Philipp Marxen

Improving Language Skills in Several Languages Simultaneously: My Approach and Experience

In one of these funny looking 1970s Batman series, Batman tells Robin to practice his languages daily. “Languages are the key to world peace.”

In that sense, I am less optimistic than Batman. Even if we just had one common language, humans are likely to still engage in harmful and dangerous acts and even wars. 

Still, achieving fluency in multiple languages is a fascinating challenge and I am confident that this opens many doors to different cultures, communities and ultimately opportunities. 

I believe we are living in the age of the polyglots. We have more chances to use different languages and there is more need for that. Plus, the tools we have at our disposal give us a massive advantage compared to what was available just 20 years ago. Basically all my tools that I use and many of the techniques did not really exist in the current form 20 years ago. 

How do I improve several languages at once? That’s this article about. In the end, it is for me to look back on how I approached it. Likely, I will see some mistakes later on and make some improvements. In other words, it is a journey and an iterative process of continuous improvement. Maybe this gives you also some ideas how you can amend your language learning process. 

Trying to improve several languages at once is quite a challenge for the brain in terms of cognitive abilities and memory. Especially since I am not that young any more.

I try to compensate my decreased curiosity, decreased memory and adaptability with improved self-control, systems and tools. In the end, learning a language might necessitates a blend of discipline, efficient strategies, and the correct mindset. Each language comes with its own set of complexities. My approach to learning or improving is somewhat different for each language. That allows for nice comparisons. 

Multiple books and dictionaries open, with words and phrases in different languages highlighted. Flashcards and language learning apps scattered around

I’ve embarked on this multilingual adventure with clear objectives. And the most important objective is having fun and making progress towards having conversations without language barriers. Sometimes that means balancing my focus to advance in all target languages. Then again, I sometimes prioritize a language that I am more into during that particular day or week. 

As someone actively engaged in learning multiple languages, I continually adapt my methods usually gradually and at times radically. Whether it’s through immersive experiences or structured study sessions, the key lies in regular practice and a commitment to understanding the nuances of each language.

My Goal

Colorful books and language dictionaries spread out on a table, with headphones and a laptop displaying language learning software

My goal is to be able to have meaningful conversations at standard speed with native speakers about a wide range of topics.

Being Able to Communicate Effectively

For me, effective communication is the cornerstone of learning any language. I remember that back in middle school, tests were often based on translation of individual words and I remembered the exact position of a word on the page in the school book, sometimes I was able to recall the meaning but seldomly use it correctly. It was a knowledge optimized for language tests, not for communication.

Putting away the constraints of school and the current practice of testing, I can set very different goals. In fact, only in a minority of the languages that I speak, I have certifications. My goal is to be able to understand spoken language and react without delay in the same language in a meaningful way.  I continuously work on my speaking and listening skills to ensure I can interact smoothly in various settings.

Decreasing the Gap in Conversations

When I have a conversation with native speakers, it’s important for me to minimize misunderstandings. My goal is to improve my fluency in multiple languages to decrease the conversational gap. Each step forward is a mark of progress in understanding cultural nuances and idiomatic expressions.

Improving Several Languages Simultaneously

Let’s think about what it means to improve several languages simultaneously. Obviously, a full immersion into one language a la Japanese all the Time is not possible if the goal is to improve several languages. Moreover, a long period in which one language is not used leads to some decay in that language. In other words, it is possible to do two deep immersion periods sequentially to tackle two target languages but if the number of target languages is more than three, this method is very likely falling short. 

Immersion helped me gain a deeper language feel for Spanish and English but it was a less exclusive immersion in Mandarin, French and Portuguese. Hence, these three languages are on much lower level. My approach going forward is to include mixed language practice sessions and using language learning apps so that I can commit to all these languages, but to also try to do at least a two week full immersion or in other words complete All Mandarin All the Time session in the next two years that hopefully will propel my level forward.

By working on these focused areas, I aim to reach a level of fluency that allows me to navigate different linguistic environments with confidence. 

Which Languages

Multiple open books with various language titles, surrounded by language dictionaries and flashcards. A person listens to language tapes while typing on a computer

French, Portuguese, and Mandarin

My main focus for the next months remains the same as in the past 2 years: French, Portuguese, and Mandarin.  These are my main target languages that are all on an beginner-intermediate to advanced-intermediate plateau. In other words, roughly A2 to B2. I can have conversations and understand one-on-one conversations about many topics, but I can’t engage in activities of native speakers when I am the only non-native speaker. In other words, I can meet with one friend or acquaintance but not with a group of people.

Let’s look at some details:

  • French: French was the first foreign language I had exposure to. That exposure in the first years of my life was quite limited by a few words from my mother, my great-uncle and the occasional task that my parents gave me as a 5-year old to buy baguette at a French boulangerie while they waited outside the shop. While my vocabulary was extremely limited, it helped me familiarize myself with the sound of French. In highschool, I took Latin as second foreign language and then French at third foreign language building on familiar Latin-based vocabulary. While French in school was fun, I was making major progress due to my love for that language in the first years after high school when I tried to improve it and then again in the last 2-3 years.
  • Mandarin: Again, I started this as kind of a fourth foreign language during high school, yet it was a rather slow progress. We only had a lesson roughly twice a month and my teacher, while engaging wasn’t proficient himself in Chinese. Even his main teacher was not really from mainland China but from Hong Kong. In short, I new some Chinese but that was far away from anything useful. At uni, I focussed a lot on Mandarin initially and the first two years, I was the best in our Chinese class. Something I was proud of and others thought I was some Chinese-prodigy. Then I went to Taipei and reality hit! I wasn’t able to have conversations in Chinese. Moreover, I wasn’t even able to understand simple one-on-one interactions with me about everyday topics in restaurants, metro, supermarkets you name it! Later it got better and I was able to have basic everyday conversations in Chinese and even immersed more and more into the language. Still, it was a profound feeling that Mandarin is darn difficult.
  • Portuguese: I was interested in exchange programs and learnt that I could go to Kyoto university or Sao Paulo University. While I would have loved to go to Kyoto, I knew that it would have been an incredible struggle. I was the best in my Chinese class and being in the wild after two years of a pure classroom experience I was completely lost. My Japanese was somewhere inbetween knowing 2 and 4 words. Hence, I chose to go to Brazil and had a theory: if I would prepare via self-study for some days and then based on my Spanish skills, I would pick it up, if I could put myself into an immersion environment. For the environment, I did two things: First, I was looking for a coliving where I was the only foreigner and found a Brazilian girl who was looking for a person to share her apartment with. Second: I took Portuguese classes and all my professional finance classes I took where in Portuguese. It worked like a charme and after the girl showed me the city for a week and spoke to me non-stop, suddenly it clicked and I was able to speak in Portuguese. It was fantastic! Unfortunately, I forgot most Portuguese again and work on rediscovering it now.

Maintaining German, English, and Spanish

To maintain my fluency in German, English, and Spanish, I regularly immerse myself in media and conversation to keep my skills sharp.

  • German: nothing to be done here. 
  • English: nothing to be done here.
  • Spanish: Love to speak Spanish once a while. 

Exploring Indonesian, Ukrainian, Japanese, and Mongolian

  • Indonesian: I do not know much about Indonesian only that it is supposed to be the easiest Asian language and one of the most spoken. I used only Anki… and got absolutely nowhere. For me, learning isolated words and expressions feels just wrong without any real language use. I stopped this again.
  • Ukrainian: Same is true for my approach to Ukrainian. Just trying to memorize some random phrases via Anki just doesn’t cut it. So again, I stopped at level pre-A1…
  • Japanese: My level of Japanese is also only just A1, but compared to Indonesian and Ukrainian I make progress. Main point is that I had a couple of words as basis in this language, I watched Youtube learning videos like this one and had a meaningful motivation to improve my understanding of the language. Anki is still not very successful way for me, but it complements other ways. 
  • Mongolian: I’m revisiting this language to reconnect with its unique structure and revive the vocabulary I once knew. In that case, using Anki is quite useful, as all the sentences that I come across were once in my active vocabulary.

Difficulty of Languages

Well, as mentioned above, at least for me, it is completely different depending on the language I am learning. I can already understand some Italian and would be able to reach a B2 level in probably 2-3 months of immersion in Italy, whereas it would be very hard to learn Finnish, Hungarian or Arabic.

Language Families

Language families play a huge role in determining difficulty. Languages within the same family, like Spanish and Italian within the Romance languages, share common characteristics, making learning them together more manageable. For me, Romance and Germanic languages typically present fewer hurdles due to shared alphabets and related vocabulary. In other words, learning Italian or Dutch would be a walk in the park.

Language Classification and Difficulties

Understanding the language classification is essential. Languages are grouped into categories such as “Category I” (easier for English speakers to learn) and “Category IV” (hardest), based on factors like grammar and pronunciation. The question is also about writing systems and how different written and spoken language is. In Spanish, there is not too much of a difference, in Mongolian and Chinese, this is a major challenge.

Challenges with Mandarin, Mongolian, and Japanese

Learning Mandarin, Mongolian, and Japanese poses distinct challenges. Even after many years, I still get many Chinese tones wrong. It also doesn’t help that I had exposure to northern and southern Chinese accents, to Malaysian Chinese accent and Taiwan Mandarin and both reading sometimes traditional and simplified scripts. In Mongolian, it is possible to learn Cyrillic within a day, but there is still often quite a difference between written and spoken Mongolian and there is an inofficial latin Mongolian script used for everyday chat messages. 

Japanese is very foreign and difficult for me.

My Status Currently

Embarking on the adventure of learning multiple languages has been both challenging and rewarding. My journey currently spans across Latin America and the intricate tones of Mandarin Chinese, each with its unique set of triumphs and hurdles.

Experience in Latin America

  • Spanish: Immersion. Full immersion whenever I am in Latin America. Usually, I use English for chat messages but Spanish for everyday communication with friends. In Banks or when I take lessons (for example drumming lessons), I do that in Spanish.
  • Portuguese: In Bogota, I participated in several language exchanges and highly recommend the language exchange at Dame tu Lengua. On several days, there was a large Portuguese speaking table. While there were no native speakers, I couldn’t tell as the Portuguese spoken by some Colombians that lived in Brazil for several years was near perfect for my ears. 

Experience in Asia

  • Japanese: Occasionally picking up some Japanese words and trying to acquire some more. 
  • Mandarin: Trying to go to 2-3 language exchanges per week, especially those were only a handful of people attend in a quiet setting. For me, the Language Exchange and Social Network was the best event in Taipei. In Kuching and Kota Kinabalu, there were also many Mandarin speakers.

How I Learn Languages

When embarking on the journey to master multiple languages at once, I structure my learning to maximize exposure and retention in each language. 

While I believe reading can be very beneficial, I am a lazy ass and emphasize more on listening and watching stuff. That helps a lot in spoken communication and that is my goal. What I need to build more is feedback loops and have a tutor actively correcting my output.

Another point: ChatGPT to get some paragraphs for learning. But there is a problem. Even I prompt it to use spoken language, it still sounds very much like written language. That’s inherent to this approach…

Immersion and Comprehensible Input

I prioritize language immersion and seek out comprehensible input. This means surrounding myself with the language through podcasts and Youtube videos. Unlike the advice of Krashen to engage with material just above my level, I love to engage with material that focusses on topics that are of interest to me.

Using YouTube

YouTube is a goldmine for language learning. I subscribe to channels that offer news, stories, and educational content in my target languages. I especially enjoy listening to song lyrics (especially salsa songs) and using stories to hone my listening and comprehension skills. This platform is also great for finding tutorials on pronunciation and language-specific expressions.

Some of my favorite youtube channels that help me learn: 

Abroad in Japan

In Spanish, how about some crime stories:
https://www.youtube.com/@Pauletteeoficial

In Chinese, I like to listen to what Zoe says about acquiring languages:

Zoe’s channel

Sometimes I watch Renato’s content. What I like is that it is very sensational and easy to watch. A good addition to the usually more scholarly/intellectual content that I consume. Plus, I love that he sometimes speaks a mix of Spanish and Chinese, so it helps me in thinking in both languages and switching quickly and I can practice my simultaneous interpreting skills alongside his translation.

Podcasts

Podcasts are also very useful in my view. Especially, as I like combining a long walk which is part of my goal of healthy living with listening to podcasts. Here are some that I often listen to:

InnerFrench is my favorite French podcast about a variety of topics on an upper-intermediate level. Pure gold! 

Fu-Lan speaking. Relaxed thoughts about a topic by Fu-lan. I get the feeling I have coffee with her and listen to her thoughts about something. Love it. Lower-intermediate level. 

This true crime podcast is a goal of mine. I couldn’t really understand it, just 70% and that was not enough to really enjoy en episode, even though I can roughly follow the story. Still, I think I am only another month of study outside of an native speaking environment and one month in a full immersion mode away from listening and enjoying this podcast.

Language Exchange

Engaging in conversational practice with native speakers not only boosts my speaking skills but also helps me understand the cultural background of the language. It’s a direct way to learn language for life, reflecting real-world use. That’s why I try to engage in language exchange and help wherever I can. Bogota is one of the best places and Dame Tu Lengua is for me the best place to practice languages! 

Kuala Lumpur is another fantastic place for language exchange. Unfortunately, many language exchanges take place in somewhat loud settings of restaurants and bars, but I have met some polyglots there. People who spoke native Malay but also near perfect Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, and English. There are few places where to find more Polyglots of Asian languages than in Kuala Lumpur! 

Taipei is another very good place with about 10 different weekly language exchange activities. Some are more like a bar crawl with an excuse, while others are very good language exchanges. I also set up a language exchange on a weekend free of charge in order to practice languages other than English. Here is our Meetup Group and there are still activities even though I am not there.  

Talking with Friends

I make an effort to regularly speak with friends who are fluent or native speakers. Casual conversations about daily life contribute significantly to building fluency. By talking about a variety of topics, I train my speaking and listening skills dynamically. But frankly, I just love to speak with my friends, even if that were in Klingon. One thing I enjoy a lot is switching between languages and I do that regularly with a few friends (hi Max, hi Alberto).

Reading (Lingq and DuChinese)

For reading, I use platforms like Lingq, which offers books that I can read quickly as I can highlight unknown vocabulary. I used this to read a few French titles and last year I read the Jungle Book and Little Prince in Chinese. Loved those two books! 

DuChinese is more like a graded reader and in September 2023, I indulge in reading and listening to many stories. Mostly the simplified and modernized versions of Chinese classics like Three Kingdoms and the Thirty Six Stratagems.

Apps (Babbel)

I integrate language learning apps into my routine. Apps like Babbel provide interactive courses that quickly build my grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation skills. The structured lessons offered by Babbel have a focus on conversation and provide realistic goals to aim for. It is slowly progressing lesson by lesson but I feel I can build up a basis in a language. One main point was however that I got a cheap lifetime deal and can therefore use Babbel without additional costs.

Anki and Other Spaced Repetition Software: Skritter

Spaced repetition software, such as Anki, plays a key role in my learning process at the moment. I am still not sure if that is a very effective way, but I feel it is a good way to repeat vocabulary that I knew once. In that sense, I try to go through the most commonly used and simplest 5000 phrases in each languages and try to find free, shared Anki decks that meet those requirements. Unfortunately, the quality of the shared decks is often hit and miss. 

I try to review my Anki decks on a daily basis. At least for 1 month, I have done so consistently, reviewing about 200-300 cards a day, out of which there are about a third new cards, a third not very strongly known cards, and a third of the cards are very easy. 

I started using Anki about 3 months ago. Initially, I mostly worked on new cards. Sometimes about 150 new phrases and words daily. That sounds like a lot, but again, usually I already knew 90% of these and only some I had to review. In Spanish, I know basically 100% of the cards in shared decks so I deleted Spanish from Anki. 

After two weeks, more repetitions (marked in light green) showed up. Then I reduced the new cards per day so I could cope with the many repetitions. In the middle there is a gap due to travelling in Colombia. I had to repeat many many cards that got due on one day. I think I did about 1300 cards on that day, which took me 2-3 hours. 

In the last month, I am back to a consistent routine as discussed above. 

Overall, there are 40,000 cards in all my decks. I focus mostly on Mandarin and hope I can get through all Mandarin cards within the next 30 days. French and Portuguese and even Mongolian still have thousands upon thousands of cards. Still, I am happy to get to know 10 new French cards and 2-5 Portuguese and Mongolian cards as well as 2-5 Japanese cards.

My preference is for cards that are small conversations that might be typical like the following example:

Japanese is difficult for me. I have not much experience in the language and can’t read the three different scripts properly. 

Some words or phrases in some decks are too simple. That’s why it is good to have long review intervals. After seeing these and having reviewed them. I can already stretch it to more than 1 year the third time I see this card! 

Some words are quite simple:

Sometimes, it is good to have some funny cards in the deck that makes you smile:

There are many ways to say talk, discuss. So that is another shortcoming that word-for-word cards will not help create a feel for the language. 

Leveling up: Using Spanish to study Mandarin. That might help me connect new synapsis to be able to translate faster between these two languages. What I do not like is that this deck has individual words instead of phrases. Still, I am almost done with this deck and it is ok to use to review all the HSK 1-4 words.

Simple sentence, but quite useful. The more I already reviewed, the easier it gets, as for example this card is to review 出去 but at the same time I learn other characters in that sentence.

Some sentences are quite simple, but still useful, especially given that there is also a voice recording.

This card highlights a problem. Most cards have a certain background. I.e. Brazilian Portuguese or in this case: Chinese from mainland China. In Taiwan, it is called 冷氣。

This is

This is what I achieved today:

I also create custom flashcards to review vocabulary, phrases, and characters efficiently. Yet, at this point, I mostly go through the Anki decks. In 1 month, I want to use my own Mandarin deck, based on sentences that I heard in real life of from the podcasts or youtube videos that I mentioned above.

Skritter has also been handy for learning to memorize the tones of Chinese words. Skritter has also the best pronunciation compared to DuChinese, Lingq and Anki that are sometimes lacking in that department.

Conclusion

I believe learning multiple languages at once is not only possible but can bring benefits to my life. By improving my language skills, I enhance my memory, concentration, and problem-solving abilities. It’s been a journey where I’ve seen considerable progress by being disciplined and adaptive in my learning style.

As main points:

  • Have fun
  • Emphasize comprehensible input. Not exclusively, but it is a main building block.
  • Use different study methods
  • More Youtube, less Anki. As a general rule for me at the moment, I want to use more Youtube again in the future and less Anki. 30 minutes of Anki a day is already a bit too much.

Tutor and feedback loop. I want to start with a tutor in a month and build a feedback loop. In 1 month, I think I have gone through all nearly 10,000 Mandarin cards of several decks and that will then free time to focus on other activities on my language learning journey.

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