How Many Languages Should I Learn? (Revealed)

As they apply to many things in life, ‘can’ and ‘should’ in regards to the number of languages a person learns mean two different things. The amount of languages a person can learn sets the limits and the number a person should learn becomes dependent on their specific situation. So, how many languages should YOU learn?

The number of languages a person should learn is generally between 1-3 other than their native one. The few motivations strong enough to learn this many languages include: heritage, work, and education. The time, effort, and inspiration required makes it very difficult to learn more.

There is also the individual cap that mental capacity places on us all. Even the Foreign Services Institute (FSI) of the US State Department screens its language students before acceptance into their intensive programs. Though anyone can learn a second language, it make take more effort and time for some.

But, what about learning 3 or 4 languages?

How Many Languages CAN An Average Person Learn?

With many children around the world growing up with 3 and 4 languages, the ability of the human mind to acquire speech and written patterns in language is rather astounding. Some of these languages are manditory for home or school life, but others they learn are by choice. With this in mind, how many languages can most people learn?

Due to time constraints, motivation, and available resources, the average person can learn 3-5 languages. People with appropriate cognitive levels can learn upwards of 25-50 languages. This doesn’t mean that all of these languages are spoken or understood audibly.

People with knowledge of up to 50 languages will have low skills in most of them and may only be able to decipher some written texts. Still, this is not a number that is attainable by the average language learner in any format.

To be fair, there can be as many as 10 of these languages that a polyglot would be able to have basic to intermediate conversations in. This number is also predicated not only on the mental capacity of the person learning, but also their personality.

Polyglot – speaking or writing several languages MULTILINGUAL

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Motivation, tenacity, and a strong understanding of delayed gratification is needed to learn even a couple languages. Most will learn the languages spoken around them with a minority learning languages that take a large amount of effort to achieve immersion.

With this in mind, I would like to turn our attention to the differences the word ‘learn’ has when some use it verses others. There is a marked gap in the language skills it takes to read and write versus speaking and understanding.

Let’s look at how many languages someone could speak, understand audibly, read, and write.

How Many Languages Can You Learn To Speak And Understand?

Having a conversation is very different than reading or writing text. There is a hierarchy of difficulty in language learning that many scholars agree upon.

Speaking and listening skills are much more difficult and limits the average person to 5 or less spoken languages due to normal time constraints and competing motivations. Experienced polyglots can reach as high as 15-20 spoken languages, though some of them will be on a basic level.

The hierarchy of difficulty for most language learners is as follows:

  1. Speaking
  2. Listening
  3. Writing
  4. Reading

Speaking and listening are by far harder than the second two do to the on-the-spot nature of conversations and the lack of time to access stored passive vocabulary and grammar rules. All tools must be activated and readily usable by the student without more than a seconds delay.

To be able to connect ideas and words, concepts and phrases, the speaker must thouroughly own the word or phrase and understand how it is used without having to recall definitions or rules.

This type of environment (speaking) is only learned to proficient levels by one thing: speaking.

Though vocabulary, as reported in studies done by researchers from the University of Texas, is one of the most important skills in language learning, the level of acquisition of these words and phrases must not be merely passive. They must be activated in the speakers brain and ready for instant use.

As we will see next, this is not the case with reading and writing.

How Many Languages Can You Learn To Read And Write?

As noted above, reading and writing are a different skills set than speaking and listening. Though they are not as difficult to master, using them to learn vocabulary can be a great help in learning to speak and understand in conversations. So, how many languages can someone feasibly learn to read or write?

An average language learner can learn as many as 10 languages solely used for reading and writing. This number can be even higher with those with the time and motivation to put in the effort. For experienced polyglots, it is not unthinkable that they could learn to read 50 languages.

With the time to look up words and in the case of reading having the target language delivered to you, it is much easier to become proficient in written languages. This even goes for the non-Romanized alphabets like Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic.

Learning and using skills in reading and writing have one important advantage over speaking and listening: Time.

The time of execution is exponentially longer with text than with speech. Speech is immediate, whereas text has no real time constraint.

If you take as long as you like to say a sentence or two, listeners will get bored, be annoyed, or even offended at you wasting their time. This doesn’t mean those with low language skills won’t be given leeway at times. I just say this to illustrate the gulf in time of execution between speaking and reading.

If you want to learn more about speaking multiple languages, I recommend my articles here…

How Many Languages SHOULD You Learn?

To know how many languages is possible to learn is a rather objective issue. Some may believe that how many a person should learn is subjective in nature. Yet, is this true? Are we able to determine how many languages a person should learn?

The average person should only learn 1-2 languages besides their native tongue. This is supported by research that extolls the benefits of learning a couple languages well, rather than several to an incomplete level. Polyglots tend to learn languages for different reasons than the average learner.

In a study done by researchers at the Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Essex Colchester, UK it was asserted that learning 1 or 2 languages in depth is more profitable than learning multiple on a surface level. The usability, understanding of culture, and benefits to personal goal fulfillment are measurably better.

  • Then why would there be popular and hobbyist polyglots learning many more languages than this?

The question may seem reasonable. Some of us like to see the amazing feats in online videos of some guy or girl walking through the streets of foreign cities switching between many languages at will.

I will let you in on a little secret.

People you meet will only care that you speak another language for about 15 seconds. If your goal is to impress others, you will simply not be very successful at language learning.

This is not to say that some of these polyglots don’t have sufficient reason to learn these languages, but what I am saying is that many of the languages they speak have no real use in their lives other than the ability to say they speak or read them.

Now let’s look at the difference in the prospects of learning languages for conversation or for reading. There are big differences in the amount of effort needed and the number of languages that should be attempted by the average language learner.

How Many Languages Should You Learn To Speak And Understand?

‘Hearing is straight from the horse’s mouth.’

If learning a language to conversational fluency is much harder than reading and writing, then it stands to reason that the number of languages one should learn to speak will be different than the number one should learn to write. So, how many languages should the average person learn to speak?

The average language learner should learn to speak 1-2 languages other than their native one and do so to a conversationally fluent level. Learning more languages takes exponentially more time than the worth of the acquired benefits. Experienced polyglots can be the exception.

Learning to speak a language in a real conversation is not small undertaking. The time and effort it takes is not measured in weeks or months.

The time is takes to learn to speak another language is measured in years.

Limiting the number of spoken languages is a major key to actually being able to use the languages. Truly being able to use a language is exponentially more important than speaking it on a surface level.

This is not so with written and read languages. You can effectively learn many more languages that you can read than speak. Let’s look at that next.

How Many Languages Should You Learn To Read And Write?

This is a totally different goal than learning multiple languages to speak. Seeing that reading and writing is easier than learning to have an on the spot conversation, how many languages should the average person learn to read and write?

Those people wanting to only learn languages for reading and writing should learn no more than 5-10 languages. Learning the read 5-8 languages for those that love literature, history, or theology should not be a problem. The learning process is much simpler and easily paced.

With that said, there are two main things that a person will need to accomplish this when it comes to skills. The top two abilities to learn many languages to use on the written page are:

  • vocabulary
  • time spent reading

Because the plan is so simple, many polyglots learn a large number of their languages this way first. They then choose from these languages ones to take further to writing, listening, and ultimately speaking. They do not do this for all of their languages.

They leave some at the reading level and it is worth it for them. The time to learn them is much shorter than learning to speak and they can enjoy literature and even movies with captions in the language without having to commit to the colossal task of learning to use them in conversation.

How Many Languages Can You Learn At The Same Time?

Is there a standard for learning multiple languages at the same time? How many is suggested to learn together if this is the goal of the student?

Most scholars and polyglots agree that it is best to only learn 2 languages at the same time if speaking in conversations is the goal. If the desire of the learner is to only read or write in the target languages 4 -5 languages can be attempted at the same time.

There is further insight into this as well. Many long time language learners agree that if you plan on learning two similar languages to any level (i.e. Learning Spanish and Italian at the Same Time), then one should be learned to an intermediate level before the second is begun.

If you are learning two very different languages at the same time, it is fine to start them together.

Yet, this is really only true for those languages you wish to get to a conversational level. If you are looking only at becoming proficient at reading and writing in multiple languages, they feasibly can be started all at the same time. Many polyglots will do this and schedule their time during the day to work on each language.

The Final Word On How Many Languages You Should Learn…

The final thought I want to leave you with here today is this. Learn one or two languages besides your native tongue and then become very versed in their use. That will serve you throughout your life exponentially better than being able to perform party tricks with 10 languages that people will lose interest in quickly.

Learn a couple of languages for the right reasons and you will be more physically healthy and mentally fulfilled than being able to barely communicate in many for show.

Now, choose your two and get started!

I suggest you look further into multilingualism with my other articles…

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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