How Polyglots Learn Languages and Stay Sane: Gems of Wisdom from 8 of the Best
Somewhere in the inner recesses of your head, you’re probably asking that one hopeful question: Can a mere mortal like me be…a polyglot ?
If so, you’ve come to the right place. I’m going to share with you the methods of 8 of the most famous online polyglots.
But before we do that, let’s briefly answer the initial question: is it even really possible to become a polyglot? Or is it within the reach of only the freaky few?
How can you learn a number of languages? Read on.
- Is It Possible to Be a Polyglot?
- How Polyglots Do It: A Survey of Tips and Techniques
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Is It Possible to Be a Polyglot?
Learning Language as a Child: The Formative Years
Children didn’t learn their first language by logging into Paypal and paying for an online course. Nor did they borrow books from the language learning section of the library.
Nope, the very first language acquisition technique was not reading. Not even imitation.
It was listening.
We are often impressed by the linguistic sophistication displayed by children. We marvel at how they are like sponges, observing and absorbing everything they hear.
A one-year old is really no newbie when it comes to listening. He’s a veteran because he’s been doing that for over a year! In fact, even inside the womb, before birth, the listening started.
And when they are born, they prefer the familiar voice of their mother over any soothing female voice in the room. They also prefer the language that their parents speak. And as early as 4 months, it’s been shown that they are able to distinguish between French and English.
In one study, 16 pregnant mothers were asked to read The Cat in the Hat to their unborn child twice a day for the final 7 weeks of pregnancy. (It was estimated that the infants were exposed to the story for approximately 5 hours.) After birth, the infants were found to display clear preference for The Cat in the Hat over another children’s classic: The King, the Mice, and the Cheese—a story-poem with a different meter and beat.
Now what does that tell you about the simple effectiveness of consistent exposure when learning a language? Because really, each language is just a collection of different tones, sounds, timbres, and rhythms.
Incidentally, in today’s vaunted language programs, how many absolutely stress the importance of listening?
What Brain Studies Say About You and Me
But if you’re thinking language is just about lips and tongue vibrating to make distinctive sounds, you are quite off the mark. Go higher than the mouth a few inches, and you hit the motherload.
Language is a brain thing.
We are born with a language instinct. Our brains are naturally wired for language. They have the innate ability to process complex information in the form of sounds, gestures and context.
This capacity for language extends throughout life. Which means, you can learn any language, at any age. This is possible because the brain is plastic. And no, I don’t mean plastic like those toys from China.
Plasticity is the brain’s ability to make new neural connections. Continued research has found that this happens all throughout a person’s lifetime. Your brain today is not the same one as it was last month.
Neural connections are created regardless of age. You’ve heard about Grandma Moses, right? She started painting in her seventies. Why? Because she felt there was nothing else to do! And from there, her own paintings showed her how much she still had to offer, even into old age.
So yes, it is possible to be a polyglot. We have enough processing power in our brains for it.
And if I were you, I’d really make a point of learning a new language ASAP. Not just because it can lead to employment and earning opportunities, but because of its implications on aging. Studies have found that just by learning a second language, you can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. Bilinguals are diagnosed 4 years later than monolinguals.
If learning just one extra language can do such good, can you imagine the host of other benefits a multilingual can have? (That is, in addition to doubling or tripling one’s romantic possibilities.)
The Explosion of Language Resources Online
As we speak, the web is exploding with language learning tools such as apps, translators, flashcards and ebooks. Many of them free. You owe it to yourself to take full advantage. You are living in an age where education and information are literally at your fingertips.
It used to be that you’d need to travel to Europe or Asia, or Latin America and spend some months talking to locals in order to get a feel for a language.
Not anymore. Today’s technology can get you in contact with (willing!) native speakers, who find it a joy to teach you their mother tongue. And best of all, you can learn your target language without spending a single cent, taking a single step or waiting a single minute. FluentU’s free trial has everything you need to get started!
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Click here to check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.
You can take that road to being a polyglot right this instant. It will be one of the best decisions you will ever make.
In the next section, I will introduce you to 8 people who made that decision and never looked back.
How Polyglots Do It: A Survey of Tips and Techniques
Here I’m going to present to you 8 modern polyglots and we’re going to look briefly at their core language learning techniques, processes and mindsets. How were they able to do it?
Olly Richards (I Will Teach You A Language)
This champ has 8 languages under his belt—and counting!
If this survey of polyglots is making you think that you need to travel widely and wildly to become one, then Olly should be a good example of how you can acquire languages without setting foot in its country of origin.
Although he learned in France, Brazil, Argentina and Japan—he also learned Spanish, Portuguese and Cantonese without visiting those countries. (In fact, he was learning Cantonese in Quatar! Go figure.)
A big part of Olly’s method is founded in psychology. He talks about mindsets so much because it can determine the success or failure of any language expedition. The moment things get tough, people with different mindsets react differently. He understands that language learning is very difficult to start but very easy to drop. So he makes sure that his students are in tune with the psychological and motivational aspects of learning a language.
One of the “ language hacks” Olly himself uses is the “No English For 1 Hour Rule.” It is pretty self-explanatory. In that span of 60 minutes (which could be shortened to even 5 minutes for absolute beginners), you abandon your first language. It is definitely disconcerting at first, but it works because it forces you not only to use the language but also to think in the language.
Another technique he uses to smoothly learn a paragraph in the target language is writing mini-speeches and rehearsing them over and over. So for example, you could be memorizing a whole paragraph about your hobbies in French.
The advantage of studying a coherent paragraph is that you can put everything in context. You are able to remember more of the vocabulary and notice the grammar rules better. On top of that, you are learning to converse in longer forms, rather than in single sentences.
To benefit from more of Olly’s wisdom directly, you can jump on board with his “Language Learning Foundations” video course, in which he helps you get set up with specific methods for learning a language.
He also shares his insights about how to learn foreign language grammar faster in his Grammar Hero series and how to become conversational in a snap via his Conversations courses.
John Fotheringham (Language Mastery)
John Fotheringham, who describes himself as a “languaholic”, hails from Seattle but has zipped through Japan, Bangladesh, China, and Taiwan learning, speaking and teaching languages.
John is a distinguished contributor to FluentU, whose engaging videos resonate with Language Mastery’s tenet of “learning the languages in a fun way.”
One of the things he believes in is that nothing in language should be learned out of context. Rote memorization won’t work. Beyond reading and speaking the words many, many times, vocabulary should be memorized in meaningful context. If your brain is going to have any chance of making neural connections and maintaining them, you should involve the 5 senses to imprint the language into your long-term memory. (Use mnemonics if you have to. The crazier, the better.)
Speaking of memory, John believes in the Spaced Repetition System. It is an automatic memory-enhancing software that ensures past vocabulary lessons are always fresh in your mind. By intermittently reminding you of them, words that you found difficult will be brought to your attention many times over, while words that you found easy will be displayed less.
Finally, John also believes in the importance of using audio materials. And for you to get the most out of them, you have to listen to lessons that are just a little bit above your level. Overreaching can result in you getting discouraged, while materials that are too easy can quickly become boring. By working on materials that are just slightly above your current level, you are giving yourself an enjoyable challenge that’s highly doable and highly motivating.
Benny Lewis (Fluent in 3 Months)
Benny runs the largest language learning blog on the web. He is fluent in 7 languages and even gestures the American Sign Language. For a fellow who claims not to have the language learning “gene”, that is such a rockin’ accomplishment.
He’s a globetrotting Irishman who tells everyone he meets his language learning secret: It’s okay to make mistakes. Go out and make them! As many and as fast as possible.
So he challenges his students to actually try and practice speaking their target language from day one. He finds it interesting that people say they want to speak a new language—then they set out to do activities that have nothing at all to do with talking!
They keep themselves busy with language drills, grammar books and vocabulary-building when the only thing that matters is to actually speak the language. So he shuns orthodox methods and instead promote techniques like role playing where the learners actually get to talk.
His “language hacking” method starts by demolishing all the mental blocks and psychological limitations that scare people away from fluency. Benny believes that once you get these handled, nothing can stop you from being the confident speaker that you ought to be.
Fluent in 3 Months recommends skipping the mind-numbing grammar drills and instead focusing on the most useful and the most used words in the target language. With memory-enhancing activities like language games and word association, anyone can be fluent in a very short time.
Donovan Nagel (The Mezzofanti Guild)
Donovan is a polyglot from Australia who firmly believes that you don’t need to study grammar in order to learn a language. Well, that may be good news for many, but it’s sure to get the goat of grammar Nazis who insist on the importance of grammar rules.
He says: Grammar rules are what fluent speakers use to describe what they already know.
He argues that, as children, we were already quite fluent in our first language even before we sat for our first grammar lesson. We learned by listening and copying adults.
However, instead of individual words, we copied them in “prefabricated chunks”—or, we copied their phrases. For example, we learned the phrase “Come here” as a chunk, not as two individual words. And hearing those chunks from our parents, we began to slowly understand what they actually meant.
Nagel believes that repeated exposure & repeated usage are key in learning the languages. Because of this belief, you can find him zipping across the globe and spending months immersing in the target language and culture (recently, he’s been to Korea and Russia).
And do you know what language products he recommends the most?
Phrasebooks! He considers them the best investments in language learning, as they’re a great provider of your “prefabricated chunks.”
Conor Clyne (Language Tsar)
Conor Clyne is another Irish polyglot who came out of the school system knowing very little about effective language learning methods. School was so awful he even had trouble with his first language.
But ten years on, we find him fluent in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Russian, Romanian and Catalan.
How exactly did he do it?
Through personal trial-and-error, Conor found that what worked for him was “integrative learning.” It was about aligning all his routine and daily activities into learning the target language. You might recognize this as a kind of immersion. He integrated the language in many ways. He would watch the shows in the language he was studying. He would also read (level-appropriate) books. And he would do everything to keep contact with native speakers via Skype or via written correspondence.
You see? He makes the language a whole lifestyle. He even travels to the countries that speak the language in order get a feel and ear for it.
Now, you don’t have to go globetrotting in order to imitate what Conor has done. Bring a foreign country home with you by consuming the mass media (like movies and podcasts) that natives enjoy. To get started, try a virtual immersion program. FluentU, for example, takes native-level videos and adds interactive subtitles to improve comprehension and review quizzes to boost retention.
And one final tip from the Language Tsar Conor Clyne: Identify patterns in the language.
He says it as one of his maxims of learning. A language is basically a group of people’s patterned way of communicating. If you are able to unlock many of those patterns, you’ll become an insider—fluent in their way of communicating.
Luca Lampariello (The Polyglot Dream)
Luca is one of the most famous and admired polyglots around. He’s Italian and is eminently likable because of his down-to-earth attitude and his passion for sharing his techniques with others.
Ask Luca and he’ll tell you that quality trumps quantity—or rather, quality should come before quantity. Most learners go for broke and buckle down to memorize a hundred-word vocabulary list in a day or two. (Expect them to also forget all those words in a day or two.)
Luca believes in “snippets not buckets”. That’s why he encourages his students to work on learning the language every day—from a measly 15 minutes to an hour, tops. What is important is that you work on it on a daily basis (or 5x a week).
Cramming won’t do the job. The man behind “The Polyglot Dream” says: The faster one learns a language, the faster one forgets. So don’t learn in haste.
What you should be doing however is finding an audio course that includes accompanying written materials. Digest the lessons in this particular sequence:
1) Listen to the audio material.
2) Practice pronouncing the words and speaking the dialogue.
3) Read the materials with audio, and then without audio
4) Repeat numbers 1-3 several times over several days.
5) Translate the dialogues into English (or your first language).
6) Translate your English translations back to the original target language
By translating your translation back to the target language, you learn to pick up the nuances between the two languages better. You notice how the two languages interact, what makes them different. This results in a kind of learning that has more substance and impact than a mere memorization of grammar rules and vocabulary words.
Simon Ager (Omniglot Blog)
Behind the successful Omniglot Blog is the unassuming British fellow, Simon Ager. He was exposed to languages at a very young age as his mother was also into learning the languages.
Unlike other polyglots, Simon learned French, German, Chinese and Japanese formally. He went to school or to University for them.
But this is not to say that Simon doesn’t believe in the virtues of unorthodox learning. In fact, he is a proponent of Spaced Repetition, learning via Skype, watching foreign shows, listening to foreign podcasts, singing foreign songs.
In an interview, he was asked: “If you could give just one piece of advice to language learners, what would that be?”
His answer was “consistency”. He stresses that learners should study regularly—everyday if possible. And not just in isolation, but by practicing speaking in the presence of others, any chance you can get. By doing this, they will be able to correct their mistakes and have a better command of the language.
He also advises them to put the language into writing, as often as possible. Simon is huge on writing. He is one of the few polyglots who gives the written word as much importance as the spoken word.
Although he understands that writing and speaking differ in many ways, he believes that certain types of writing closely resembles speech: “Some forms of written language, such as instant messages and email, are closer to spoken language.”
Writing will help root out common mistakes because “written material can be read repeatedly and closely analysed, and notes can be made on the writing surface”—thus making your learning more efficient.
Well, one can expect nothing less from the guy behind one of the most successful language learning portals on the internet.
Aaron Myers (The Everyday Language Learner)
Aaron Myers, the Kansas native who now finds himself raising a family in Istanbul, Turkey is the man behind The Everyday Language Learner.
“Comprehensible Input” is what EDLL is all about. The concept is borrowed from Stephen Krashen, a linguistics professor who forwarded The Theory of Second Language Acquisition in the 1980’s.
Aaron Myers now champions “comprehensible input”—which is really more for language teachers than learners—but knowing about it helps learners choose the kinds of materials they will use in language acquisition.
Of all the methods that linguists have played around with—grammar drills, vocabulary lists —only comprehensible input effectively facilitates second language acquisition. So what is it, anyway?
It is the idea that learners only really learn when they are given material that they can actually understand (or, comprehend). This might seem obvious enough, but you’ll never believe the number of teachers who don’t get this.
So it’s not about rote memorization—memorizing without understanding. It’s not about observing a bunch of meaningless grammar rules. It’s not about having a podcast playing in the background in the hopes of absorbing the language unconsciously. It’s about comprehension.
But take it from the man himself: The Everyday Language Learner gives plenty of ways to find or create “comprehensible input”. Have a peek.
So that’s it! 8 of the best-of-the-best sharing with you their core beliefs and secrets. Take their techniques and beliefs and make them your own. It is my hope that years from now, next time a post like this is made, YOUR name will be among them.
Wouldn’t that be something?
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)