My Lifetime Language Learning Plan

origins of the languages in my plan
Some time ago, a friend posted on Facebook about choosing a new language to learn. He said he was aiming to learn seven to nine languages in his life, so he needed to be careful about what he chose to spend time on. I was struck by his words because I'd never really considered that I should consciously limit the number of languages I'd try to learn. Now I think about it all the time.

It makes sense, of course: Growing up, we all realize in one way or another that everyone has limits to their knowledge of different languages. If you intend to learn several languages over the course of your life, then, it should help to plan deliberately and conscientiously how to meet those goals. I love languages, and I do intend to keep learning many throughout my life—so it's about time I made a plan.

First, though, I found it useful to read this short article. It brings up several interesting and important points to consider, as highlighted by a number of hyperpolyglots—speakers of large numbers of languages.
Ken Hale, hyperpolyglot and
language hero (source)
  • There's more to language knowledge than just "fluency" or "proficiency." Two of the hyperpolyglots in the article have their own ways of expressing that one can acquire a deep knowledge and familiarity with certain languages. Ken Hale, a hero to me for working so hard to promote endangered indigenous languages, apparently said that he could only really "speak" English, Spanish, and Warlpiri—because he could fully understand the cultural implications of that speech—while he could merely "talk" in other languages. Kató Lomb, meanwhile, wrote that "I only have one mother tongue: Hungarian. Russian, English, French, and German live inside me simultaneously with Hungarian." She could also speak, read, and translate several other languages, but those five lived inside her.
  • Once you start speaking multiple languages, it becomes impossible to count. As seen in the point above, counting the number of languages you "speak" or "know" can end up requiring all sorts of qualifiers. How large a vocabulary do you need to have? How fluent do you actually sound when speaking? What proficiency can you show in tests? In the end, saying "I speak four languages!" just won't cut it: You have to be descriptive about your experiences and abilities in every language you are familiar with or attempting to learn.
  • Confidence is key, but maintaining use of many languages takes a lot of work. Deciding to learn a second language—and then another, and then another—takes plenty of confidence. You need to be confident in your ability to learn—as many people are not—and confident that you can see the task through. To quote Kató Lomb again, "Be firmly convinced you are a linguistic genius." At the same time, however, learning languages isn't merely an "if you believe it, you can achieve it" situation. Not only does language acquisition itself require lots of work up front, but maintaining skills in multiple languages is a lifelong commitment. Almost all of the hyperpolyglots in the article learned their languages as part of their career, either in academia or elsewhere, and spent untold countless hours maintaining their abilities.
With all these considerations in mind, I decided to create my own lifetime language learning plan. As part of this plan, I knew I had to be descriptive about what level of proficiency I'd like to acquire in each language, and how I plan to do it. I also know there's no real way to count the number of languages I'll spend time learning in my life, since language lovers are always learning bits of new languages. However, what I could do was count off languages I hope to actively devote myself to learning and that I plan to reach some level of proficiency with. Lastly, I know I will also need to stay realistic about how much work and time it will take to improve my knowledge of these languages. It's subject to change at any time, of course, but this really is a lifetime plan:
my current learning on
Duolingo
  1. English — I think I'm pretty lucky to be a native English speaker, since learning such a vast and irregular tongue as a second language must be frustrating. Native English speakers are also given great access to learning languages in both the Germanic and Romance language families, the former through grammar and basic vocabulary, the latter simply through a huge volume of imported vocabulary. I can't imagine a scenario where I'd lose my knowledge of English, so I won't worry about practicing.
  2. French — I would describe my French as somewhere around "working proficiency." Take a look at my blog posts in French if you want a sense of my clunkiness. My abilities are undoubtedly a little quirky, as I'm way better at reading news articles and history papers than children's books. I'd like to improve in the future by reading things like those children's books, maybe watching some TV, and also working to understand more of my French music. I don't expect I'll try to take my French speaking to a near-native speaker level unless I end up living in a Francophone country, but I do wish to maintain my proficiency and I know there are plenty of fun ways to do so.
  3. German — German is third on my list because I know I absolutely need to learn more, and the sooner I do it the better. My wife speaks German really well—better than I speak French—and I loved learning a little German from her before we started dating. I still feel great whenever I get the chance to learn more of what she knows. First I plan to finish the German course on Duolingo, and then I'll need to take more suggestions from my wife—maybe do some workbooks she has, and then try to get into German children's books.
  4. Tlingit — My desire to learn Tlingit is still summed up well by something I wrote over four years ago: "Learning Lingít: A Personal Wish and a Cultural Imperative." I do think I've made progress in my learning since then, primarily through picking out new things to teach my students, but my knowledge of Tlingit is still limited to a couple dozen phrases and a couple hundred words. I know I will keep coming back to live in Lingít Aaní, my home, even if I move away at times, so steadily advancing in my knowledge Tlingit will be a lifelong goal. My next critical step has to be taking some of the Tlingit classes offered by UAS, maybe even doing so this spring. 
  5. Spanish — The main reason I want to learn more Spanish is that I fully intend to see more of Mexico, and hopefully visit many other countries in Hispanophone America as well. (I totally loved visiting Mexico City and Oaxaca de Juárez, my only Mexico experience so far.) Of course, Spanish is also incredibly useful throughout the United States, but I won't pretend my primary use for it won't be travel. Ideally, I'd like to achieve a level of conversational Spanish that will carry me through any sort of tourist activity, from getting food to perusing museums. 
  6. Swedish — I am most hesitant to add Swedish to this list because I am least sure of how valuable it will be to me. My wife and I visited Sweden two summers ago and loved it, but I don't know how many more times we might be there in our lives. However, I do feel Swedish is a genuinely fun language to learn: It has some cool grammatical traits, it's relatively simple, I enjoy how it sounds, and it makes getting into Norwegian and Danish a breeze. I'd like to eventually finish the Duolingo Swedish course and then see where I can go from there, maybe using activities based in online communities like Lang-8.
  7. To be determined — I do hope my wife and I will end up living outside the United States for some time, and if it's in a country where English, French, German, Spanish, or Swedish isn't the primary language, I'll need to add something else to this list. Even if we moved somewhere most people speak English, like Iceland or the Netherlands, I'd still want to pursue the native language. I believe language knowledge is an essential part of making genuine connections with a place, its people, and its culture. I put a lot of stock in that.
As you can see, I don't entertain any notion that I'll become "fluent" in six or seven languages. This list is a learning plan—not a fluency plan—and with some languages on the list I just want to learn enough to have nice conversations and be a knowledgeable tourist, not take a university course or pass as a native. I still know, however, that following this plan will require lots of focused effort. I think it's worth it, and I'm absolutely certain I'll have tons of fun learning languages for the rest of my life.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think about making a lifetime language learning plan. If you make one yourself, share it!

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