The Madness of Learning Two Languages

This is kind of like part two of a post I wrote previously.

As I continue to study 2 languages at once, I realized that I took on a big project doing this. Contrary to what some people might read from the blog, I don’t regret it though. I know if I didn’t start this now, I would regret it years later, plus it has been a stimulating hobby for me, though discouraging at times.

The problem isn’t learning itself. I have some experience and feel it can be done. The problem is how to balance two languages so they don’t get neglected.

I spent a lot of time reading websites and suggestions about how to make it work. Khatzumoto at AJATT seemed skeptical of learning two languages, but felt it could be done if a person was very patient and had a “tortoise-like” attitude (i.e. slow and steady).

Separately, he had a very good post about approaching language studies (or any long-term project) like boiling water. When you boil water, you have to apply constant heat. If you turn on the heat, turn it off, and turn it on again, the water will take much longer to boil or might not boil at all. Steady heat will make the water boil. In the same way, steady exposure to language learning (or any such project) will yield much better results. But it’s important not to beat yourself up if you have a bad day or two. Instead, just think of it as applying steady heat to boil water.

This is really helpful for me, and explains why my past efforts haven’t succeeded: there are times when I am dedicated to my studies, but other times when I am burned out or lazy. I haven’t found kept up a steady approach yet.

But how do you boil two pots at once? This problem really concerned me the most. If i really focus on Japanese, my Korean will suffer and vice-versa. I really stressed out about this for a while, because no method or idea seemed reliable. I thought about studying one language one day, and studying the other language another day (alternating), or doing a long block of one language (weeks, months) and switching back. I thought about studying Japanese exclusively first, but I didn’t want my Korean to backslide.

However, thanks to a timely Twitter post by Khatzumoto at AJATT I finally found my answer at last.

Khatzumoto posted a link to another language blog which talked about treating languages (or probably any long-term project) like keeping a pet. Pets require regular care and feeding, otherwise they starve, make a mess, or die.1 It’s a great article to read, but in summary he suggests, treating one language like a large, high-maintenance pet (e.g. a hippo), which requires many hours of care and feeding every day.

Meanwhile, the other language can be a smaller pet, which still requires care and feeding, but not so much (e.g. a turtle or dog).

So, for this reason, I decided a few weeks ago that I would approach the problem like so:

  • Japanese – the “hippo” pet. I have very concrete, practical reasons to get as fluent as I can with the language, so I treat this as the larger pet. This means I need to devote minimum 4-8 hours per day. I usually do this at work by listening to podcasts while I work, and on weekends by watching Japanese TV with daughter and wife.
  • Korean – the smaller pet. Under the post above, I treat this as my smaller, more adorable pet because it’s more of a hobby than something I need, and so my goal is more modest. I want to be able to have conversation ability plus normal reading skills whereas I want professional-level Japanese skills. As with Japanese, I am lucky to have a lot of support from friends (thank you H), and I use TTMIK’s Iyagi series to get podcasts as well. I listen the Iyagi podcasts usually early in the morning or late at night before or after I study Japanese. I usually devote 2-3 hours a day, so I guess it’s my dog or monkey pet.2

So, that’s been my approach for about a few weeks now. Some days I can devote 8+ hours to Japanese and some days as little as 4 (Korean 1-3 hours/day as stated) but I keep the boiling water and pet analogies in mind and it has been useful in planning my day. It’s also a lot simpler than some of my more contrived ideas earlier. Also, while on vacation I get Japanese exposure all day, so I need to make sure my “Korean pet” is still fed sufficiently at night or early morning.

The next challenge is keeping this up in the long-term. Stay tuned!

P.S. The other language blog also had a nice post using advice from the Ven. Ajahn Chah of the Theravada Buddhist tradition to approach language learning. Similar to the water-boiling analogy, Ajahn Chah explained meditation as like rubbing two sticks together to make a fire. If you don’t keep rubbing them for a long, steady pace, they won’t catch on fire.

1 This reminded me of my beloved dog, Napoleon who died shortly after my daughter was born, and my pet turtle, Kame, who died from an accident a year later. Hopefully both are resting in peace.

2 This is just a metaphor. I love both languages and cultures. :)

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About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.
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2 Responses to The Madness of Learning Two Languages

  1. Juan Rivera says:

    Wow…a great post and a great looking website. Another idea that maybe you have already tried is studying Korean with Japanese materials. Of course, there are all the Korean dramas. Are they subtitled in Japanese? Thanks for creating such an extensive site. I am putting it on my blogroll.

  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Juan and welcome to the JKLLR! I have tried studying Korean with Japanese, but some aspects are definitely easier in English, so I am doing 50-50 right now.

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