Is it possible to learn 3 languages at once?

I’m here to say YES it is possible to learn three languages at once! That’s how I’ve been spending most of my time in Thailand. And I’ve done it before. In fact, I learned some amazing techniques during my TESOL course that make my goals more attainable.

It’s good for the brain to learn multiple languages at once. Keeping all centers of your brain active helps you be more alert! That being said, it may be necessary to focus on building a solid foundation for one language at a time, as polyglot Luca Lampariello recommends.

My biggest regret is never building a solid grammatical foundation in Chinese or Korean…Because I can understand little and can speak even less. However, I am proud to say that my efforts to learn Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese at once are going well! Primarily because I am at three distinctly different levels for all three languages. 

learning multiple languages japanese vietnamese thai textbooksLearning Thai

Before coming to Thailand from Vietnam, I was apprehensive about committing myself to learning yet another language before even mastering Vietnamese. Fortunately, I’ve found Thai coming to me almost naturally. It sure helps to be here! With the alphabet staring me in the face everywhere I go and the lack of English speakers around, I’m learning more every day.

I hadn’t realized how far I have come. While I’m still learning how to pronounce, read, write, and say simple greetings in Thai, I’ve mastered all those basics in Vietnamese. I have a solid foundation. Now, I’m just building on that foundation by memorizing complex verbs and practicing grammar.

On top of everything else, I am re-learning Japanese! I have found myself surrounded by many Japanese here, so I’ve been doing my best to practice my conversational skills whenever I get the chance. I’m loving it!

Did you know tonal language speakers use the right hemisphere and the superior temporal gyrus more than non-tonal language speakers do? I can sure tell. Part of my brain already thinks in Vietnamese. Therefore, the other, open spaces are able to focus on Thai as a new challenge. And, in the non-tonal part of my brain, the Japanese section is shuffling through its dusty files (although it occasionally runs across some misplaced Korean words).

Therefore, we have the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere, the active parts, and the neglected parts of the brain all working at once. I find this is accelerating my growth by improving my memory, allowing me to build my vocabulary faster!

I was well prepared for the complexities of Thai by studying Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese. In fact, I don’t think I would have the confidence to learn the language otherwise! With a complex writing system, grouped letters, inherent vowels, tones, elongated syllables, rolled R’s, and no spaces–I’ve counted at least 6 languages with which Thai shares such unique (and scary) attributes.

Mental preparation

By the start of high school, I already had an interest in Asian culture. Specifically, the Japanese and Korean hemispheres. Between penpals in Kyoto and songs by Epik High, I had plenty of motivation to learn how to read and write both languages. The goal? To sing my favorite songs at karaoke, of course!

Fortunately, I found my math class useless enough to spend most of my time writing down Hiragana, Katakana, and Hangul over and over. Until, finally, all three writing systems came to rest permanently in my mind.

I spent my last two years of high school attending classes at the local community college, where Japanese was offered. Good thing, too. Since I have a gift for languages, I need to be pushed to put much effort into it. Though I could already read and write Japanese, the homework and quizzes forced me to build a vocabulary and learn grammar.

Two years studying Japanese, including one quarter of Mandarin Chinese, prepared my mind for learning every language I have since. Japanese prepared me to think backwards in terms of grammar, how to read a language without spaces in between words, how to write Chinese (Kanji) characters, and how to conjugate like a madman. Chinese, in turn, introduced me to tones, helped me learn how to think in simple terms, and sped up my conversational comprehension. All the while, I was learning Korean, which came so easily after practicing conjugation and non-Roman writing systems.

I didn’t expect to find myself learning Vietnamese two years later, but that’s what happened. I’ve been speaking Vietnamese ever since. Meanwhile, Korean and Japanese and Mandarin rest somewhere in my subconscious.

Conversational practice

My big trip to Asia from October 2013 to January 2014 helped me put it all into practice: Mandarin in Hong Kong and Singapore, Vietnamese in Vietnam (and lots of other places), Korean in South Korea, and Japanese pretty much everywhere I went. (Japanese people are everywhere!)

In the Philippines, I immediately jumped into listening, reading, and speaking. That’s how I started teaching myself simple things–Tagalog greetings, food, the Spanish numbers. I remember everything I learned to this day.

My experience with tonal languages helped me pronounce Cantonese words and phrases almost perfectly. I didn’t learn much beyond “delicious”, “beautiful”, and “thank you”, but I enjoyed the entire Hong Kong experience!

In Thailand and Malaysia, I was exposed to the local languages for the first time in my life. That didn’t stop me from picking things up almost immediately. (I retained the Thai, but lost the Malay.)

My current goals

The long-term goal is to be able to have a basic conversation in Thai AND Japanese by the time I return home to Seattle to visit (probably in spring/summer 2018). And, of course, to conversate more easily in Vietnamese by then. In order to succeed, I’ve set the following short-term goals for myself:

  1. Learn to read Thai within my first 4 months in Thailand. Not an easy task, considering each word’s tone is determined by the class of the starting letter, vowel, ending consonant, AND the occasional tone mark. It’s been almost two months, and I have about 75% of the alphabet memorized. Plus two out of like 20 tone rules.
  2. Incorporate a few new complex verbs/adjectives into my Vietnamese vocabulary each week. So far, this is going well! I think my brain has been switched on by my three months in Vietnam.
  3. Review Japanese to improve my conversation skills. I want to build my vocabulary and increase my comprehension by speaking Japanese as often as I can! Thanks to my mom, who sent me a package from home, I now have my college textbooks to refresh my memory.

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