I was always terrible at languages in school. I joking tell people I failed every language offered by every school I ever attended, including Latin… twice! The punchline is that it’s actually the truth. On the other hand when I’m around people speaking another language I pick it up pretty quickly, at least from a comprehension standpoint – speaking is a whole other matter. This has bothered me for years and I’ve dabbled in learning many languages on my own. For any one of a million reasons I haven’t followed through with any so I have a partial knowledge of quite a few. I decided 2009 was going to be the year to change that and set out to decide which of the fragments I knew would be easiest to complete.

As I was looking around I started seeing something interesting. A lot of people talking about how learning a tertiary language usually wreaks havoc on your secondary language. Something about how the brain classifies this information, and once it creates a storage area for a non-primary language it doesn’t like to increase the size of it and will just overwrite the data there. Speaking in more layman terms, if English is your first language and you learn Spanish as a secondary, then try to learn French, when you go back to trying to speak Spanish you’ll find yourself accidentally using many French words in place of the Spanish ones you previously knew by mistake. As you can imagine this is disheartening.

I started looking around for information about learning more than once language at once and surprisingly found very little. What I did find was very interesting. For some people, or at least some people who have thought it interesting on their own enough to document, learning several languages at once eliminates that problem. Essentially this practice tricks your brain into thinking you are just learning a very massive secondary language. Even more interesting is that those who have tried this seem to suggest it’s not any more difficult than just learning the languages on their own, it’s simply more time consuming.

This is incredibly fascinating to me, enough so that I’m going to give it a shot. I haven’t been disciplined enough to learn a single language in part because I get board with the constant memorization so maybe doing several languages with varying methods will work out differently. It’s worth a shot anyway. The three languages that I know the most hacked up pieces of and that I’ve tried to learn on their own are Japanese, Spanish and French. I’ve skimmed a few others as well but I think tackling 3 at once is going to be enough for me so I’m going to stick with those. I’ve got a variety of teaching techniques for these including the Michel Thomas’ lessons for Spanish and French, Pimsler tapes for Japanese, Rosetta Stone software for Spanish and Japanese and finally a collection of iPhone apps for Japanese. I studied French the most in School so I feel like that is the one with potentially the most latent skills buried somewhere in my head.

The trick for me, and probably for anyone attempting this kind of thing, will be to make sure to fit in all three languages each week and not start focusing on just one. This is especially tricky since I’ll be in Japan next week so the tendency to cram on that alone is very strong right now – though when I’m there I think I can default to just French and Spanish as I’ll be surrounded by enough Japanese conversation to act as a class in it’s own way. Or maybe not, maybe this is totally insane. We’ll see.