More thoughts about learning multiple languages

As many of you who know me already know, foreign languages are a major hobby of mine.  I currently know Russian, Spanish, French, Italian, and German and can speak and understand some Thai.  I am currently working on Mandarin for a possible trip to China next year and I have found that I need to make major changes to the way I learn foreign languages.

My first issue has been I have decided to completely stop using my flash card program.  I have realized that it did not allow me to learn the language in the best way.  Take for instance, Italian, where I learned a very large vocabulary of words thanks to my vocabulary program.  The problem I came up against though was when I needed to converse with someone in Italian I would totally freeze up.  I know a lot of words but I am a complete novice at placing them together.

Lately I have taken a much different approach with Mandarin.  I purchased the first two levels of Pimsleur Mandarin and I have found them very rewarding.  They move at a slow pace and do not cover a lot of vocabulary but what I have learned I can speak with absolute confidence.  When I speak with native speakers I still have some difficulties in understanding but that is mainly due to the different dialects - for instance most Chinese I know are from Hong Kong and they speak Mandarin also as a foreign language.

On the character side I am using the DeFrancis books which emphasize constant repetition of the characters.  I currently know about 200 characters and my goal is to know around 2000 before going to China.  Currently I am learning traditional characters but I plan to supplement my learning with the simplified versions some time next year.

Currently my Mandarin studies are very successful, but my knowledge of the other languages is suffering.  I am currently debating a system to allow me to maintain and improve the other languages I have studied.  Based on my experiences, I will not recreate a vocabulary system of any kind.  I am currently debating two types of systems.

1) The first option is to create a system that focuses on sentences.  Basically I would add a large number of sentences in the system and practice them in a similar method to the Pimsleur lessons.  The main drawback here is the Pimsleur method constantly changes the sentences - forcing you to use words in different ways.  It is simply too difficult to program my system so it has the ability to automatically do that.  I would have to enter the sentences myself and run the risk of memorizing sentences as I did words.  Also, determining problem sentences is a bit more complex but not unachievable.

2) The second option is to not create any software and just continue to practice the language.  The goal here is to train myself to learn a word upon seeing it for the first time.  For instance I can force myself to write several practice sentences the first time I see a new word.  Of course some words I would forget but through constant practice my vocabulary would still grow. 

I am currently favoring the second method.  The main obstacle right now is to create the training programs (material) for each language and more importantly, figure out when I will have the time to study the other languages.

Comments (7)
  1. I’m learning Mandarin as well though very slowly.  Could you be more specific about which DeFrancis books you’re using?

    Pimsleur is a great series and I think the best way to learn the language outside of a classroom.  My only complaint is that I had a hard time discerning between some of the sounds – for instance b’s and p’s.

  2. jscalev says:

    I am using Beginning Chinese by John DeFrancis. It’s actually two books – the green pinyin edition and the blue character edition. The green book contains all the grammar notes while the blue book shows how to draw the characters.

    Typically with each lesson I do the following.

    1) Practice the characters from the blue book.

    2) Copy the dialog while looking at the blue book.

    3) Move to the green book and, while looking at the pinyin, write the character versions.

    I also have the Intermediate and Advanced texts – each also with two books. These were very tough to come by because they are no longer published.

  3. Portishead says:

    You just have to try the amazing It blows all the rest away.

  4. hi!

    You know charactes are key to such languages as Chinese, Japanese and Korean. It’s very very easy to memorize words if you know characters. I was studing characters by developing hobby project – Kanji Character Dictionary. You can see in on the following URL:

    By the way, I am practicing MS SpeechSDK and want to add some voice features to the kanji dictionary. Now, I am looking for reliable ASP.NET speech – enabled hosting where I will be able to test typical speech – enabled application powered by MS SpeechSDK and ASP.NET. can you recommend me one?

    Best Regards,


  5. kofi says:

    How long did it take you to study all these? and what is your thought about studying multiple languages at the same time. i have been studying 4 languages at the same time and i feel i could move much faster if i cut it in half(2). in any case i would like to know what ur approach was and time taken to study these languages. Thanks

  6. jscalev says:

    It is generally not a good idea to learn more than one new language at a time. For instance, the only ‘new’ language I am learning right now is Mandarin. Once I have a good understanding of Mandarin, I will start learning Arabic. While I am learning Mandarin, I am also working on strengthening the languages I already know. In terms of time, it varies by language. My estimate is 3 years to learn Mandarin properly. I estimate Arabic will take 2 years. Easier languages, such as Portuguese, will probably only take 6 months.

  7. Brigid says:

    How do you find time to strengthen the ones you have a basic knowledge of and develop those while focusing on learning a new one? I am re-learning Japanese (I knew about two high school years’ worth, but now am reviewing college semester one before I can go on to semester two) while strengthening Italian, which I have about a second- or third-year (again, high school level) strength in. I’m completely forgetting my French, which I had a second/third year high school competency in, and I’ve had to stop dabbling in Arabic and Greek due to lack of time!

    Do you have a system that allows you to review and strengthen in each language while focusing on one? I guess, honestly, I’m trying to focus on two; but, I’d really like to -at the very least- not forget the little I know in the other three!

    (if you have time to reply to this, my email is

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