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Learning multiple languages

By Dr Cate Almon

Lately we have been asked whether students can take two language courses at the same time, such as Spanish and French, or Japanese and Arabic. While there are some practical constraints to doing this, these queries have led us to some soul searching. It is commonly held that children can acquire a multitude of languages at the same time, being aware of the language they are using and the contexts they must use each in. But their brains are still flexible and they are learning rather basic language relevant to them, as in “I love chocolate” or “I’m not ready to go to bed yet”.

What about adults? I have known rather linguistically oriented people who are quite capable of learning more than one new language at once. But they are familiar with systems that languages employ and can apply these to new ones. I have also seen full time EFL students take an additional language for college graduation requirements, but the majority of their time is devoted to studying. Ultimately it seems to be a question of “cognitive load”. One must ask oneself, what is my capacity for learning a new language? If I am unemployed with no dependants and have a lot of time on my hands, I could probably handle learning more than one language at a time because I could devote the time needed to not only learn new words and grammar from each language, but also utilise devices to keep them apart such as creating charts, colour coding lexis and practising in contexts very unique to each language. However, if I am working a full time job and have family and I decide to enrol for two or three language courses, when will I have the time to work on them? Enrolling and attending will not make me a language savant. The essential ingredient of time to devote in language study must be a factor.

At Wits Language School we want you to be a success and for you to consider the best approach to engage in the culturally and cognitively enriching world of learning a new language.