Is it possible to learn two languages at once? I don’t know what the research says, but it would seem to me that probably one at a time would be more effective. However, living as I do between the French and German parts of Switzerland, I don’t have much choice. I have to speak French when I go to the store or the dentist, and German when I go to work. At home, we still speak mostly English, but the language of friends and family is the Swiss German dialect, which I can somewhat understand but don’t even try to speak.
At first I was completely muddled, and words from various languages would get mixed up in my head and make me feel tongue-tied. But at some point the languages seemed to sort themselves out in my brain into their own “tracks” (though I still inadvertently insert words from other languages at times).
I’m trying to make progress in both French and German, but it’s hard to work on both equally at the same time, so I tend to take turns. Last month I pushed myself to read more in French, and it really helped. A book blogging friend who is also a French teacher started an online book club and that was a great way to get in some writing and discussion practice. I finished three books and felt as though I broke a barrier I had never managed to get through, even in my higher-level college classes. I should keep going with reading, though in a less intense way. Soon I may be able to tackle those classics that I never quite grasped in school — bring on Diderot, Flaubert and Camus!
I really need to make more progress in German, though. There is a very good free course through Deutsche Welle that I’m working on, and I have an online conversation partner. I’d also like to read more books in German when I get a little further (I’m kind of at the “Dick and Jane” stage at the moment).
I think it would be easier for me to make progress if I could really immerse myself in one language, but as I said above, that’s not a choice for me. And it does not help that I spend much time at home by myself or with family, talking and reading and writing in English.
My method is more of a “quick-dip-in-and-out” than immersion. I know I should make myself write more in another language, in my journal, for example, but it would feel like breaking my own legs in order to learn to walk again. I’m not quite up to it yet.
I do find it fascinating to experience the different languages — which are both closely connected with English, and remind me of different aspects of my own mother tongue. I find French easier to understand, partly because I’ve studied it much longer, but also because much of the vocabulary and the whole way of thinking are familiar from the Latinate academic world.
On the other hand, German is easier for me to speak, in spite of some difficult sounds and extremelylongportmanteauwords. Not that I get the grammar all correct, but the wrong words come out of my mouth more easily. Maybe because it’s the language of my husband, and feels more gemütlich; or because it’s a stress-timed language, like English, and the rhythmic quality comes naturally to me.
But when French and German bump up against each other in Switzerland, they do not like to mix. There are many bilingual (and multilingual) people, of course, but I was surprised to find there are also many who live for years in this region and don’t learn the speech of the other side, even workers in official roles. The French and German regions stubbornly maintain their own character and their own language, to a greater extent than I had realized.
Meanwhile, I’ll be trying to bridge them both, and in the process learning more about English — the modern language of neutrality, it seems.
Have you ever tried to learn two languages at once? Do you have any tips?