We’ve got your back.
If you’re looking for motivation and encouragement in language learning, other language learners are your best bet, no doubt.
We’ve all shared tips and tricks with our classmates, harried our tutors with questions, and mined online language communities for new resources and techniques.
But if you really want to jumpstart your studies and reach your goals, there’s one group of people whose advice you can’t afford to miss: the very best language learners!
I’m talking about the masters, the ones who innovated or made history with their techniques and drive. Past and present have provided us with a host of big names in language learning, although you may not have heard of them yet.
The best teacher is one who’s been down the path before, one who devised a better way of doing things.
Without further ado, here are four ground-breaking lessons from four champion language learners!
4 Wise Lessons from Four Seriously Good Language Learners
1. Don’t let age hold you back.
Kató Lomb: Hungarian translator, simultaneous interpreter, polyglot
Lomb is one of those polyglots everyone should know about. She was a pretty intense lady with a crazy life. She knew 16 languages at various levels by the time she died, and she was always curious about more. And she lived a long life, too—94 years!
She certainly wasn’t one of those people who insist that adults are hopeless at picking up languages. Sure, she started her languages young, but she kept gathering more and more throughout her entire life. In her late 40s, she walked into an advanced university Polish class (she wasn’t an enrolled student) and boldly told the professor she had no experience with Polish and she certainly didn’t have the prerequisites. The professor allowed her to sit in on the class, and Polish became a language in which Lomb was quite proficient.
In her 80s, Lomb chatted with Dr. Stephen Krashen (a professor at the University of Southern California who created the famed “input hypothesis”), which he chronicled in his article here. Krashen was then in his 50s, and Lomb envied his youth, saying, “So many more languages to learn!”
How to apply this lesson:
Remember it’s never too late to start learning a new language. Life is long, and there’s enough time for all of your projects and pursuits! Be like Kató Lomb and just dive right in—no matter your age.
Try doing one small thing today to get you closer to fluency in your chosen language: study a textbook for 10 minutes, watch a TV show in your target language or sit down with some flashcards.
Adults are way better at hacking their studies than kids, so try resources that take advantage of that—like SRS, online games and novels in your target language (a favorite technique of Lomb’s). It all adds up!
2. Be creative with your learning methods.
Khatzumoto: Author of the blog “All Japanese All The Time”
Here’s a more modern example for you. On his blog, Khatzumoto wrote about how he achieved fluency in Japanese in 18 months, all without living in Japan. He then chronicled his Mandarin and Cantonese learning processes as he navigated Chinese media and newer learning methods.
That’s all very impressive, but here’s where Khatzumoto should really inspire you: He wasn’t happy with how Westerners presented and learned East Asian languages. Sure, he had a lifelong admiration of Japanese and Chinese, but the standing rhetoric was, and is, that those languages are impossible for Westerners—that the writing systems take a decade to learn and foreigners would never achieve native-sounding tones.
Hearing talk like that can get discouraging!
But Khatzumoto examined the traditional learning techniques for Japanese—namely, textbooks, language tapes and rote memorization for kanji and hanzi—and decided to abandon those methods in search of a better way of doing things.
He lifted the methods from Antimoon, a website that shares the techniques of a couple of Polish guys who learned English by watching TV, reading and playing video games: immersion. He studied Dr. Krashen’s input hypothesis, which advocates that with enough exposure to the language, retention of vocab and grammar becomes much more natural.
He discovered Dr. James Heisig’s book “Remembering the Kanji,” which uses mnemonic devices to efficiently teach all 2,042 everyday-use kanji. He combined and tweaked these as needed, and used sentences in his SRS to pick up grammar and vocabulary organically.
And he achieved his goal! He reached fluency!
How to apply this lesson:
If you’re not happy with your course or textbook, critically examine your methods. Ask yourself: Do any of your resources bore you to tears? Have you made notable progress in the last couple of months using a certain resource? Keep a journal where you keep track of your progress in reading, writing, speaking and listening.
Check in every month or so, and make sure you’re still on track and still having fun. If something isn’t working for you—or if it’s plain unenjoyable—toss it out. Believe me, there’s plenty more you can use!
Try immersion like Khatzumoto, and use apps like FluentU if you get stuck for resources. Find a conversation partner to practice with, or shift your focus from speaking to understanding à la Krashen’s input hypothesis. There’s no one way to do things, so if something isn’t working for you, try something new. Never stop experimenting!
3. Don’t be afraid to look ridiculous at times.
Dr. Alexander Argüelles: Intellectual, educator, hyperpolyglot
Argüelles is the intellectual’s polyglot. He focuses on reading ability, and can read books in a massive number of different languages. But don’t think that means that he’s too reserved—he advocates the technique “shadowing” whereby learners simultaneously speak the target language along with a recording to improve pronunciation and prosody.
Don’t think that sounds ridiculous enough? Well, in the book “Babel No More” by Michael Erard, the author examines the lives of a number of polyglots, including Argüelles. The author has the chance to meet up with Argüelles and begins to study Hindi under his tutelage.
Argüelles soon has Erard shouting Hindi phrases along with a recording… all while briskly walking through a public park. Sure, Erard felt embarrassed doing this, but he gained confidence in those phrases he acquired.
How to apply this lesson:
Try out shadowing, or even just talking to yourself for practice. Check out this video to see Argüelles himself demonstrate the technique. First, acquire audio samples in your target language. High-quality course recordings from Assimil, Teach Yourself or Pimsleur work great for this, but so do many others.
While listening, and without using a transcript, repeat the sounds of each word almost simultaneously with the recording, whether you understand it or not. Try to include shadowing in your daily sessions, even for short periods of 10 to 15 minutes.
It might feel strange at first, but embarrassment is a feeling all language learners need to get past in order to advance, so it’s best to get used to the feeling early on.
Especially if you can’t find someone to practice with, these techniques increase your speaking confidence. You’ll be that much more prepared for when you do get the opportunity to speak in a real-life situation!
4. Milk limited resources for all they’re worth.
Giuseppe Mezzofanti: 19th century Italian cardinal, hyperpolyglot, the Mezzofanti
If you’re interested in languages and haven’t yet heard of Mezzofanti, I’d be pretty surprised.
He’s famous among language enthusiasts for good reason. It was said he spoke at least 30 languages excellently, nine other languages fluently, and had basic knowledge of dozens of others. History is rife with stories of Mezzofanti’s prowess at picking up languages in short periods of time.
Some of this can be chalked up to legend and hyperbole. I, however, am a believer that Mezzofanti did possess rare skill—one he cultivated through dedicated study and practice. After all, in “Babel No More,” Erard has the privilege to read Mezzofanti’s multilingual letters and flashcards. He used flashcards just like everyone else!
In other words, anyone can emulate Mezzofanti.
One Mezzofanti story is especially reassuring and helpful. Mezzofanti heard prisoners’ confessions regularly, in a number of languages. If he didn’t know the language in question, Mezzofanti would ask the prisoner to say the Lord’s Prayer in the language, and Mezzofanti would tease apart this short snippet to glean basic vocabulary and grammar.
After all, this particular prayer was something he knew very well and in a number of different languages. By comparing short samples of the same text, Mezzofanti turned language acquisition in something more like decoding. He started all of his languages with the Lord’s Prayer.
I have my doubts that this would give Mezzofanti the ability to understand everything prisoners were saying, but there’s no doubt in my mind that this a great way to use limited resources to gain a basic understanding of a language. Mezzofanti lived at a time when it was much more difficult to come across resources in different languages. He capitalized on what was available, since he didn’t always have the luxury to get more.
How to apply this lesson:
Getting the most out of our resources is something all language learners can take advantage of. Some of us just don’t have the ability to get to a country where we can buy all the books and movies we want. Some of us have limited money for such things. But even then, we surely have more than just a short snippet of text in our target languages, so imagine what we can do with that and a little focus!
Try comparing Wikipedia pages in your target language and native language and see what words you can define. Choose a topic you already know a lot about, and get yourself comfortable with the English Wikipedia page first. Compare small sections, perhaps under similar headings. Define all the words in a paragraph, and write them down in a notebook. Examine the grammar and take a stab at what it means. Study deeply instead of widely!
Obviously, Wikipedia pages won’t be an exact translation, but you can still compare word usage and match up sentences where the writers were saying similar things. Another free resource to try this with is news articles. Find a hot topic international news article in English, and then find an article on the same topic in your target language. News articles tend to be short and succinct—perfect for comparing languages! Again, hunt for places where the text is likely to be similar, such as headings or near proper nouns like famous names or places. Then figure out what you can!
If you want to pull a true Mezzofanti and study exact texts, it’s easy to find translations of popular English-language books in common languages. For example, I’ve read Harry Potter in Spanish, French and Dutch, as well as in English! I’m a huge fan, so I already know the books well. Comparing chapters of Harry Potter makes parsing a new language fun and easy. If you like Harry Potter, e-book translations are easy to purchase at Pottermore. Choose texts you already know well (it doesn’t have to be Harry Potter!), and then dive into the translation.
There are plenty of polyglots, past and present, who mastered language learning. And they have lots to teach us, whether it’s through their own writings or simply through how they lived.
By examining these heroes of language learning, we can amp up our own studies, stay motivated and achieve the goals we’ve set!
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