‘celebrated’ finishing RTK with three days of not reviewing.)

  6. Nukemarine
    December 21, 2009 at 04:03

    Something tells me if I so chose to learn both French and Spanish at the same time, I’d walk away fluent and literate at a fraction of the time it’s taking for Japanese. That’s assuming I’m using all the techniques I’m using for Japanese (which I respectfully have stolen from Khatzumoto). Of course, I know in my chosen path of life, French and Spanish would be niceties where as Japanese and English are going to be necessities. I already have English down pat, so that just leaves Japanese.

    By the way, Khatzumoto, since you did switch from Mandarin to Cantonese, do you think looking at that point in your studies can give you better insight on doubling or tripling up language learning with similar languages?

  7. Ryuk
    December 21, 2009 at 04:58

    I myself have started learning 2 languages at once.

    My Japanese which has been going for about 2 years now and Mandarin. However, my approach to learning Mandarin is somewhat different from Japanese.

    Whilst I spend most of my time watching Japanese TV, reading manga, SRSing, etc., for Mandarin I spend a lot less time on that. I basically just learn a few sentences now and again during a week and use them when talking to my woman/indentured servant. I find that this doesn’t really interfere with my Japanese because I am only using it to communicate with her, whereas my Japanese is almost an entirely entertainment based affair. Of course there is an overlap with Kanji which helps things, but I tried initially doing the same method (AJATT) when I started learning Mandarin. I found this way I just got confused.

    In my opinion, it is possible to learn two languages at the same time. The part that makes it hard is using the same learning method for both languages. Doing this just gets your brain confused because it’s used to SRSing L2 and when you suddenly switch to L3 and do the same stuff some wires get crossed and melt and burn your house down.

    Anyway, that’s my ¥1.8088089.

  8. アメド
    December 21, 2009 at 07:47


    Try pronouncing this!!!!!(This one is tricky for me I’m sure everyone else will find it the same lol)

  9. Matt
    December 21, 2009 at 13:31

    “When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many of the things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land; he must abandon the old ideals and the old gods, and oftentimes he must reverse the very codes by which his conduct has hitherto been shaped. To those who have the protean faculty of adaptability, the novelty of such change may even be a source of pleasure; but to those who happen to be hardened to the ruts in which they were created, the pressure of the altered environment is unbearable, and they chafe in body and in spirit under the new restrictions which they do not understand. This chafing is bound to act and react, producing divers evils and leading to various misfortunes. It were better for the man who cannot fit himself to the new groove to return to his own country; if he delay too long, he will surely die.” – Jack London, ‘In a Far Country’

  10. Aaron
    December 21, 2009 at 13:37

    While I agree that “binging and purging” method is a no-go, I’d have to say that I do fully support a method that my friend quoted as “binging with a laxative”: just devouring as much of a language in any form you can without a thought as to whether or not you can remember it. If you see/hear/read something again, whatever, but you don’t ‘try’ to see it again. You just do stuff. Pretty sure this is pretty close to the AJATT way, but just to clarify I guess.

  11. Jimbo
    December 21, 2009 at 14:34

    Cool post Khatz. You make a lot of great points here and I am really just as tempted to learn one language to an impeccable level in a fairly short time as I am to cover several simultaneously and take a lot longer. So far I’ve opted for the latter, because I just get more enjoyment out of it. Plus I’m just greedy!

    I know Alexander Arguelles has been mentioned a while back (favourably and not so favouably), but in keeping with the idea that you will “plod along” gradually making small, incremental progress, he really has the technique down pat. He is able to maintain and build on numerous languages in any one day, recognising that in five to ten years time, he will have achieved great things in them ( I guess it really requires long-term planning. Three or four languages for me is the maximum, and all of them with the exception of Chinese are related to other languages I already know, so I’m not overburdening myself but still able to indulge my appetite as it were. Chinese of course takes longer.

  12. December 21, 2009 at 15:37

    Agree on both important points Khatz made. One, I know several multi-lingual people who are *way* better at conversationally speaking Japanese than me, yet they always ask me for help with random vocabulary words (炒飯?come on that’s 簡単過ぎる!… and anytime they have to read *any* Kanji), making them pretty crippled as far as the full language is concerned, but they know enough to be functional (and consider themselves done learning), and that is all they want/need. Sure, I’m crippled too, but I’m not done yet, no where near.

    Two, it’s obviously possible, but you have to really effing like it/want it and most likely quit all your jobs/hobbies/school/activities to do so (no problem for kids).

    Oh, and Three (both can be three, right?) no matter what you do, it’s going to cost you a crapload of time and a crapload of money if you’re really dedicated.

  13. Chris
    December 21, 2009 at 21:12

    Khatz, are you aware of Moses McCormick? He’s a popular multi-language enthusiast:

  14. December 21, 2009 at 22:11

    Hmm… Although it’s possible, it’s better not to mix them together at the same time.
    I did mine at different stages. I think it’s better this way.

  15. Jes
    December 21, 2009 at 22:57

    Lex research
    Japanese MIT phD. studied multiple language acquisition of infants. Children speak all the languages they grow up in contact with.

    But, there’s a bit of critical dissonance. Speak…Fluent…Ownin’…whateva; are all precepts made by individuals. You know you can’t know what it fully means when someone says something. Like “oh ya I save lives”, “cause I don’t go around shooting people”. It ain’t math, it’s verbage, it’s arbitrary. Don’t get bent out of your fine shapes trying to fit your mind in another’s.

    This site (ajatt) is about a more successful approach to learning. Loving, Joyful Contact. In contrast to non-contact; “turn to page 42 and read two paragraphs please. Pop quiz on Fri” (how many of you feel inclined to violence just getting a whiff of that) *Raises hand*

    If you make it apart of you, then it is. Don’t make it ‘something you do’; just include what you want in your life or let it be there if it already is. Put the things you want to touch the most; closest. Sort through the environment find what you want and touch it. Ding!

    It seems like the tension in the article is in ‘knowing’ that one can do multilanguages to fluency. It can be done, but only if you copy how a child works. There’s no way to accomplish it while you have an ‘idea’ a mind, a monitor, a critic. The real language acquisition comes by weaving threads of memory through your heart while your mind is questing to become more like the people / presences around you. (right brain posture/input instead of left) Probably just sounds like poetry, bummer, but point blank, you learn by heart first. Not brain. Everything else is an illusion. Memory is laid down best by flow, not start and stop; the staccato of ‘thought processes’

    How did () improve my ability so supremely? It’s not about the answer it’s about the question, it puts the thinker in the position of already being there. As you dwell in the place you desire…..well there you are, it’s already done.

    Maybe we’ll discover there wasn’t anything to do to begin with…

  16. NSCT
    December 22, 2009 at 03:24

    Multiple languages at once? For 2 languages the best way I found is to try to use your L2 to learn L3. You may need to reach first an intermediate level in your L2.

  17. beneficii
    December 22, 2009 at 03:56

    One thing you can AJATT is the metric system. You see for our American posters, Japan is a modern country that uses the international system of units, so as part of your AJATT you may want to try metricating your life. In fact, you can do so in a way similar to AJATT. Just use metric in your life (all metric all the time), or at least as much as you can; avoid converting between metric units and customary units (in others, don’t waste your time translating)*; and just become familiar with the basic units (which are far fewer in number than the number of basic units in the customary system) and some basic prefixes like centi–centimeters, though, have become somewhat deprecated in industrial use–. milli, and kilo.

    *If you spend all your time converting, you will still think in customary units and it will also make the metric system SEEM HARD, because of the complex conversion factors. The metric system, which is very easy to become familiar with, is much much easier than the customary system, but relying on converting between the metric system and the customary system will just make the metric system SEEM HARD and foreign and unfamiliar. Better to just become familiar with the metric units themselves, in becoming able to estimate how much a unit is.

  18. Ken
    December 22, 2009 at 13:43

    beneficii: I’m not sure if you’re from a very different part of America than me, or grew up in a different generation, or are a non-American who assumes we don’t know the metric system, but I grew up in America, and I learned (only) the metric system in school. (They kept saying “By the time you graduate, we’ll all be using it”. Well, some of us are!) So I know the metric system at least as well as the American system. My climbing rope is 60 meters, my thermostat is set to 20 degrees, I’m about 180cm tall … outside of cooking, I rarely see the American system any more. Everything is labeled in both systems, so we’re free to ignore those units we don’t like: I know a milk carton is 1.89L, but I’d have to think for a minute to figure out what it is in American units.

    Americans are already bilingual at systems of measurement. 🙂

    I’ve always been a little jealous of my friends who grew up in bilingual countries (like Canadians who speak English and French), but I never really realized that I’m already bilingual at measurement. There might not be many other countries in the world where somebody could watch a weather forecast, or read a speed limit sign, or take somebody’s temperature in two different systems of measurement, without even thinking about it.

  19. December 22, 2009 at 17:04


    My experience is that, with the exception of people that had a work-related cause to learn it, most Americans over 30 or so never really learned the metric system. Like you, I did in school, but I get the impression I was (having been born in 1980) in the early years of the switch.

    The only thing I wasn’t really comfortable with before moving abroad was temperature. It was a long time before my “hmm, this feels like about 70F” sense could accurately say “hmm, this feels like about 21C.”

  20. beneficii
    December 22, 2009 at 17:50

    John B,

    I’d say that most young Americans aren’t that familiar with it, either–they’re probably less familiar than some older Americans. They see the metric system as something *hard* that they have to learn in school, and learn all sorts of conversion factors to convert from their familiar units, and they don’t see the point. They just wanna go back to using their measures. Though metric usage has permeated some areas in America, for the most Americans aren’t familiar with it.

    This was my AJATT analogy, and it does seem analogous to the best way to metricate a country: the big bang method. This website here advocates dropping customary units and going the route of all metric all the time:

  21. Surrealus
    December 22, 2009 at 19:12

    @Jes: Nice comment. At first it seemed badly written somehow but after reading the whole thing I realized it was like a super-condensed message that hits you right on. I think, as with so many other things, that what you wrote applies to much more than just Japanese learning too. Khatz has talked about it before, and he said almost the exact same thing when he discussed “african learning philosophy”, but I think the biggest problem in our education system is the dissonance that’s being created. Education (and later work) is seen as something separated from your life, because it’s forced on you and you perceive yourself as not having fun, even if you’re actually the happiest when in school.

    But in fact you never need to be ‘working at’ (hard to phrase this, I hope the meaning is fairly clear) something to become better at it – you just do it, it becomes part of your daily routine, your life and your self. Sure, if you’re a musician and want to learn notation maybe you force yourself to start reading about it, you need to “get” the system before you can be in it. But it seems to me that you have much better chances at mastering the system if you just see it as something you read because you want to, and then go on to whatever music you like but in note format. You’ve entered the world of notation and you explore it, you’re “in” as soon as you know the basics and as long as you make your way through music with its help you’ll make progress.

    Just that initial response to how you view ‘learning’ makes a world of difference – it can mean despair or happiness, abandoning your project or eventually making a living out of it. Our ability to keep the positive view could on a larger scale actually have a big impact on humanity’s survival. It’s uh, worth thinking about I’d say.

    (I recently read through Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and these thoughts were heavily influenced by it so anyone interested should check it out)

  22. Igor
    December 23, 2009 at 01:13

    Hi there,
    As a brazilian and english non-native speaker I can say that everyone in the situation must learn english before any other language.
    Why?? Simple, the internet and most of the information is in english, lots of people speak english, if one wants to learn something, a language for example, there must be some material, site and more stuff in english, in portuguese is quite rare.
    We usually say “want to learn japanese? Learn english first!” but, as you all said, we can´t just learn a language and be 100% fluent, perfect,etc
    Then, if we can´t learn any other language without english, what should we poor-3rdworld´s guys-nonenglishspeakers do?
    Learn english and another language at the same time! Even if we can´t get native level in both languages.
    We can get good results from that kind of study and If it works for brazilians, it can work for any other kind of people.
    Steve Kaufmann from lingq is learning portuguese and russian at the same time, and all I can say is that he´s portuguese is becoming very good.

  23. Ed
    December 23, 2009 at 03:15

    The Animaniacs “Countries of the World Song” in J 🙂

  24. Irukandji
    December 26, 2009 at 20:04

    Just wanted to pitch in as someone who’s been trying to learn two languages at once for a few months now. I’ve been learning Norwegian alongside Japanese, and I’m currently in the “Heisig stage” with going through Remembering The Kanji 1.

    I want to say that the point about a tortoise-like attitude is extremely accurate. There is no binge studying for me anymore – if I do a large amount of studying in a day it’s always broken up into small bits via timeboxing. It is always slow and steady, and when you have “twice as much to learn”, you’ll probably get tired really quickly if you try to do huge unbroken study sessions (in my experience I end up getting nothing done if I try to binge study).

    It’s not something I’m sure I’d recommend to someone with not very much time – if you’re working a full-time job and find yourself with a minimal amount of time for studying, you’re probably better off studying one language at a time, as you’ll get quicker results and probably be happier and more motivated. My circumstances are unique in that I’m a homeschooled, unemployed teenager. I’m well aware of the fact that studying two languages means it’ll take more time for me to learn each of them than if I studied one at a time, but I have a deep love for both languages, and each one has its own unique facets that draw me in.

    One thing to worry about is balancing your languages. Sometimes I find myself paying too much attention to Norwegian due to it being a Germanic language and therefore having many words that are very similar to English ones (grønn being the word for green, for example), and sometimes I find myself paying too much attention to Japanese due to my love of kanji and also because of the wealth of materials in comparison to more obscure languages (say Norwegian with its 4.5 million native speakers). You have to be very fond of all the languages you’re learning, and willing to devote equal time and love to them. There’s also the issue of a difficulty with creating the ‘total immersion’ environment when you have two (or more) different languages to immerse yourself in!

    If you have substantial time for two or more languages, love your chosen languages deeply enough to keep going with them even if you may see slower improvements than if you studied one at a time, and don’t mind said slower improvements and the fact that it will take you probably twice as long to become fluent in each, then go for it, I say. Just don’t be lazy! If you’re going to learn them, LEARN them. You don’t want the annoying gaps in your knowledge Khatzumoto mentioned, do you? 🙂

  25. January 10, 2011 at 16:22

    I don’t know how many blogs and other sources pertaining to language-learning I’ve come across wherein writers proclaim the incompetence of a human being to acquire foreign languages! It’s as if they are each blind to the fact that intelligent, studious, multilingual beings exist around the globe. Your post, Sir(?)–or Madam(?–>tampon strings!), has sealed this frustration up for me. You advised it, I’ve always known it, and therefore I will no longer seek-out others’ opinion on my endeavor such as would likely rekindle utter perturbation. While reading your post, I felt that perhaps someone had crept into my desk drawers to review the notes I’ve taking on my path to L2L3 fluency. I have kept my journey rather secret except toward close family (grudgingly) and the polite foreigners who aid my growth. Maybe you haven’t read any of Ayn Rand’s work, but while your piece here is not technical, the tone stands in harmony with hers. Her fiction–namely The Fountainhead–as well as the golden strands of non-fiction she left behind, moved me to identify the “human hardware” (with which I was birthed) and to take conscious hold of it! Of the several quotables within your blog, the quotiest is “…the way to prove it…is to do it. In cases like this, you don’t win by being right, you’re right because you win.” That captures the entire argument and in the same motion thrusts the neighsayer’s blade through his own guts. If one is stirred to do something, he should only seek that which promotes his cause; if he commits errors, they will be worked-out along the way… …Okay I’m sure I’ve gone over some word counter’s limit. Just for decency I’ll let you know that I’m 20 years old, I live in Georgia (USA), I have been studying Mandarin for a year and I’ve begun to incorporate Spanish into my design as well. Your post is perfecto!

  26. ダンちゃん
    January 10, 2011 at 22:45

    Allen… step away from the drugs.

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