People who know a very large number of languages aren’t likely to be fluent in the majority of them by most people’s standards. There are rare individuals who dedicate their life to language-learning who achieve a high level in a large number of languages, but they are the exception. Importantly, these people are not savant-like. Everyone has the ability to learn a large number of languages, though few have the time, interest, and motivation required.
The principal determinant of your success is the amount of time you can spend with your languages. If you are young and are prepared to make it a consistent effort, by your middle ages you can quite easily speak five or more languages well. You have to put in the work, though. The number of languages you achieve for any given amount of time is also going to depend on what languages you learn. You can learn more by sticking to those similar to the ones you already know.
Can we learn two or more languages at once?
The general recommendation here is to avoid picking up a second language while you are still actively studying the first. When you pick up a new language, your level with the other language will need to be at least B1, ideally B2 (CEFR), to prevent yourself from gradually forgetting it. At this level, you can watch and read content for enjoyment to keep your language skill up and improving while actively studying another.
It is worth noting that human languages are often related, and if you are learning languages from a similar language family, you may be able to reduce the time learning by understanding how languages share and differentiate their grammatical structures and vocabularies. If you don’t have enough time, but are losing motivation to continue studying your primary language, and are near stopping altogether, you may choose to go ahead and pick up your second. That said, it’s better to try restore your initial motivation.
If you do choose to go down the route of learning two or more languages at once, how practical it is depends on your situation. It’s possible to pick up another language to learn, but you will likely need to increase or even double the time you spend studying if you wish to continue learning both at a reasonable pace.
If you are learning, say, Arabic and studying for two hours a day, to pick up Navajo you must study an additional two hours a day rather than studying an hour of Arabic and an hour of Navajo. Many people do not have that sort of time at their disposal, so if you find either of your languages are being allocated less than 20 minutes a day, it’s better to put one on hold. Going below 20 minutes a day starts to get inefficient, as it becomes easier to forget the language and not enough reinforcement occurs.
The best tactic is generally to only actively learn one language at a time, while the others go into “language maintenance mode”, where you occasionally engage with the language in order to prevent your abilities from slipping.
General tips on maintaining multiple languages at once
• The basics are simple: (1) learn the language; (2) speak the language; (3) keep speaking the language. Repeat the process for the next language.
• Try to do things that don’t require full attention, such as listening to a German podcast while at the gym, listening to an Italian talk show while cleaning up your room, listening to something in Chinese while jogging.
• Since this can get boring, it is important to vary your activities: reading books (good for developing vocabulary and language structures); simultaneously translating in your head, e.g. while listening to a Russian talk show; chatting with people through voice chat (which does not even feel like learning).
• The most important thing is to combine activities in order to use your time more efficiently.
• Do not neglect a language for more than three to four days, because otherwise your level would start to go down.
In more detail, to learn a language, you need to:
1. Set realistic goals; you cannot rush language learning;
2. Find learning materials and/or a teacher;
3. Decide how much time you can allocate to the language; it is recommended to study one hour per day split into 15-minute chunks (you need to find out what works for you);
4. Review and check what you know; if your learning materials contain tests, use them;
5. Make changes to your schedule if things aren’t working (this applies to learning materials, teachers, etc.).
To speak the language, you need to:
1. Locate resources (someone you can speak with, not necessarily a native speaker);
2. Find a teacher who knows how to correct your errors (e.g. just speak for 15 minutes and list the errors later);
3. Find authentic materials in the target language that contain cultural information and that contain constructions and expressions that don’t exist in your native language.
The above is mainly about learning a language, but the question “how to keep speaking a language” is about maintaining it:
• You need to integrate the language into your life, e.g. by visiting the country where the language is spoken, spending time in an immersed environment (a course or a job).
• Try “remote immersion” by reducing your use of L1 and think in your target language instead.
• Read, watch TV and listen to content exclusively in your target languages. When you learn a language, start reading books in it, watch videos in it and listen to the news in it, all as if you were in the country that speaks it. This will take you to an intermediate fluency level.
• However, it is difficult to guarantee that your “remote immersion” as authentic, that it represents the language as it is really spoken. This is easier to achieve with English, because it is everywhere, than with smaller languages such as Hungarian.
How much do we have to sacrifice to become a polyglot?
Integrate foreign languages into your life. For instance, treat your, say, Hungarian grammar book as a “Sudoku book” (dip into it when you have 20-30 minutes of spare time), or try reading exclusively in your target language, as it will provide a lot of language input. This way, you won’t have the feeling that you need to sacrifice a lot of your spare time.
Try also changing the language of your devices to your target language. Label things around you for which you don’t know the words.
• It is a matter of time and motivation. You need to be prepared to deal with frustration.
• It works better with languages that are not so easily confused.
• Become conversational in a language before you pick up the next language. This includes getting the pronunciation right.
• Make a schedule if that works for you. If you make a schedule, prioritise your languages and make your schedule accordingly.
• Set realistic, bite-size goals.
• In order to make sure that you use your target languages, you need to integrate them into your life, e.g. by maintaining a diary in a foreign language or listening to music.
You can even decide to embrace a certain lifestyle that will allow you to learn and maintain multiple foreign languages.
If you live in a country with fewer foreigners, you can still talk to foreigners over the internet. In order to find people online, you can use a YouTube channel, but there are many other websites where you can find people who are willing to do a language exchange. For example, italki, SharedTalk on Biligua.io, “language.exchange” and LanguageExchange.net, as well as Conversationexchange.com. However, you should be a bit selective in your exchange partners; you will learn most when you talk to people you like talking to.
Bottom line is – make sure you have some exposure to each of your target languages constantly, as you need to tackle every language almost every day.