May 20, 2013 | Irish

Some Questions from a Reader

On multilingual multitasking and other subjects.

One of the things I love about this project is that I hear from people all over the world who love languages, too. Since this website first went up, it has had visitors from 164 countries. A large chunk of Africa has not visited, but still, 164 countries is way more people than I could ever have had over for tea.

Language Commerce, Upper West Side of Manhattan

Language Commerce, Upper West Side of Manhattan

Yesterday I got a message from Farschied, a linguaphile residing in Iran, who is studying German, Spanish, Chinese, Turkish, and Arabic while also seeking to improve his English. 

With his permission, I have excerpted part of his message below, because his questions echo ones I have gotten before from other readers, and I would like to respond more globally.

1. How would you recommend me to study these languages, in a serial manner or in a parallel manner. I mean for example do you study Irish till you’re done with it and then study Greek or you study them simultaneously? what about more than two languages?

2. How do you manage studying different language materials? I have lots of perfect books and softwares and I really don’t know how to manage the time in order to study them?

3. What do you think of Farsi/Persian? It’s interesting to know your idea because my native language is Farsi and I wanted to know your opinion about that? And I don’t see it in your language schedule. I think you should at least give it a try. 

In answer to the first question: unless I already had advanced skills in Chinese, Turkish, and Arabic, I don’t think my brain would tolerate studying that whole pack of wildly diverse languages simultaneously. I would probably have to proceed serially or pick two at a time at the most. 

I have in fact studied French, Spanish, Italian, and German simultaneously (meaning at least a little of each every day or close to every day), but my knowledge of them was fairly advanced at the time, and besides, they have a lot in common. That I was already comfortable with them made the simultaneous studying entirely tolerable—extremely pleasurable, in fact.

Some people can switch around more easily among languages than others. From what I have read and heard, many people find it exhausting or at least mentally stressful. I happen to love it—but I love it a lot more when I am already comfortable with the languages in question. If I am remembering correctly, Alexander Arguelles, who was written up in Michael Erard’s book Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, does a great deal of simultaneous studying.

Pimsleur Irish Is Very Hard. I Had to Take Study Breaks.

Pimsleur Irish Is Very Hard. I Had to Take Study Breaks.

The second question—about how to manage the different study materials—is easy: it is very personal. I myself get multiple products for each language, then often use two to three of them in a given day. However, there is no plan; I go by feeling. When I get sick of one thing, or frustrated, I flip to another. 

Some people do really well with a schedule; I do not. Some days I perform unexpectedly badly with Pimsleur, for example, so I might work more on vocabulary on those days or, more likely, go back to a grammar book. Sometimes on a given afternoon, or even during a particular hour, I am not so much in the mood for reading, and I will focus on oral skills. 

It’s like when you exercise: you listen to your body. If you feel very sore, you are less likely to do a heavy workout than you would if you felt rested and fabulous. If you are mentally addled, you probably won’t pick the absolute hardest material for the absolute hardest language you are studying. (Or at least don’t.)

I do think one mistake people make is relying to excess on one resource. Then, when they get confused or frustrated, they close the book or turn off the application—and now they have stopped learning the language. If I have a different resource I can turn to, my brain might remain open to studying, in which case I get to keep acquiring language skills. VocabuLearn requires a different energy than Pimsleur, which requires a different energy than McGraw-Hill’s Teach Yourself books, which require a different energy than the grammars I have from Routledge, and so on.

This is one of the reasons I don’t like language-learning packages that purport to take care of all your self-help language-learning needs. I cannot have fidelity to a single product. I have to make my own multimedia product, assembled out of multiple individual products and based on my own peculiar tastes and needs.

Everyone is different.

In answer to Farschied’s last question, which concerns what I think of Farsi, well, what I think is that I wish I knew more about it! I can’t offer an opinion on the language, since I am ignorant about it, but I know enough to know that I want to work on it at some point. I am dismayed and very aware that it is not on my calendar.

When I first started this project, I thought this whole thing would last a year. But I kept adding languages, and in 42 days it will have been four years since I began.

Initially This Was Too Hard, So I Had to Study Other Things First. Now I Like It!

Initially This Was Too Hard, So I Had to Study Other Things First. Now I Like It!

I ended up exploring way more languages than I thought I would. Studying so many in a row for such short periods is obviously not a practical language strategy. It has been amazing fun, but it is of course not what I would recommend to people who have a specific practical goal for language acquisition.

Now that I have forgotten so much, I want to start remembering more. So the plan is, as soon as I have spent a little time on Yiddish—my last language on the study calendar after Irish—I will stop for the moment with new languages and start cycling back through old ones, focusing on greatly enlarging the directory of resource reviews as I test additional products for languages I have already explored.

That means more products for German, Arabic, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Polish, etc.—whatever my brain can handle. I’m not sure what that will be like, running from a Polish book one week to Chinese lessons the next, but I am frankly obsessed with making the directory more complete for existing languages, more feature-rich, and ultimately more language-rich.

By “language-rich” what I mean is, yes, I do want to study and add more languages—after my head has had a healthy break from new writing systems and sounds and grammar. The languages highest on my list are, besides Farsi and in no particular order, Thai, Swedish, Tagalog, and Latin. (Yes, I realize Latin is a dead language, but this is a huge hole in my linguistic education.)

I wanted to do ancient Greek, too, but I am thinking now that I might try to remain satisfied with modern Greek, given what I understand to be a not inconsequential overlap. The number of modern Greeks present in this century clearly exceeds the number of ancient Greeks.

A masochistic part of me wants to try Hungarian or Finnish. I probably won’t, but I think about it at least once a month.

Comments (3)

Robert Adams • Posted on Tue, May 21, 2013 - 7:13 pm EST

My own experience has been similar, Ellen.  I tried studying Japanese and Chinese together, but it was just too overwhelming.  Also, when I was studying French, I had a mental implosion during part III of Pimsleur French and wound up laying off for a week to allow some decompression.  I think that it was a stress related issue in my life at that time, not necessarily that French was that hard.  So, I intend to finish Japanese, go through Chinese, and review Spanish and French simultaneously.  Thanks for all your hard work and looking forward to more great writings from you.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, May 25, 2013 - 9:03 am EST

Robert, I had a mental implosion during Polish. I am not sure about the causal relationship. I actually LIKED Polish, so I think it could have been a cumulative effect. But I did feel at one point as though one more dose of Polish grammar just might do me in!!

Rest is good.

Alex • Posted on Thu, June 27, 2013 - 3:21 am EST

I honestly can’t imagine doing more than one language at a time. When I was a kid I didn’t think people _could_ speak more than one language - it just seemed impossible! As in, I thought you had to know ALL the words of the second language you knew. Sometimes the amount of space people have in their brains, how they’re able to fill it and what they fill it with never cease to astound me.

I just keep thinking, “This guy knows too much, he knows too much, his brain’s going to explode out his ear, it’s not physically possible to know so much about anything…” I might go insane some day and just sit in the corner, rocking back and forth, pondering how people can know so much of the areas of study that just baffle and confuse the ever-loving crap out of me. Like engineering, for example - it’s not just the concepts & formulas you have to learn, you basically have to be able to synthesize them in any combination required for a particular situation. And there’s like an infinity of them. I’m just afraid if I overthink how much this amazes me I’ll blow a hole in logic itself and suddenly it will cease to work. ;)

Languages, now that I know how you learn them, aren’t so intimidating anymore, but then again I can’t take them in huge amounts. I have to make sure that if I study something, as in, study to master something I haven’t already become proficient in, I can’t do more than a half an hour of it a day (a little trick I picked-up from Pimsleur). I can’t imagine how polyglots like you do it. I just can’t.

So my experience has been, “Baby steps.” On the jogging track of life & learning, I’ve barely left the starting line.

Post a Comment