Is Learning Extra Languages Worth the Hassle?

One of the most common problems with language learning is forgetting. You spend months or years to build some knowledge of a language, only to find a few years later that you’re unable to speak it very well.

There’s a few ways you can deal with this. One is to simply accept that forgetting is a price paid as part of learning, with the silver lining that relearning tends to be faster. If you forget the language, you can brush up again with a shorter period of practice than originally.

Another way to deal with the problem is to be proactive—establish a regular maintenance schedule, like I did with the languages I learned. I found this helped a lot to prevent backsliding, but it’s not perfect. More, it can be annoying to keep practicing a language you don’t plan to use, if you want to move onto doing other things.

One theory suggests that if you learn a language to fluency, you won’t forget it. That forgetting only occurs because you were at an intermediate level. Reach fluency once, it’s said, and you can speak the language forever.

Does Being Fluent Prevent Forgetting?

I’m not convinced by this theory, but I suspect it has two grains of truth. The simplest explanation is that when you’re fluent, there’s so much more to forget that you can forget a lot and still have retained functionality. By this account, fluency offers no added protection to the decay of memory, it’s simply a greater volume to forget.

The secondary explanation has to do with overlearning. This is that when you speak a language fluently you are using it frequently in real situations. Real situations have considerable overlap, where common words and phrases are used far more than uncommon ones. This results in a psychological effect called overlearning, where extra practice that goes beyond perfect recall increases the stability of your memories.

My suspicion is that the relatively low loss of language by once-fluent speakers is largely these two effects, but it’s also possible there’s a third benefit that makes reaching fluency a more stable goal.

Was I Able to Level-Up My Korean?

My trigger for this essay today was in the wrap-up of my recent project to level-up my Korean. On one level, the project was successful. I stuck to my predetermined schedule and added tons of new vocabulary and grammatical knowledge which showed up in my tutoring sessions.

On another level though, the project was a failure. My original motivation for the project had been to reach a high enough level to sustain genuine interactions with people, in Korean, while living in Canada. That didn’t end up happening, so even though my Korean got better, it didn’t get to the point I wanted to reach.

I think this failure largely came down to a mistake I made early on. My thought was that my lack of immersion in Korean in Canada now was mostly hobbled by my inadequate Korean skills. That if I worked on it for a few months, I’d be able to engage more fluently with speakers here who also speak English.

In practice, I think the problem had less to do with my level of Korean (which was probably already enough, to be honest), and more to do with my lack of a foundation of activities and opportunities to socialize in Korean.

In other words, I had mistaken a linguistic problem for a social one. The irony is, that this was essentially the thesis of the Year Without English. During that project, I wanted to demonstrate that pushing immersion, even at a very low level, can be successful for language learning. The fact that I turned back on this when attempting my level-up project, I think underscores how counter-intuitive it is.

Can You Maintain Immersion in More than One Language at a Time?

I’m done my Korean project now, as I’m starting a writing project that’s going to demand my full attention. I’m not giving up on Korean, but I’m switching it back to the status it had before: maintenance through occasional practice, not active improvement.

Although part of the reason was that I simply ran out of time, I’ve also become more aware of the difficulty of trying to simultaneously maintain immersive environments in more than a few languages at a time. 

Once I realized the flaw with my Korean project midway, I switched to trying to build more contacts with Korean people here in Vancouver. The challenge is that this is time consuming. I already have friends and pre-existing social contacts, so it’s difficult to add a bunch of new ones, without pushing other activities out.

This was a major reason, during our trip, that Vat and I insisted on the No-English Rule from Day One. Once you establish a social life wherever you’re living, you’ll be reluctant to ignore friends and social engagements to strike up new, more difficult social relationships in another language. Starting from scratch is easier because you don’t have anything to compete with.

None of this should be taken as an impenetrable barrier. Of course, if I were really serious, I could overcome these challenges and improve my Korean. However, as I think about it more, I’m inclined to focus more on improving my Chinese.

Is It Better to Master One Language or Be Adequate at a Few?

One idea I’ve written about before is the idea that there are some things worth learning well and others worth learning poorly. Meaning, that some skills, if you learn just a little bit of them, will reap most of the rewards. In contrast, other skills are only worth learning if you intend to get very good at them.

I suggested languages were something worth learning poorly. Because if you know a little bit of a language, you can do quite a bit with it. No, you might not be able to fluently discuss politics or philosophy, but you can easily travel and communicate with people who speak that language but not yours. A little bit of language is a good thing.

I stand by that opinion, at the lower ranges of language learning. However, my feeling is that once you get past the intermediate level of a language, the next cluster of benefits come at a much higher level.

To express this idea concretely, if you were looking at a graph of the benefits of learning a language, you’d see a spike at the early levels, corresponding with suddenly being able to order food, travel and have simple communication with people. Then you’d see a second spike at a level near complete fluency, corresponding to being able to do deeply functional things in the language like negotiate business, work professionally, consume media, etc..

For all of the languages I’ve learned, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Mandarin Chinese and Korean, I feel like my ability is above the first spike. I can do all the basic things pretty easily, and I’ve practiced them enough that I’m unlikely to forget them for a long time.

However, for Mandarin Chinese (and possibly Spanish), I’m beginning to notice the second spike. During my last trip to China, I was able to give two live talks in Chinese, as well as discuss business with some potential colleagues. That’s a different set of benefits I’m only starting to tap into.

Where I find myself with the other languages is more of the gulf between the easy benefits of low-to-intermediate abilities, but still a long way from the hard benefits of being a fluent speaker.

This leads me to think that, for now, I’m going to strive to push further with Chinese rather than try to continue the level-up with Korean.

Weighing in on the Mastery/Polyglot Debate

There’s a bit of debate about whether you should master a single language or dabble in a bunch. I think part of the heat of this debate is fueled by the perceived impressiveness. That is to say, a polyglot who speaks many languages, is often seen as very impressive, even if their ability with any particular language is actually quite low. Whereas, someone truly fluent might actually have done a lot more work, and thus be more deserving of praise.

Side note: Honestly impressiveness is probably the worst reason to learn any language, never mind a bunch of them. Telling people you speak multiple languages is usually awkward and conceited. Them finding out usually results in skepticism or trying to “test” you. This isn’t to say nobody finds it interesting, but just to say that if you’re learning languages with the purpose of seeming “cool” you’re going to have a bad time.

I think the benefits of language learning are mostly intrinsic. From that perspective, there’s two broad sets of benefits, one that comes early on and one that comes much later. Whether you favor full fluency in a single language or adequacy in several depends a lot on which benefit matters to you more.

I would lump the early benefits into two broad categories. The first are travel benefits, meaning that you can now travel in countries that speak that language with much greater ease. The second are cultural bridging benefits, allowing you to interact with monolingual speakers of that language, which helps you get outside your own cultural bubble.

The later benefits mostly have to do with deeper experiences. Interacting meaningfully with native media (novels, movies, music). Working professionally or studying in the language.

Because the early benefits can be reached much faster, they don’t require as long a commitment and it’s possible to reach that level in multiple languages within a few years. This is great if you want to explore the world and dip into different cultures and experiences. The later benefits take a lot more work, so it’s usually a decades-long project.

What Do You Think?

The tl;dr version of my views right now are:

  • Maintain adequacy in multiple languages.
  • Focus on getting really good at one (maybe two).

I’m curious, however, what your views are. Do you speak more than one language? If so, why did you do so? If you speak multiple languages, do you focus on one, or improve them all evenly?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

  • Alexey

    Hi, Scott.

    I’m interested in languages too, so far I have reached more or less adequate level in English plus I’m on the way there in Spanish. Also after Spanish I’m gonna do another, third language there and that’s it for me.

    In my opinion, the basic level for a language would probably include at least 300 hours of interactions with natives on different topics or more. At least, 10 books (normal fiction novels for native speakers of that language or textbooks). As well as many films watched, many hours listened to the natives. But since the speaking part is the most difficult for me (I don’t have much money now to pay for speaking on italki, maximum I could be hoping to be able to spend there 100$ a month in two years and 25 per month now).

    25 bucks is approximately 4 hours of conversations with cheap tutors from Venezuela a month. Which gives me 52 hours a year and I could reach the basic level of practice in 6 years if I don’t start earning much more money.

    I make up for it by reading every day on my way to work (it takes 2.5 hours every day on a bus full of people where everyone pushes you around and the bus throws you around on bad roads).

    I don’t have much time left besides work since I stay at office for 9 hours plus another 2.5 getting there plus eating, spending time with family etc. So I’m unable to hunt down people on language exchange sites hoping to practice. Italki helps with it though.

    I try to do immersion with Spanish – every day I read in it, almost every day I write something in a text file. I’m gonna do Spanish blog posts as well once a week or so.

    With speaking practice besides italki I open a web page with random questions generator and would occasionally answer them pretending I’m talking to someone.

    I’ve a grammar book that I’ll master one day. On my lunch I open it and skim through.

    Then I’m gonna write down the main concepts and go through all hundreds of grammatical exercises there. The book is ‘uso de gramatica española elemental’.

    I did flash cards for the first 500 words then I dropped it. I like to learn words more from reading a fiction book than to swallowing in words fast. Ofc it’s slower, but more likable for me.

    I never watch movies in Russian or Ukrainian. It’s either in English or Spanish. Now, it’s Spanish more since my level is still very low.

    Recently I decided to give anime a go and I watched half of death note, la tumba de las luciernagas y La Niña qué saltaba a traves del tiempo in Spanish.

    So far I’ve read only el viejo y el mar, el alquimista, la nada cotidiana and 60% of la hija canibal in Spanish.

    I still have to go 6 and a half fiction books to reach basic level in Spanish reading.

    So far I’ve obtained 11 hours of Spanish convos which is around 3% of the time to reach the basic level in speaking skills.

    After I’m done with the grammar book I’m gonna do the same with French – to make few hundreds of flash cards (no more than 400-500) and then heavy reading every day etc.

    I’m not planning on ever stopping to read in Spanish or English. And even after I’m done with the 300 hours in each, I’m gonna keep buying time of ppl on italki to maintain the level.

    Ideally, I want to practice English, Spanish, French (I might choose another language, not French, I’ve not 100% decided yet) until the end of my life, every day or almost every day.

    I don’t care if it’s hard or boring. I could do it by pushing out reading and watching stuff in Rissian. Like instead of Russian news, I could skim through news in French etc.

    And it’d leave me also time for other things too, once I’m done with spending lots of time on grammar and actively improving my conversation skills.

    Having blog where I’d be posting stuff in the 3 languages (mostly in form of occasional mini essays) would help me to keep the writing sharp.

    That’s my plan.

  • Matthew

    Hey, Scott.

    I’ve tried learning Japanese on multiple occasions. My interests wax and wane like the moon, however, and I’ve learned the basics each time with little retention. Since the last time, I met someone and got married, so my time is no longer just my own. My wife says that she’ll (one day) learn Japanese with me, giving me a partner in my learning, but we’ll see. I still have most of my Japanese learning resources.

    Here’s a question for you. How important is it to gain greater fluency in your own native language? We’ve both seen people who can’t even figure our there, their, and they’re, but I’m talking about going deeper. Do you think there’s any value in that? Or do you think that reading material at or just beyond your level in fields that interest you is enough for that? Would it be worth putting in deliberate effort?

  • Ken Abel

    Being fluent in multiple languages seems like its one of the holy grails of self improvement. But I no longer think that’s true. It used to be that knowing Latin, Greek, and French would give you a great start in learning about science, history, and politics. Now English is the dominant language of academia and business and politics. One doesn’t need to master any languages to be well-read in these subjects now. So its probably better to know more languages at an adequate or even beginner level to get the most benefits culturally and practically. Mastery would really only help if you have career goals or are in an immersion situation where that breadth and depth of knowledge could be put to use.

  • Eviano George

    While I may be so bold as to say I understand your point of view, I am skeptical that one can get many meaningful cultural benefits at a beginner level. And while English might seemingly be the dominant language of just about everything, the sheer amount of material that never crosses or even has a hope of crossing the translation barrier into the English-speaking world is, quite frankly, astonishing.
    But in the end, to each his own 🙂

  • Scott Young

    If your goal is to be knowledgeable about subjects that aren’t linguistically/culturally specific, I don’t think you need anything other than English. It’s the dominant world language now for science and academia.

  • Scott Young

    You’re right about the possible tradeoff. I don’t think it’s a big issue unless you *really* go into the deep end and end up consuming most of your media in another language. However, reading tons of English will probably increase your vocabulary slightly over someone who splits it with reading in another language.

  • Carlos alberto cubillos

    Como hago para descargar el libro?

  • Paul J Kimberlee

    I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot recently, as I speak more than one language (Spanish, French, some Italian).
    You do forget them, you need a high level to enjoy many aspects of the language, and they are time consuming to learn, improve and maintain. The romance languages at least have the advantage of being connected.

    I’ve been studying Russian, and German, recently. I probably won’t learn to speak German though, just to read and understand mostly. It’s easier to maintain reading, because the words on the page are memory prompts. Russian I’ll learn the basics and see what happens. Perfecting my French and Spanish (I’m good but I want to read literature) is most important in the long term.

    I did consider learning Japanese, but the huge time commitment isn’t worth it to me as I’d lose out on other things. Learning a language distant from your native tongue, (up to 4 times as difficult as a related language) is a massive investment of time, that’s not worth it for me, or most people probably.

  • Mirage

    I’m a native French speaker who lives in the UK, I also speak Spanish.
    My way of maintaining my languages is to read. I actually surprised myself at how well I am able to express myself in the language I least practice (Spanish) – and it’s all thanks to the reading I do.
    I read blogs daily in all three languages and I alternate French, Spanish and English books. That has worked for me so far. Although 3 languages is not that much to maintain!

  • Fernando Belmonte Archetti

    I tend to agree. There are of course ways of maintaining your languages, but why spend so much energy? Is it really worth that much? I think not. Unless there as an actual point to this. For example, Greek and Latin in philosophy. Other than that, I agree with your points.

  • It’s worth pointing out that the spikes on your graph only works if you have “proficiency” on the horizontal axis, measured in, say, beginner, intermediate and advanced, along with whatever steps in between you want. It does not, however, work if you have time on that axis, because then your spike is going to be extremely drawn out and not look like a spike at all. I think this is important, because while you can get very large benefits from studying just a little in the beginning (a true spike), producing the spike at the advanced level requires much, much more time.

    I don’t mean to say that you’re wrong, I myself focus on few languages rather than many and agree that some benefits only start appearing when you reach very advanced levels, but I think the graph you mentioned is a bit misleading. I know you know what I mean, so this comment is more for people who haven’t learnt a foreign language to an advanced level.

  • Safi Ahmed Memon

    Hi Scott. First off, you’ve been big inspiration and I love reading your blog. Your philosophy of taking up projects to master ones discipline has been a recurring theme in my life.

    I speak English, Urdu/Hindi, and Sindhi fluently, and have 55% fluency on Duolingo scale in Italian, 20% in Spanish, and can understand a bit of Pashto and Arabic.

    – On one hand, I have ended up WOW-ing people by throwing in Italian/Arabic/etc words in conversations. I think it makes you likable and is great fodder for small talk and relationship building with ambitious people.

    – On the other hand, I was in Korea 3 months ago and I conveniently used Google translate on my phone at grocery stores, subways and bus stations, and basically everywhere. So I think: why bother with that basic level of fluency when the tasks have been conveniently outsourced to Google translate. I am curious about your opinion on this.

    – I am currently looking to end my 700+ day Duolingo streak because the ROI for me is terrible. I feel compelled to start my day with 10 minutes on Duolingo because I tell myself I need to keep the streak, but it doesn’t set a great tone for the day as compared to say physical exercise. Better learn languages on the go WHEN it directly contributes to the quality of an ongoing endeavor. (Example: at my workplace, many people speak Pashto, and I’ve picked up lines along the way. Its fun interacting with them in Pashto; another example: I was once tutoring math to students in UAE and conversing in Arabic here and there would make learning fun for them and would make me likable as a tutor).

  • Kristin Bare

    My first two foreign language attempts were feeble (high school French for three years, then conversational German for a few months) and virtually nothing stuck. (I remember the French word for pineapple.)

    My first major language learning assignment was Korean. As a Korean-as-a-Second Language learner, I always struggled with my speaking, as compared to writing or listening, which were required by my job. Reading, writing, and listening were easy to practice alone, and are relatively “low threat,” while speaking is something you screw up acutely with one or more witnesses. (No one notices if you just read a sentence three times and had to get the dictionary out twice, but they sure notice if you’re speaking gibberish.)

    Korean also happens to be a language with extremely complex grammar and social rules and a population of native speakers who are used to hearing Korean spoken just like a Korean would speak it, or not at all. Korean speakers in Korea (especially outside of Seoul) could understand what I was trying to say if I said it correctly, but broadly speaking were terrible at playing “guess the word” or sorting out what it was I was trying, but failing, to say. They were extremely polite about it, and quite pleased that I was making the attempt at all (as opposed to relying on their English), but still often had no idea what I meant despite very good pronunciation. (The French in France, by contrast, were somewhat offended by my crappy French, and switched to English or an interpreter as quickly as possible. Italians in Italy didn’t seem to care whether I could get it remotely right or not. In some cases, we backed off to pointing and/or toddler-speak, but they were generally good sports and probably had a good laugh about it.)

    Americans are pretty good at figuring out English spoken with a thick accent or grammatically botched, possibly because there are so many American English speakers with thick regional accents and dialects and we are historically a country of immigrants. I think if I were to choose a language to maintain long term, I might choose one with a higher tolerance for speaking it badly, and for which “partial credit” is given. Whether I’d choose to “go deep” or “go wide” may be driven by who I’m trying to speak it with and how far they are able to bridge the gap between my level and native fluency.

  • Judith

    About a month ago, I started this experiment to see if I could learn 11
    languages at once. At first it was quite difficult because I kept mixing
    up the languages and pronouncing them wrong. However, I have worked out
    a system, and am now use to learning all 11 languages at once. I would
    say that it is definitely useful to maintain adequacy in multiple
    languages because it gives you the ability to communicate would
    different types of cultures. Great article Scott!

    Also, the
    languages I am learning are Chinese, Swahili, Spanish, Kazakh, German,
    Dutch, Italian, French, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, and Korean.

  • Rohan

    Hi Judith! This sounds really interesting! If it’s not too much to ask for, would you share your system of learning multiple languages at the same time with us?

  • Deepti Km

    I grew up bilingual, speaking English and a dialect of Tamil. I’ve also a smattering of Hindi and Kannada, and I took some language courses at school. My Tamil has gotten rusty.

    I tend to look at language-learning through a pragmatic lens; it’s not something I remotely enjoy, and I think that’s the problem.

    I see being able to *pick up a language when you need it* as extremely important. It takes a sort of comfort with social awkwardness in addition to patience with vocabulary-learning that I never developed, to my lasting regret. All my experiences trying to learn languages have hit stumbling blocks because I’m too uncomfortable to speak to anyone but the friendliest of audiences. This has been a problem because I love travel, but even crossing state borders in India has been difficult for me because of the language barrier.

    For this reason, I think each additional language you learn is useful because it keeps sharp the meta-skill of picking up languages. (There may be other ways to do this too.)

    I also think going deeper in a language is useful for similar reasons: if you can teach yourself to get very good at one language, you can get very good at any of the languages you’ve already acquired the basics of. I think this can put you in a good position if you ever decide to move to a foreign country for a longer period, or take an interest in studying literature in its original language.

    I’d love to be able to do that, but I’d have to lay a lot of groundwork first.

  • To be quite frank, the view I resonated with the most in this post was that “…I’ve also become more aware of the difficulty of trying to simultaneously maintain immersive environments in more than a few languages at a time.”, and that “…it can be annoying to keep practicing a language you don’t plan to use, if you want to move onto doing other things.”

    I think utility is one of the greatest motivators and also potential barriers to learning a language. If you have no use for it (now or the future), it’s very difficult to keep improving it beyond a certain point. This gets more difficult for every language you add on, because you’ll have to constantly switch between languages that you might not have a lot of use for, nor opportunities to practice in real life.

    So I think just based on that reason alone, it’s probably better to learn two to three languages to a relatively fluent level, than to have seven, eight, nine or more languages at an intermediate level. I think it’s just a simple matter of physical time constraints preventing that from happening – it’s extremely unlikely that anyone would find themselves in a set of circumstances where they would need to switch between that many languages regularly, even for language related professions.

    For me personally, I’ve studied Japanese, French, Spanish and Korean, in addition to my native English, Cantonese and Mandarin, and I’ve found that maintaining these languages is pretty hard. The utility of conversation practice has waned over time beyond a certain level, because without enough input, you don’t have enough things to express, and it’s hard to actually keep coming up with new topics to talk about.

    Instead, what I’m attempting to do is to do work more on reading and writing, and I’m trying to switch languages every month or two, picking some interesting books to read every month – I’m about to finish an iteration with Korean and French, and moving on to Japanese next month.

    So I feel that learning new languages is still worth the extra effort, but perhaps there’s a real limit to how many we can pocket to a relatively fluent level based on the time constraints we have, so choosing languages wisely can just be as important as the learning journey.

  • Keri

    When I started Spanish on Duolingo about 20 years after taking high school Spanish classes, I found that I remembered a surprising amount or needed only one reminder, and I was nothing like fluent in Spanish when I left school.

    I find that being a bit more fluent in Spanish can be fun–sort of like being able to perform a neat trick–but it’s really not useful to me since I do not live in an area with many Spanish speakers. My study has been off and on, primarily, I think, because I don’t have a great enough interest in becoming fluent. I think it’s something I would like to be able to say that I can do, and, even more than that, I think I hate the idea that what I’ve learned may go to waste, but in the end, my motivation for keeping it going just doesn’t seem to be great enough.

    I originally started off working on Spanish and Hebrew. I gave up on the Hebrew because it was harder and I felt like it was a lot easier to make progress in Spanish, despite the fact that I have no use for Spanish in my life at this time, but I do with Hebrew. I think I’m going to give up the Spanish for the time being and switch back to the Hebrew. At least I know that I can pick the Spanish back up at any time without any great loss.

  • I’d love to be fluent speaking more than one language. Conversationally fluent, I guess. For me the reason I’d learn more than one language is to be able to connect with people from more areas of the world. Also, I imagine speaking different languages would help me open my mind more and be less fixed in my attitudes, beliefs and judgments which, for me, is such an impediment to fully engaging with and enjoying my life.

  • Scott Young

    I think if you’re a constant traveler, or you work/live in a particularly multilingual environment (I spoke to some EU judges who were quite fluent in several European languages, due to needing to use them all daily), keeping multilingual abilities high might be possible. Otherwise, focus might be better.

  • Scott Young

    Google translate is a good supplement to language learning. I still use it for help, even with languages I speak well.

    I think the challenge is that if you’re at a beginner level, particularly for more distant languages, the pronunciation and grammatical mastery may be so low that it’s hard to do much, even after fifty or a hundred hours of study. Korean and Chinese definitely felt that way for me, with the benefits of having learned it coming only after investing a fair bit of time.

  • Scott Young

    I completely agree, moving up at more advanced levels requires ever-increasing amounts of work.

    My point about the benefit spikes is simply that you can imagine that there are lots of potential benefits to learning a language:

    – Make travel easier
    – Order in restaurants
    – Make friends who don’t speak English well
    – …

    all the way to:

    – Work/study in the language
    – Negotiate business/work with clients in that language
    – Write/speak formally

    My sense is that the latter benefits are more easily out-competed by translators and alternative options for communication, until you’ve reached a relatively high level. So the intermediate “chasm” so to speak, is simply that you’re already good enough to get the easy benefits, but you’re not good enough yet to get the benefits that really require you to be fluent or nearly fluent.

    Time considerations obviously apply here as well.

  • Scott Young

    True, most material never crosses the translation barrier. But market-forces dictate the most influential and powerful works will. Since you’re not going to read everything anyways, this may be a smaller problem for people who aren’t trying to master highly specialized fields.

    I don’t think beginner language abilities alone can help with cultural understanding but language + travel/immersion can. If you have lower-intermediate skills you can immerse yourself in another culture which might be much harder without them.

  • Willy

    I think you forget the non-native English speakers who follow you ( just like me). We follow you and doing that we “maintain” our English level, although fluency is not achieved yet.

    I think that for the non-native English speaker, speak English has become a necessity, and reach a fluency level wil be more and more important over time.

    So that leave us room for just intermediate level languages to learn?