Balancing Act: Two Languages at the Same Time


Languages are like potato chips: once you start learning, you can’t have just one. But while many people can speak more than one at a time, can they also learn more than one at a time? Over the years, my answer has evolved from “Of course not!” to something more nuanced.

No, we can’t?

My answer was “No” for years, thanks to a girl I met in university. We were classmates in Intermediate French. While I was majoring in English Literature and taking French on the side, she was doing a double major in French and Spanish. But while I had no trouble balancing English and French, she struggled to juggle her own two foreign languages. She persevered, despite the stress, all the way up to our final French oral test . . . which she almost flunked by speaking the wrong language.

I still remember the look of frustration on her face — and the soft Kiwi lilt in her voice — as she mimicked herself saying “hueves” when she should have said “juedi.”

It was the last straw. With her grades actually in peril, she said she had decided to drop one of the languages. She just hadn’t decided which one.

Thanks to her, I didn’t hesitate to drop French the very next semester, when I finally started Latin. I didn’t care that it sent two years of French studies down the drain. I didn’t want anything interfering with the language of my dreams. In that case, however, perhaps I should have dropped something else.

Maybe we can . . .

Today, I see that my classmate’s problem was not learning two languages at the same time. It was starting two languages at the same time. She kept mixing them up because her mind saw them as a single language. A language that had two words for everything. Two interchangeable words for everything. But if she had given one language even a year’s head start over the other, she would have juggled them more easily.

In my case, since French had a two-year head start on Latin, I’m sure I could have balanced both. And if I could make my choice again, I would be more likely to drop . . . English Literature. Then I would have taken French and Latin together, with a dictionnaire francais-latin, and no distractions.

Another advantage for students: a living language and a dead language are tested differently. There would have been oral exams in French and none for Latin. And there would have been translation of classics in Latin and none in French. Even outside the classroom, they have very different uses; I would never worry about using Latin when ordering food in a French restaurant!

In short, if your two languages are different enough, then you can easily balance them. If they are similar, make them different by having a higher level in one before starting the other.

Yes, I do!

As you might know from this blog, I am currently balancing German and Latin. That is, I take German lessons and hear the Traditional Latin Mass. And it works out as well as if I had planned it, because these two languages are different in every way that counts:

  • One is a living language; the other, a dead language.
  • They belong to different language families.
  • They are found in different media.
  • I started them at different times in my life.

You can reread the previous section for the advantage of pairing living and dead languages. German and Latin is a lot like French and Latin, but better because . . .

. . . they come from different language families, which means dissimilar grammar rules and different root words. Yes, modern German has many verbs with Latin roots — but they behave like all the other German verbs.

Thirdly, I use different media to study these two languages — and I’m sure everyone with a similar combination could say the same. For German, I listen to pop music, read novels, and watch cartoons. For Latin, I read the daily Mass prayers and listen to some Gregorian chant arrangements. These activities belong to different parts of my day, so I can easily have both.

Finally, I started German and Latin at different times in my life. I was comfortably praying, singing, and reading Scripture in Latin when I enrolled for my first German course. You could say that the skill I used for Latin was remembering and the skill I used for German was memorizing. These days, I am also remembering more German, but the two languages co-exist rather than clash — just as they do in the Latin-German missal that a friend found for me in an antique store. When I have trouble with a Latin passage, I can quickly check it against the German translation. And when I see an unfamiliar word in the German section, I often understand it thanks to its familiar Latin counterpart. The skill I use for for both is balancing.

Are you balancing two (or more) languages at the same time?

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