Learning two new languages simultaneously


Can anyone here comment on the experience of beginning the study of two foreign languages at the same time? I realize this isn’t at all a science and faith question, but you all have become my best resource for schooling questions.

The international school that we are leaning towards sending Soren to in Germany teaches German (obviously), but they would also require that he study French or Spanish this year. His prior study of Latin through CC would help with learning French or Spanish, and he has done a few lessons in German on Rosetta Stone. But he would essentially be a beginner in both. I understand that for those at the school who have been studying German for years, adding a new language is a great option. And I know plenty of Europeans are working on their fifth or sixth language by the time they reach ninth grade. But I think starting two languages from scratch could be too much for Soren this year. I’ve asked whether he could delay studying French or Spanish until later, but it seems this school has little flexibility with their curriculum.

Any thoughts? Perhaps a really smart person with an advanced degree in linguistics (wink, wink) can share some insight.

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I bet @Christy would help you. I only officially have a minor in French, but did have exposure to French and Hausa (not related to each other) and a smattering Tamajaq, Fufulde and German in the mission field. I am sure he can do well. However, one thing that helped me compartmentalize my languages was using them in a certain, familiar way that associated the language with an environment. I used French when reading Tintin and Asterix and with the compound Swiss and French “aunties,” and educated neighbors; and Hausa with the neighbors and at church. Do you have access to fun things (eg books/bandes dessinees) or neighbors who speak Spanish?

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If you are studying the languages in a classroom, and we are talking about high school level not child language acquisition, I don’t think that two new languages would be that much different than taking any two classes that require a lot of memorization of new vocabulary or formulas. The student will have to keep up with the memorization through daily drill, which is where a lot of kids slack off and end up struggling.

When I taught high school, I had a couple students each year who were taking two foreign languages, and they generally did fine because they were motivated and kept on top of the work. In college I came in as a French major (having taken French since 7th grade) and started a Spanish minor by taking an accelerated 101/102 in one semester “review” class, even though I had not had any previous Spanish. It was very doable. The hardest part was when I spent a summer in Peru speaking Spanish all the time and then came back to upper level French lit classes in the fall. I could read the French with no problem, but sometimes found I struggled with some interference when I tried to speak. So, if your son is in an immersion environment in German outside of class, he may find his fluency in speaking French/Spanish is affected because the new German words might be more “on the tip of his tongue” and he might have many more opportunities and social motivation to practice listening and speaking. But since beginning level courses are a lot of learning basic vocabulary, I don’t think it would be something to worry about. The Latin background will certainly help with either French or Spanish vocab acquisition.

I also think they must teach languages more effectively in Europe than we do in the U.S., since all of the European friends I have (Czech, Austrian, French, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, German, Belgian, Polish) actually attained a decent level of proficiency in the languages they studied in school. I cannot say the same about most of my American friends.


So this will be helpful if Soren ever complains about having to study German and Spanish concurrently. I’ll just say, “Hey, at least it’s not German and Tamajaq!”

Well, we’re not even in Germany yet, and we learned yesterday that the move date has been delayed again. So we may end up arriving right when school is starting, rather than having a few weeks to rest and get acclimated as we’ve hoped we would. But whenever we get settled, we likely won’t have Spanish-speaking neighbors or lots of time to seek them out. I know some Spanish and could help Soren a bit, but that’s not how I’d like to be spending my time with him. German, which we’ll all be trying to learn and which I do expect to use with neighbors, will be the priority and enough of a challenge.


Best wishes! Sprechen Sie schon Deutsch? Und konnen Sie ihr hilfen? (I think that is do you already speak German–and could you help him?)

Sorry, my German is rusty. I understand that children who learn 2 languages simultaneously (as in one parent being English and the other French) do tend to delay proficiency a bit, but do pretty well in the long run. I wonder if it’s that “tip of the tongue” interference experience of Christy.

Viel Gluck.

I concur with @Christy. At the end of the day, you know your son and you should listen to your parental instincts, too. People are different. My wife has many giftings but languages is not really one of them. When she had to learn some French for her work, it pushed out the bit of Spanish she had learned in high school. Needing to use Spanish again after that would push the French back out again. But for some people it would be no problem at all, especially if they are young (early high school is great; my wife was learning as an adult) and motivated and have some natural “knack” for languages. It helps, actually, that the languages are as different as Spanish and German. Keeping two Romance languages straight can be harder!

If your gut tells you your son can do it, I recommend you just give it a shot the first year and just keep a close eye on how it’s going, if that’s an option for you.

Du courage!

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Danke, Herr Randy,

Ich verstehe nur ein bisschen Deutsch.

I’ve studied independently here and there over the past decade or so, including going through all of Level 1 German on Rosetta Stone six years ago. And I intend to continue learning German one way or another after we arrive in Germany. So, yes, I’d be motivated and somewhat competent to help him, but I expect he’ll surpass me after a few months of study in school.

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I was thinking the grammar would be the more challenging aspect, since sentence structure in German and Spanish is quite different. And German nouns change based on their case, as they do in Latin, but they don’t in the modern Romance languages (I think that’s correct). I can see this being hard to keep straight when both languages are new. But perhaps you’re right and these differences won’t be such a big deal.

I wouldn’t say he will be in an immersion environment, at least not at school. It’s an international school that uses English as the language of instruction. Every student studies German, and starting in middle school they offer French and Spanish (and apparently require one of them in 9th grade). I hope he will make friends with kids in the neighborhood, which would likely do the most to improve his conversational German. But between family and other groups he may be part of (Boy Scouts, Young Life, youth group, etc.), I expect most of his conversation outside of school will be in English too.

I’ve experienced that “interference” in the limited times I’ve had opportunity to converse in German. I’ve sometimes found myself putting a Spanish preposition or conjunction into a sentence (given my accent, does that make it Germanglish?).

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Christy, do you think this has mostly to do with pedagogy? I know what you are talking about in terms of results, but I’ve thought it had more to do with the importance (or lack thereof) placed on learning non-native languages and the motivation of the learners. I have an image (caricature perhaps) of a typical American school kid who thinks, “Why should I care about learning another language? We’re the most important country in the world and everybody else should learn our language.”

Also, I think that many more Europeans kids are learning multiple languages from a young age, whereas it seems in the U.S. that most don’t start until middle school or high school. But I’m sure you know more about all of this than I do.

I’ve had even weirder interference… I have a single slot in my head where Spanish and Arabic compete. Basically, English and French are both firmly entrenched, because I started learning French in 9th grade, but after that I hit puberty and my mind seems to have stopped growing memory card slots for new languages. I have only a single slot for “everything else,” and when I study Arabic it kicks out Spanish and then when I have limited opportunities to speak Spanish, I have to fight Arabic at literally every word that wants to come out. It’s weird… I have really no idea why this is. But I hope that your son will be in a good way if he starts now!

I’d be interested in hearing more about this. I might have thought the opposite would be true, but this isn’t something I’ve considered a lot.

If only I could summon a really smart person with an advanced degree in linguistics…

Actually, last night I talked about this with my mom, who has a master’s degree in Romance Languages. She said she studied Latin her last two years of high school (that was the only foreign language taught at her school, where she was valedictorian of her graduating class of nine!) In college, she majored in French, which she began studying as a freshman, and minored in Spanish, which she started as a sophomore. She also thinks that starting two new languages simultaneously could be a real challenge and that she would have had a harder time if she started French and Spanish the same year. Her expectation is that Spanish and German contemporaneously would be more difficult than Spanish and French. But, again these are only her impressions.

In my mind, it’s kind of like what @Randy said about compartmentalizing the languages by context.

If two languages are very similar, it’s easy to sort of cross-wire them in your brain. If you’re learning Spanish and Italian at the same time, and you know both words for good are something like “b…n…” but one is bene and the other is bueno, you can mix them up. But if you know that one of the languages you’re studying is Germanic-sounding like English — gut — and the other is Latinate-sounding — bueno — then they’re easier to keep straight.

Then again, when actually speaking, sometimes the brain plays tricks on you like with my “Sparabic.” Spanish and Arabic are nothing alike! But somehow they vie for the same spot in my brain. Intellectually, if you asked me on a test what the word for “but” is in Spanish and Arabic, I would easily tell you Spanish is pero and Arabic is lakin, but there’s a sort of muscle memory that kicks in when I try to speak Spanish and the Arabic lakin comes out when I want to say pero. It takes me several minutes of forcing every word to come out in Spanish before it starts to flow a bit more naturally.


This is precisely the issue. When I understood that this particular school would require that Soren take French or Spanish along with German, my parental instinct was that it would not go well. In the midst of a host of other changes—new country, new house, new friends, new educational path, etc.—two new languages seemed like an unnecessary burden. When I discussed this with Soren in the car last night, he had a very similar initial reaction. Things have been so crazy for us that I’m not even sure if I’ve discussed the matter with my wife yet, but I have no doubt that she will be in accord on this.

I’m confident that in the big picture Soren will do fine with whatever path we choose educationally, and I was insistent in communicating this to him last night. But I also want to be diligent in exploring whether my concerns are as substantive as they seem right now.

Another aspect of this that bears noting is that the potential transition away from homeschooling would be a huge deal for our family. Despite my laboriously described frustrations with some components of CC, we all have been very grateful for our years of homeschooling and how they have shaped Soren into the young man he is becoming. And one of the key reasons we decided to homeschool and have stuck with it thus far is that it gives us the flexibility to develop and adjust his educational plan according to his interests, learning aptitudes, life situation, etc. We never wanted to feel like we were just sticking him on an educational conveyor belt and trusting he would come out educated in the end. So it was rather jarring to have the head of admissions, after I explained our situation and asked whether Soren could delay the study of Spanish for a year or two, essentially reply with, “No, this is how we do things.”

Probably a combination of pedagogy, higher expectations of students in general, and an environment where other languages are useful on a daily basis and socially prestigious. It could be that I just only know really smart Europeans. :slight_smile: I don’t think you can chalk it up entirely to starting younger. Starting young helps with native-like accents but it is a myth that children learn languages faster. Teens and adults actually are capable of learning more words in a day and it is easier/faster for teens and adults to master foreign grammatical concepts with reference to a good understanding of their first language than it is for children to figure everything out by deduction and repetition.

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Of course this sort of rigidity is probably part of every schooling environment to an extent, but I imagine even more so in German culture. In my experience with one German (German Swiss) supervisor in particular, rules and procedures are there for a reason, and they are not really to be circumvented except in quite extraordinary circumstances. Of course this aspect of their culture has its positive side as well, but it certainly chafes against our American sensibilities and can create some real challenges for American families. You have my empathy and prayers!

Wow, really interesting! That’s an encouragement for many of us.

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