If you’re starting from zero, study two languages at a time
You’ll reach fluency in multiple languages faster if you start by learning two languages rather than proceeding one at a time. You can make a substantial amount of progress in a language with half an hour of study time per day, and most people find an hour total (half an hour for each language) a reasonable amount of time to dedicate to languages every day.
You won’t get mentally overwhelmed from two new languages at a time—but any more than that is more likely to lead to confusion, overload and burnout. Pace yourself. Reaching fluency in many languages takes time, and you’ll get better long-term mileage if you don’t take it too fast at the beginning.
Study new languages in your stronger language(s)
Once you’ve reached a certain level of comfort in one of your target languages, you can learn subsequent languages through it, solidifying both your knowledge of the stronger language and helping you get ahead in the new language. As an example, you might listen to a podcast for French speakers learning Chinese, or get a French-Chinese dictionary instead of an English-Chinese one.
If you happen to be living abroad, this is easier. When I lived in France, for example, I took both a Chinese class and an Arabic class. I learned some French in both classes. In my Chinese class, we read a story that involved magpies (pie in French, que 鹊 in Chinese). My French was pretty good, but my vocabulary did not include “magpie,” so I had to look up the word when I got home from class. I suspect if it hadn’t been for the Chinese class, I’d never have learned how to say “magpie” in French.
A quick note about laddering, or using one foreign language to learn another: It is usually only possible if both of your target languages are relatively common. Don’t expect to use Finnish to learn Bengali, for example—there just won’t be enough language material out there.
It’s easier to use the laddering technique if you’re living abroad—taking a class full of French speakers learning Chinese is not really possible unless you’re in a French-speaking country. Living abroad also makes practicing at least one language easier. If you’re surrounded by one of your target languages all the time, you’ll have a lot more mental energy available to focus on another two foreign languages you’re trying to improve.
Of course, the idea of living abroad can be daunting. How will you support yourself? Where will you live? How will you meet people? Here are a couple ideas for making a move abroad more manageable.
Connect with other people from your home country who have lived/are living in the place you’d like to move to.
Take a short-term trip before making a permanent move abroad. Even a week spent in the city you’d like to move to will give you an idea of how you actually like the place, what neighborhoods you might like to live in and what sorts of jobs would be open to you.
Figure out how you’ll make money. Maybe you’ll have saved up enough money to not work for several months or a year, in which case you don’t have to worry about this at all. Otherwise, figure out if you can teach your native language, work remotely or get a job in your field in the new country.
Cultivate equally strong relationships with each target language
Your goal should never be to “become a polyglot.” Instead, it should be to become bilingual in each individual language you intend to learn. If fluency is your goal, don’t start learning a new language just to bump up your numbers.
Instead, you should have a concrete reason for learning each language, such as:
Learning Spanish so that you can understand Flamenco lyrics
Learning Russian to communicate with your in-laws
Learning French because you’d like to study French cuisine in France
Having a connection to a language means a strong, emotional desire to be able to use the language. It also means that your reasons for learning the language should be constants in your life, rather than motivations that are likely to dry up after a year or two.
Create an immersion environment
An immersion environment is important for learning any language, but even more important if your goal is to learn two or more to fluency. You’ll need to maximize your time, and that means creating ways to expose yourself to your target language constantly. When learning multiple languages, it’s best to do immersion in one language at a time.
Immersion can be either physical (such as living abroad) or virtual/digital , such as watching movies, reading newspapers and listening to music exclusively in your target language. When creating a virtual immersion environment, virtual private networks (VPNs) allow you to access content like television and movies that are geoblocked—meaning that they’re restricted in certain countries.
Essentially, a VPN makes it appear as if you’re using the internet in another country rather than the United States (or wherever you currently are). By using a VPN, you can access online content as if you were in Germany, France, Japan or any other country of your choice. An easy way to set up a VPN and magically change your location is by installing HideMyAss! VPN on any of your devices—it works on your computer, smartphone and internet-enabled TVs and game systems.
FluentU is also a great way to get both language immersion and language instruction, since it turns real-world videos into personalized language lessons.