How Much Time It Takes To Maintain (And Improve) Many Languages
Being a polyglot sounds like such an amazing thing, doesn’t it? Admiration, fame, money, women throwing themselves at your feet.
All these things are not only great but also completely imaginary.
Ok, just a bad joke. It is pretty great.
But plenty of people notoriously underestimates how much time it takes to maintain and learn languages. I am sure you know the type.
They love to assume that the only prerequisite to master many languages is some unspecified talent.
I get it. If you say, “I envy you, I wish I could speak so many languages but I just don’t have a knack for it”, you don’t have to feel guilty.
That’s why they keep sucking the rationalization’s tit until they get all warm and blissful.
And who knows? Maybe they are right to some degree. We are all born different. Wiring in our little brains differs from one another.
Some people might actually have some head-start. But one thing is sure – no magical combinations of neural networks will ever make you a polyglot if you don’t put in the long hours.
It’s time to unveil the mystery.
For the past four weeks, I have been trying to track down how much time I devote to learning and maintaining my languages each week.
But before we get to that, let’s start with the baseline,
My Current Language Levels
Here are my current levels:
- English: C2+ (C2 level + a couple of specializations)
- Swedish: C1/C2
- German: C1/C2
- Russian: C1
- Esperanto: C1
- Czech: B2/C1
- Spanish: B2
- French: A2/B1
As a side note, I can’t understand why some people say that they know a language when they can barely string a sentence together. Your language is not dormant – it is mostly forgotten. Deal with it,
Somehow, this practice seems to be quite widespread in the language learning world.
You might notice that I learn my languages to at least C1 level. There is a very good reason for that – language attrition happens muuuch slower on this level than on the lower ones.
Once you get there, you can start taking breaks from that language to entertain yourself with other projects.
Let’s start with my unfair advantage – I teach / train people for a living. It allows me to spend considerable amounts of time while being surrounded by many languages.
Currently, I teach/coach 30+ people per week.
Main languages I teach are:
- Swedish – 8-10 hours
- German – 8-10 hours
- English – 8-10 hours
These are not your usual conversations. I work almost exclusively with professionals. Each hour I spent with them is designed to jog their memory and bring them to the point of exhaustion.
That requires from me quite a considerable vocabulary which is awesome.
If we add to this mix a couple hours of consultations each week, we get a pretty decent number.
Total time: 24-35 hours
SPARE TIME – LEARNING PART
I am not sure whether it’s sad or not but I spend most of my waking hours learning and/or experimenting with memory systems. None of these activities are carried out in my mother tongue.
I figured out that since I know it pretty well it would be a waste of time.
Basically, it means, as absurd as it sounds, that Polish (my native tongue) and French are the least frequently used languages by me.
It leads to some bizarre and funny situations. Sometimes my brain plays with me and prompts me to conjugate Polish verbs in a really weird way – I have created monsters like “wypróbowywałem” instead of “wypróbowałem” more times than I would like to admit.
Quite a side-effect, huh?
Another interesting side-effect is dreaming in foreign languages. I have actually had dreams where people were speaking one foreign language and my brain was displaying subtitles in another.
Yep. Who needs drugs when you have languages.
Anyway, reading, talking, noting, writing are all done in various languages.
The rough breakdown looks more less like this. Mind you that these numbers reflect only a couple of last weeks and they are bound to change. They have to adjust to my needs, after all.
English – 15-hours. As much as I would like to suppress the use of this language throughout the week, it is impossible.
About 80% of e-mails I get are in English. 98% of all scientific papers I read are in English, no other language comes even close when it comes to their quality. I would say that I read at least 300+ pages per week in that language.
And let’s not forget about writing articles. Once again English prevails.
Czech – 5 hours per week. Mostly reading (10-15 articles per week) and learning/revising vocabulary.
Russian – 3-7 hours per week. Mostly revising and learning vocabulary. I read maybe 1-2 articles per week. Oh, and let’s throw about 2-4 episodes of TV series to this mix!
Esperanto – 1-2 hours per week Mostly revising and learning vocabulary. Unfortunately, there are not many websites in Esperanto which overlap with my interests. It means that I read maybe 0-2 pages in Esperanto per week.
Swedish – 4-6 hours. I need to maintain my Swedish skills at a high level because of my job. I tend to read 10-20 articles per week and tend to watch a fair share of YT in Swedish (I highly recommend I Just Want To Be Cool channel, if you are learning Swedish).
French – 0-1 hours per week. Currently, I am busy with many projects and the sole victim of this state of affairs is French. As a not so surprising result, my French is deteriorating rather fast.
German – 3-5 hours per week. Besides learning new words and revising old ones, I read about 5-10 articles per week and watch a bit of YT.
Spanish – 3-4 hours per week. Mostly revising and learning vocabulary with some articles here and there.
And just for the clarity’s sake – I learn and revise my vocabulary by talking in order to keep it active.
Total time: 34-40 hours per week.
SPARE TIME – ENTERTAINMENT
Now it really gets weird!
I tend to watch a lot of TV series with my girlfriend – about 15 hours per week. It’s great fun. However, it has bothered me for a long time that everything we watch is in English.
That’s a wrinkle I couldn’t iron out.
And then it dawned on me – why not turn this ordinary activity into another language learning exercise?
Why not translate everything actors say into one of the languages I am trying to improve?
As I thought so I did. I have been doing it for about 4 months now and it has really helped me improve my fluency in a couple of languages.
“What about words or phrases you don’t know?”, you might ask.
I have an easy but effective system which takes care of that problem. I memorize them with mnemonics on the fly and quickly note them down after each episode.
Next day I look them up and encode them. Quite an elegant solution, isn’t it?
Of course, it doesn’t work each time. Sometimes I am just too tired and I let myself get sucked into a TV whirlwind.
Total time: 5-15 hours
The Final Result
The results were beyond interesting. It was no secret to me that I learn a lot but I didn’t think that it’s that much!
Not even once did I sink below the level of 70 hours per week, although I am sure that it might happen in the future.
Thank God I am not a crack addict. Otherwise, I would be this guy who crawls through broken glass to lick other junkies’ nostrils to get his daily high.
Total time: 63-90 hours per week
Want to increase your weekly learning time? Read on. There is some food for thought for you there.
ACTIVE vs. PASSIVE LEARNING
Active use: 35-50 hours per week (talking to others or myself)
Semi-active use: about 15 hours per week (translating TV series in my mind)
Passive: 15-35 hours per week (reading + listening/watching)
Over 70 hours per week is certainly a lot of time. That’s why there is one important question which begs to be asked.
Does it all come easy? Or does it require some tremendous amount of will power? At the risk of rubbing some people the wrong way the answer is – It does come easy.
At this point of time in my life, I do most of those things without giving them much thought. But I had to work my way up to get there.
And believe me – it was a long walk and the slope was slippery.
There is definitely a number of challenges you need to face if you want to pump up your total learning time. Here are some of them.
Definitely one of the most important things to master, if not the most important one. If you want to make sure that you will learn day in, day out, you need to build within yourself the urge to do it.
The urge that can only be built and fueled by habits.
Forget about the motivation. Motivation is for suckers. You have to show up every day until the habit of learning becomes the extension of yourself.
Only then will you be able to not only learn a lot without much effort but also crave it.
Read more about creating durable habits here.
You can’t just choose one or two and toss the rest into some musty pit. They would rust away in the blink of an eye.
You need to introduce and invite every language you’re learning to your life. You have to make conscious effort to use them all constantly.
Beginnings are ugly and weird. It seems your guest is hammered and shits on your carpet and you don’t know what to do with him.
But once the dust settles, using a given language should become your second nature.
Here are more tips about juggling many languages.
SURROUNDING YOURSELF WITH LANGUAGES
Use every possible moment you get to learn a word or two. The chances to do it are everywhere around you:
- change your language settings wherever you can
- use your social media to learn (get to know how to learn languages on Facebook)
- listen to the music in your target language(s)
And so on. Every little bit counts
The general of productivity is that the fewer decisions you have to make, the better your general efficiency is. It’s hard to argue with that.
Let’s say that you want to read something, How much time do you usually spend before you pick up an article? 5 minutes? 10 minutes?
It might not seem like a lot. However, it adds up very quickly.
Soon it may turn out that at least a dozen of hours per week is trickling between your fingers.
The same goes for choosing movies or YT videos.
I am hell-bent on not letting that happen.
I would rather spend this time weaving wicker baskets than losing it due to my indecision.
That’s why my input-gathering process is almost fully automated.
In the morning, when I arrive at my desk with a steamy mug of coffee, everything I need is already in my e-mail box. Scientific papers, videos, articles. Everything.
I don’t need to spend even one minute more than I should trying to find the necessary information.
And yet, as you can clearly seem I still spend a lot of time learning and maitaning my languages which leads me to the last point.
WHY I WON’T LEARN NEW LANGUAGES ANYTIME SOON
People learn languages for different reasons.
Mine has always struck people as eccentric.
I haven’t learned languages because of my deep love for them.
No doubt I have fallen in love with them during the process of learning (except for French – f*** you French!) but my affection hasn’t been the main factor.
The main reason was always the pursuit of better memory.
And even though I know that I still have a lot to learn memory-wise, I know that learning languages won’t get me much further.
I don’t find languages challenging anymore. Sure, I haven’t learned Basque or even one of Asian languages. But I don’t need to.
The general principles of learning and memory improvement won’t change just because I switched to a new language.
And to be honest, what’s the difference between knowing 8 and 9 languages?
Or 10-12? Not that big, in my opinion.
However, the time you need to maintain them grows significantly with every new addition. Of course, some learners trade quality for quantity but I personally prefer to truly master the languages I know.
Languages vs other branches of knowledge
I have read in some scientific paper that learning a language to C1 level is tantamount to graduating from studies.
Both activities require thorough knowledge and understanding of about 10000 words/concepts.
But I don’t believe it to be true. I don’t know many college graduates who can use their knowledge as fluently and practically as C1 language learners can use their vocabulary.
And that is what bugs me. Why would I learn another language when there are so many other mysteries just waiting to be solved (I guess it’s the FOMO syndrome?
So many branches of knowledge which seem to lure me. Every day, I seem to find yet another thing which I don’t know much about.
The choice is simple – I can either excel at many other things or simply learn another language or 5.
The latter is infinitely less exciting and practical.
So what’s next?
Years ago I promised myself that I would master 10 languages till I turn 40.
Right now I am 31 and I still have plenty of time to achieve my goal.
But I think that this time I will take my time.and stick to learning some other things and hopefully running this blog full-time.
Not everyone needs to be a polyglot but if this is a path you decide to tread, you should be fully aware that it requires much time and effort.
The path is fraught with various obstacles. Get rid of one of them and soon you will realize that another one took its place.
But if there was just one thing, I would like you to take away from this article, it would be this one:
You have to make the languages you learn a central part of your life, only then will you be able to truly master them.
Question for you:
What stops you from learning your target language(s) more often?”
I would love to hear your opinion.
First of all i’d like to apologise for my bad English.
When is the point that you decide to quit learning a language? I am obsessed learning the russian language.. I am now to a point that in fact i can talk quite good without much errors(there are some however) I have ofcourse a accent aswell. I can read quite comfortable and understand people without hassle.. However… I am very obsessive and all new stuff that i find which i don’t know(and believe me with russian this is, as you know a loooooot) makes me learning more and more and more.. The frustrating part of language learning is that i know all those words but a lot of passive knowledge which isn’t automatized enough to use, and the rare stuff that i learned i will eventually forget all the time because it isn’t really used so much.. So when, when do you decide that it is just ”enough” and how can i be comfortable with the idea of now losing anything(i learn a whole lot, 6 hours a day)
For me, it’s never enough. That’s why I don’t quit learning languages I already know. I just stop learning them more intensely at the point where I can function well in them (read, listen, etc.). This is, of course, my particular case. In your situation, you might have different goals. However, I would say that generally, when you can communicate well, you can ease off with more active learning and focus more on passive activities while putting more emphasis on other languages.
Fantastic honest article. So many people gloss over how much time and how much commitment you actually need to achieve language skills at this level, it’s really hard to find someone disclosing the truth.
I recognise the obsession required, it’s a unique ability to focus at such an intense level for such an extended time.
Thank you for sharing.
Thank you! Obsession is certainly a big requirement. That’s why contrary to many people I tend to say that not everyone can become a polyglot. Not for the lack of skills but because not everyone is obsessive enough.
What if someone has two languages at a point where this person can understand most of what is being said? In my case I did french for two years at secondary school but I wasn’t motivated and Spanish for one year I think. Last year I tried a bunch of languages. Now my French and Spanish are more or less on the same level comprehension wise. My speaking in Spanish is much better because I’ve had far mor practice with it than French. I feel like doing both at the same time because every time I hear something in them I feel like learning them. For example, right now I’m at my aunt’s shop watching a video on her smart tv. It’s a live by the French channel thinker view. I also want to have about 10 languages at the C1 level at least. I’m focusing on Spanish right but as I’m watching this video I really feel like continuing to learn French. Haha. What do you think? If I do continue with them I will learn both of them to C1 at the same before moving onto German.
If you have achieved the level where you can understand a language comfortably, then it means that you would be able to learn relatively effectively with passive exposure (listening, reading), which makes the whole process way easier.
10 languages at a C1 level are possible, but my advice would be to find a way to tie your professional and private life with languages. This way you won’t have to rely only on your string will to maintain them. For example, I still teach many of the language mentioned in this article, and since it’s my job, it’s quite easy to maintain them. Good luck!
Oh wow that was fast. Thank you so much. I only go to know about you yesterday after coming across this article. Again thanks a lot and you’re a roel model to me. Thanks a lot
I am wondering about learning many languages. There are many languages I am interested in:D
C1: Czech, Slovak, English
B1: German, which is a language that I can read news in and I can express myself but I know my grammar is not perfect.
A2: Spanish and Russian are more rusty regards conversation but I can understand news articles or stories and listen to a podcast.
My fun project is japanese. I read at lingQ, watch anime with japanese subtitles at animelon and put words into ANKI. I got excellent videos on structure at Cure Dolly’s YT channel. Recently I started to create sentences with new words due to your advice.
Then there are languages which I learn to read theological writings so my goal is just comprehension: biblical Greek and Hebrew. I try to read a few biblical sentences in them every day and I review in ANKI the words I learnt during a college course. I study theology which is a peculiar field because not all the quality literature is available in English. If I continue with theology long term, I will probably want to add Latin to the mix. There are separate literatures in French, German, Russian, Italian which are particularly interesting for ecumenical dialogue. Cardinal Mezzofanti was famous for knowing many languages. I suspect the reason had to do something with his love of theology and philosophy 😀
Then there is Hungarian which is a language of a part of my ancestry so I am thinking about learning that as well.
As I read your page, I am not sure I will be able to sustain all those languages. The question is if theology can become my main focus. Currently I am a student of it but my main education is in economics, and I consider moving to Sweden for a few years as a researcher. As I count there are about 14 languages which could be interesting to learn. 9 of them I have already invested some time in, 8 are connected to theology. Seems like a lot. What would you suggest?
Wow, quite a list! Congratulations! 🙂
My boring advice would be to tackle them one by one and get each one of them to at least a B2 (ideally C1 level). At this point, information decay is very slow, and you can go for a longer period of time without having to refresh them all the time. Keep in mind that in the meantime, you still will be forced to maintain all the other languages, it just won’t take that much of your time.
This is something I could easily do with most of my languages at this point, and I often do to pursue other fields of knowledge. Of course, focusing seriously on one language doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have side projects! You absolutely should – they are a great way to introduce joy into the learning process and to energize you 🙂
How does your brain handle language switching ? I happen to have big language blockages quite often, trying to make a sentence in Italian and half of it comes out in Russiam, then inventing new words in french because the english ones sounded very frenchy, etc…
Or does all this dissipates with a good consistent system of using all the languages in your daily life ?
You’re on the right track – it all becomes organized in your head after having used all your languages regularly. Believe me, there is not a single person in this world, maybe besides a couple of outliers, who hasn’t struggled with this. Just force yourself to use your languages regularly. That’s sucky “secret” advice but it does work. The thing is that it’s difficult and that’s why there aren’t many people who speak many languages fluently.
What happened between you and French Bartosz)) ?
Great article, I always found maintaining languages to be the real issue. Actually maintaining any kind of knowledge is far from easy, but like you say, once you bring it to mastery, forgetting it is a lot harder. Because of that I think twice before getting into something new (and not complementary to something I already know).
I used to be a strong B2 in German but haven’t used it for 5 years (I just stopped liking it as I grew up and completely discarded it) and dropped to a shameful A2. Now looking through the job market I wish I still had my German B2 and am thinking of getting it back. But how frustrating to start it all over again, especially when I don’t have a strong love for it at all. I guess I should think of it as a memory challenge like you do, instead of a culture/language love fed adventure.
I don’t know. There is something annoying about French to me! 🙂 Thank you for sharing your story! 🙂
Bartosz appreciate the reply/feedback on this Christmas eve:). Watched your presentation on youtube (Polyglot conference) and besides bad video quality, your actual presentation on learning grammer was amazing. I have an article request, I been following Steve Kaufmann for a bit as his passion for language learning is very motivating. Request your review of LingQ as a language learning system (Comprehensible Input) and hear your thoughts on output/speaking practice with an actual tutor (italki). Most tutor/teachers have sucked in my experience because many typically want to teach me the language but I just want speaking practice (what does a perfect session look like in your opinion/experience).
It’s not that fanily is that important 😀 Great suggestions! I will definitely write about these things. Btw if you want this presentation, drop me a message and I will send it to you 🙂
Great article. I always struggle with the question of learning & maintaining languages. My problem is that once I achieve a B1 level, I move on to the next language and passively maintain the other languages (read & listen). After spending the last 3 hours reading most of the articles on your site, I made the following self assessment: 1. I should relook all my languages and focus on getting them to C1 2. I need to actively speak to myself more using my own sentences (I need more automaticity when speaking) 3. I should only learn 1 language at a time while maintaining the others (I typically learn 2 at a time). Again, thank you for all the insights.
Hi Frank and thank you! That’s definitely a sound plan. I suggest that you try to achieve at least a B2 level before moving on to another level. At that point, your forgetting should slow down considerably. Of course, at a C1 level, it’s enough to activate such a language only from time time and you will still be a fluent speaker. That’s a paradox. If you stick to 1 language for a longer time, you will be able to learn more language with time.
Hello! I’m from India. My mother tongue is Hindi and I teach it too. I learnt English and Sanskrit at school. While English is used very frequently, I’ve found it difficult to keep up my level of Sanskrit. For the past four years I’ve been learning Spanish – actively, I’d say! Did I tell you I’m 54 now. I’ve always been fascinated by the people and culture around the world. I find there’s nothing like learning languages to learn more about it. And my target time period is – well, as long as my brain functions.
You’re doing a great job and I’ve read some of your articles. I’ll start translating them in Spanish and Hindi. Great idea from you. Thanks!!!
Hello ! Yes, it’s hard to keep up with maintaining languages but I am sure you are doing great! 🙂 Thank you very much for your comment and kind words!
Great article! Taking on too many languages at once! You’re right! If you can’t fit them in all at once , you have to make sacrifices and prioritise.
True! Thank you for your comment, Hugh! 🙂
Bartosz, this is a very interesting, well written, and useful article. My question is, how do you evaluate at what level you are currently? I looked back through a couple of your other articles and it looks like perhaps the answer is that you use the size of your vocabulary to estimate your level. Is that correct?
Thank you Marion! The size of vocabulary is definitely a prerequisite for being able to achieve a given level.
However, I do not treat as the only criterium.
I also take into consideration how fluently I can express myself and my level of understanding.
The mere size of vocabulary doesn’t mean that much.
It’s not that difficult to imagine someone who has just learned words and cannot use them fluently.
Would this person really achieve the given level? Absolutely not. Hope that helps! 🙂
Great article Bartek! I was always interested in how actually u’ve become so f*****g master in languages and now I got it 🙂
So I just hope that if I devote at least few hours per week on my stuff, I will be able to observe better results 🙂
Thanks Dude, u rule!!
Very nice of you to say it! Thanks and let me know about your progress ! 🙂