Answer to the question “How many languages can I learn in a lifetime”?

This is all a question of how you define things.

Firstly the problem is defining languages. Do you define them so that Serbo-Croat is still one language or six, for example? Is Malay and Indonesia a separate language? What about the languages of India, and Africa, where there are many mutually partly intelligible languages. Is Flemish and Dutch one language or two in the way you are defining it? In my opinion it is better to define these broadly and cut it down to a smaller number of claimed languages. After all, where do you stop? Maybe American and British English could be claimed as two – I heard some people try that, ridiculous though it is.

Secondly, there is the problem of desired fluency. A person who only needs to say certain fixed sentences, like a street seller or a receptionist, can say what they know with fluency, but they are not able to synthesis accurate language. Others can do so, but not in speaking as they never mastered it. I tend to go on passive vocabulary learned and put 10,000 as a very reasonable target for learning a language.

Thirdly, you need to define “lifetime”. You don’t know yet how long you will live, nor whether you will still be so keen on learning languages if it is to the detriment of learning other useful things. The day may come – and does to many a polyglot (this is why most of the older polyglots you meet are people who leave it and come back to it – or old people who used to be polyglots but have not studied actively for a long time) where you say “instead of learning Javanese, I think it’s time to learn Java”.

If a person uses optimal methods and gives 400 hours to each language, then if they study for 40 years at 20 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, they’ll have given 400 hours each to 100 languages. With good methods, that should mean the ability to demonstrate reasonable proficiency at least in the reading of those 100 languages. One might choose to spend the same time doing 4,000 hours each to only 10 languages, and show a high degree of fluency in just those ten languages. One might also go down the performing seal route and do 40 hours on a thousand languages just in order to be able to recognise maybe a thousand words and in some cases read or write very basic words in those 1,000 languages. Here one of your biggest problems is going to be materials. Which ever way you cut it, 40,000 hours of study is a large achievement, and it is really up to whether the learner has more utility for what he or she wants from their study whether to be more academic on a smaller number or more hobbyist on a larger number.

4 thoughts on “Answer to the question “How many languages can I learn in a lifetime”?

  1. Knowing both you and the subject, I was prepared for a really long post when I saw the title, but you actually made it very compact and easily readable! I know this will be my go-to link if someone asks me this question.

  2. David, I have a question on the topic of motivation. How do I keep myself from getting bored with language learning?

    I’ve been studying German for a good few months. I’m taking the Assimil course where you’re given a bilingual text and an audio in the target language. I finished half of it (There’s about 120 lessons) by studying one lesson a day and am noticing that I’m getting bored with it. When I started out I watched a video course from some Russian company which gave a basic introduction to German and then moved to Assimil. I was excited and would sometimes even take 2 lessons but now it’s not as appealing as it used to be.

    Also I want to move on to genuine texts but I can only read very basic children’s stories.
    I”m getting frustrated.

    Maybe I need to get a tutor?

    1. The tutor will not help if it just a question of motivation. If you had difficulty understanding the explanations of Assimil then maybe yes, but otherwise it will just take your time, make the whole process slower, take you out of control of the process and cost money – why any of that should be motivating is beyond me.

      Experiment with studying at different times of day, maybe break it into two or change where you do it. Remember you are now half way to this goal and every lesson should consolidate what went before as well as offer something new – with German, you never know when you are going to learn the word which will land you a job or a place in someone’s heart, so treat every lesson as what the verb says – a treat!

    2. There are two main strands to dealing with boredom I believe. First, in my language learning endeavours I have found that one has to acquire a tolerance for repetition. As in childhood learning of language, there is bound to be lots of necessary repetition. I think this is unavoidable. Secondly, try changing the materials you are using for the target language. Different authors and publishers have different approaches to the language which can be refreshing and thereby instill a resurgence of enthusiasm for the student. Try lots of different courses and texts. Personally, I find that attempting serious reading materials before one’s grasp of the language and vocabulary is adequate, to be very dispiriting. If all else fails I would try to find a subject on the www that is one in which I have a strong interest, and is covered in a basic ( but not childish) manner in the target language. Also useful are the Penguin Parallel Text series of short stories.
      If none of this works try working through the boredom by carrying on despite being bored. It is probably a plateau.
      Hope this might be of some help. Best wishes. Und veil Glück !

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