Can Students Successfully Study Multiple Languages?

by Brittany Stoner

I have a confession: One day, I want to have a moment like in that Hyundai commercial when two drivers are stuck next to each other in traffic and find themselves singing along to the same song on the radio. Except in my version we’d just happen to be rocking out to the same song in Spanish. Or French. Maybe even Latin. I never know what song my phone is going to shuffle to next, but the odds are pretty heavily weighted in favor of one that’s not in English.

I love language. I’m always searching for the way words fit together best—that perfect order that changes a simple sentence into something beautiful, maybe even memorable. I love the puzzle of translating and crafting words into grammatically correct sentences, and the musicality of rhythms and vocabulary different from English.

I started studying Spanish when I was eight, learning first at home from my mom, who had taken enough college courses to be able to teach me the basics, and then advancing to weekly tutoring sessions with a retired teacher. In high school, with SATs looming, I added Latin in order to memorize all those handy root words and thus better prepare for the vocabulary section. And then, because learning two languages wasn’t enough, I begged to add French. Three languages. All at the same time. For several years in a row. I ended up taking the Advanced Placement exams for both Spanish and French, and went on to earn a BA in Spanish.

Here at Classical Academic Press, customers often ask us whether their students can, and should, study more than one foreign language simultaneously. This is my favorite question because it’s almost always the students who are requesting to learn more than one language. Even in this era of Google translate (yikes) and foreign language apps to help with communication while abroad, students still want to learn on a deeper level, unlocking another part of the puzzle that is human language. Studying multiple languages is not for every student, and it’s largely a personal decision to make based on your family’s time, resources, and finances. But if your students are expressing a strong interest in learning more languages, know that it is possible to incorporate a combination into your school year—and to do so successfully.

The most critical aspect of learning any new subject is carving out time for study and practice. If your student is studying multiple languages with the intention of being able to write, speak, and listen well in each, then it’s important to ensure they spend equal amounts of time studying each of them. Plan on a minimum of a half hour of dedicated daily study time per language (more for older students). Instead of students studying them back to back as part of a designated language study block, consider interspersing other subjects in between to help keep each clearly separate as a unique language. I’d also recommend studying each of the languages year-round, rather than splitting them into semester courses, so they stay easily accessible in students’ brains.

Another important factor is building an excellent grammar foundation, which will enable students to more easily adapt to learning a new language (or two or three). Students are able to more quickly construct or translate a sentence if they’re already familiar with the parts of language, from direct objects to the subjunctive mood. Many of these grammar skills can be picked up naturally through a solid foreign-language curriculum that will unpack grammar and parts of speech as it progresses rather than just focusing on vocabulary and useful phrases. This is particularly important if you don’t have time in your school day for a separate grammar program. The more students learn the why of the language, the more easily they will translate or speak it later.

A third crucial piece of the puzzle is to fully embrace your students’ love of languages through immersion and exploration. Following are just a few tips for encouraging their language learning by going beyond the pages of their curriculum in fun, creative ways.

Language is meant to be a communal experience. Reach out to language-learning or cultural groups in your area—chances are they’d be happy to have your students stop by a meeting to listen and to practice conversing. You may also find native speakers in other venues, such as foreign restaurants; usually they are enthusiastic about others learning their language and patient with beginners who want to try exchanging a few conversational phrases in the language they’re learning.

My favorite way to embrace a new language is through exposure in the form of music, films, or books. This might sound intimidating, but stay with me.

There’s something about singing words or facts that makes them stick in the brain more (at least, this is probably true if your homeschooling days included lots of Schoolhouse Rock!). This is part of why we built music directly into our Song School curricula—students love the fun, catchy melodies and often keep singing them even outside the classroom. The more students sing, the more they reinforce vocabulary and pronunciation. Similarly, incorporating foreign music into the day is a great way to expose students to style and structure while enforcing memorization of pronunciation and vocabulary. Search for popular songs in your students’ language of choice and play them in the car or around the house. See how many words or phrases your students can pick out, and encourage them to enjoy the flow and sound of the ones they can’t. Listen for how native speakers will run words together or abbreviate others. For older, more advanced students, your Internet bandwidth is the limit. For instance, there are some pretty excellent full-length comédie musicales (French Broadway musical equivalents) available on YouTube. (Caveat: Make sure your student follows your family’s guidelines in terms of content, just as they would for English movies or songs.) You and your students may find you enjoy foreign songs as much as you do music in English.

You might also try watching a favorite movie with foreign subtitles, or switch to one of the dubbed audio tracks and then use English subtitles to follow along. Similarly, seek out translations of favorite books (your library is a great resource). While your students won’t have all the knowledge they need to fully translate the book, that’s OK! The goal isn’t for students to translate word for word, but rather for them to grow their vocabulary organically and learn how to absorb the overall message. Reading in a different language a story they already know is a great way to do this. Encourage them not to get caught up in the nitty-gritty work of translating every single line (unless they want to) but instead to focus on other nuances, such as word order or even how other cultures punctuate dialogue.

These are just a few ways to apply or enhance your students’ language skills without (hopefully) breaking the bank or hopping on a plane every few weeks. It all comes down to practice. Have your students apply the languages on a regular basis so each one stays unique in their minds. The more your students can embrace multiple languages, the more they’ll find themselves growing accustomed to using them, and the more quickly they’ll begin picking up on elements of yet more languages as well.