Learn Two Languages at the Same Time: Chaining Method

Background

Whether you are moving to a multilingual country, need to pick up a few new languages to communicate with your significant other’s family, or just have a passion for several languages, learning two languages at once does not need to be as daunting as it seems. In this blog I’ll show you a method that will allow you to improve both target languages at the same time!

A little background on how I developed this method: I started learning French because I lived in Paris for a few months. I intended to perfect my French over the course of two years there. However, circumstances changed and I moved to Berlin just a few months after making real progress in French.

Obviously I’d want to learn German while living in Berlin, but I was reluctant to let go of French. I had reached a low B1 [LINK] level in a few months of studying and speaking with random shop owners on the streets of Paris. I could feel that in another few months I’d be fully conversational with a strong but quickly fading American accent. I was already reading newspapers - Proust was in my sights!

I put French down for a month while in Berlin. But did I start learning German?- No. My  naive emotion was that picking up German meant leaving French behind.

One day I walked past a Buchhandlung (bookstore in German) and saw a French Introductory textbook. For German people! Et voilà, I had the idea that I could learn German with resources created for native French speakers!

The Chaining Method

The method is very simple: use material in your L2 to learn your L3. Maybe I lost you already? Let me explain this L thing.

  • L1 = Your native language.
  • L2 = First language you are learning.
  • L3 = Third Language you are learning.

In my case, my L1 is English, L2 is French, and L3 is German. We use these abbreviations for convenience, and you’ll see variations of them on a lot of language learning websites.

Important! You need to be at around the B1 level in your L2 to effectively learn your L3. That gets to the crux of why I call this the chaining method: If you are not at B1 level in your L2, then you can start this method with your L1 and L2, then proceed to use L2 to learn L3, and L3 to learn L4, and so on.

In other words, if my French was not good enough to read newspapers and have simple conversations, I’d get better at French using resources created for English speakers, and then use French to learn German.

"Got so many chains they call me Chaining Tatum" -  Drake - "Pop Style" (2016)

What You Need

There are tons of articles, books and apps that teach you how to learn a language from scratch. These are the resources I use at the beginning stages of learning a language with the chaining method:

  • Assimil is the most effective tool I’ve encountered for chaining. I find the progression to be very natural, never feel lost, and learn a lot. Most importantly, I get serious practice in both target languages (more on that later)!
  • Duolingo is loved and hated. I love it because it really helps me develop an intuition for a new language. And again, it’s great for chaining. I’m forced to translate between French and German, so my knowledge of both is always being reinforced.
  • Anki for creating flashcards when you encounter new words in either your L2 or L3. Do not use your L1 for the answer! When I don’t know a word in German, my flashcard has German on the front and French on the back. Same idea but in reverse when I don’t know a word in French.
  • For learners who complete Assimil and Duolingo, the next step is to start conversing with native speakers in both languages you are learning. We’ll be writing a lot more on how to find language partners.
  • Advanced: films in your L3 with subtitles in your L2.
  • Advanced: audiobooks in your L2 with text in your L3. This one is also going to get a dedicated post sometime in the next few weeks. It stems from the L+R method [LINK] that I have been using to take my French from functional to fluent.

Daily Routine

Learning two languages at the same time sounds like an insurmountable amount of work, but I’ve found it to be quite feasible and fun when using the chaining method.

Assimil - the main attraction

Assimil is the main driver for my routine in the first ~90 days. Each lesson is meant to be completed in about 30 minutes, but since you aren’t fluent in the L2, I’d estimate it at about 40 minutes (at least for me with French - German).  Language Geek has a great post on how to use Assimil.

Do  not use Anki to create cards for your L3. It will slow you down to the point of exhaustion because most words will be new to you. And it is contrary to the Assimil method.

However, do create cards in Anki when you find new words, phrases and grammatical structures in your L2. I am constantly finding things I don’t know in French, even in the introduction of the book. Using Assimil reinforces what I already know in French, forces me to read actively so I can understand explanations about the German language, and exposes me to some new words. It is very effective.

The best thing I’ve found about using Assimil in French is that I am forced to read actively. How many times have you read a magazine or something on the internet in your L2 only to realize that you haven’t digested any of the unfamiliar content? I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’d imagine that your mind is able to use context to compensate for the things you don’t know. If I am given 400 words of a 450 word article, it is likely that I can guess what it is about.

On the other hand, with Assimil I need to truly understand the explanations given on the German language. Reading actively helps me recall new words much more easily when I need them in conversations or messages to friends.

Duolingo

Now you’ve completed your lesson of the day in Assimil and need to move on to the things you do in life not related to language learning. As we all do, you find breaks where you can go on facebook, message friends, lurk on reddit, etc. Throw a few lessons of Duolingo in the mix when you can spare some time. Set your L2 as the primary language, and the L3 as the language you want to learn.

I’m willing to bet  the effectiveness of Duolingo is increased two-fold when using it with your L2 and L3.

Here’s why:

As with Assimil, you are forced to read actively. But notching things up another level, you must also  translate actively. When I was using Duolingo to learn French I would see the French sentence and mindlessly type out the translation in English. But when I am working between two languages I am not fully comfortable in, I tend to pay very close attention to both languages. I can’t afford to mindlessly type out a sentence in French because there is a high chance it could be wrong. Likewise when translating from French to German - I need to read the French very closely to absorb all of the grammar I am about to ninja translate over to German. You think you really know the subjunctive? Try working between those two languages.

Final Thoughts

Keep going until you finish both Assimil and Duolingo. That will get you to at least B1 in your L3, and it will ensure that you’ve maintained and even improved your L2.

As mentioned above, posts on more advanced methods to chain languages will be updated soon. Until then!

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