Exactly what does it take to acquire a second (third, or fourth) language? Here are five tips to get you started as a polyglot.
Like nearly all Brits, I’m ashamed to say that I used to be the embodiment of that clichéd scourge of foreigners everywhere: the Englishman abroad. We’re all familiar with the type of ‘cheps’ who believe that cultural assimilation can be achieved by ratcheting the tone of one’s own dialect up to uncomfortable levels, with every syllable enunciated painfully and accompanied by a flurry of hands flailing away inches from the face of some unfortunate Spanish waiter – as if conversing with a senile aunt or errant feline rather than another adult.
A year or so ago, I set out to change that. Being part of, but at the same time not quite part of, Europe (or, as my German friend succinctly writes us off as, ‘inselaffen’ – island apes) produces a peculiar mentality. We are surrounded not by the varied language and diverse culture of other continental nations, but by a cold, unforgiving sea. As a result, we’re generally pretty lazy when it comes to foreign languages, being as we are, so well insulated from them.
My Scandinavian friends, who speak better English than most natives, were forced to perfect English from an early age out of necessity, as the reach of their own native tongues didn’t extend much beyond a few million people. English, on the other hand, is a lingua franca for huge swathes of the global community. It dominates popular culture, international discourse, worldwide commerce and versions of it are spoken in the unlikeliest of places. Even the most remote tour guide can string together more intelligible sentences in the Queen’s own patter than we could ever hope to in anyone else’s mother tongue.
So how to redress the balance?
Here are my five tops tips for language acquisition. I am not a master yet, but I have picked up a few hints along the way on my quest to become a polyglot.
1. Speak. Speak lots. Speak often. Speak imperfectly.
It’s the hardest thing to achieve, along with listening comprehension. Speaking a foreign language when your brain is hardwired to English is a challenge. You don’t have the vocab. Verb conjugations are a mystery. You think people will laugh at you. They won’t, as it happens.
When I started learning French a year ago, I naively assumed that I could pick up the speaking bit later on, and so concentrated my efforts on reading. Now I can read most French texts and I am even able to understand reasonably advanced French novels without reaching for the dictionary every three words, but if someone actually speaks French to me (or rather at me, which is what it feels like), or I have to formulate anything beyond the most elementary sentences, then I tend to get a bit flustered.
I was aware of Benny Lewis of Fluent in Three Months fame when I initially attempted to learn another language, but despite taking on board much of his wisdom and regularly pouring over his blog posts, I neglected to incorporate the cornerstone of his approach into my own language programme: speak and make mistakes. I thought that I could perfect language through isolated study alone, instead of through living it. I was wrong. Benny, I apologise.
I now try to speak as often as possible and remember to relax and to have fun with the language, instead of worrying about perfection. Who, honestly, speaks even their own language flawlessly? Very few people.
Language is about continual effort. Ten minutes a day will get you a lot further than three weeks of intensive study, followed by months of Xbox and pizza. Unless you are the aforementioned Benny Lewis, who makes language learning his raison d’être, there is no need to be fluent in three months (though, as Benny proves, it is entirely possible). Constant, daily study will get you where you need to be. Dedicate ten or twenty minutes a day, every day. Be disciplined, but if life gets in the way, just pick up where you left off whenever it is convenient. Language learning is about celebrating your successes, not endlessly flagellating yourself over your perceived failures.
3. Define your Mojo.
Motivation is the key to consistency. Learning Cantonese to impress your crush may work for Wayne Campbell, but for most of us, unless we have a solid, tangible reason for wanting to learn a given language, we’re destined for failure. Work out the why, before you begin to focus on the how.
4. Set sensible targets.
Something common to almost all ployglots is their emphasis on short-term, achievable goals. It’s no good expecting to reach native-level C2 mastery in your first week. It’s just not going to happen. I started by challenging myself to complete one Duolingo module per day. These days I set myself mini-targets, like learning the irregular aspects of French that I am weakest on, or talking with a native speaker for ten minutes without lapsing into English. Whatever it is, just make sure it’s not too challenging. A little effort in the right place really adds up.
So you want to have a crack at becoming the next hyperglot but are mystified when it comes to exactly where to begin? There are a multitude of applications, platforms, approaches and language communities out there, how do you go about choosing what’s right for you? The simple answer is that it is a process of trial and error. Personally, I believe that language learning has to be fun and, ideally, as economical as possible. Thanks to the internet, you don’t even have to leave your house to become fluent
Here are the resources I have found to be the most effective. They are not the only ones out there, but after much research they are the ones that I prefer as they are free (or almost), engaging, fun and, most importantly, effective.
Whether you want to speak like a native in 12 weeks or not, Benny Lewis’ website is a great place to start. His approach is refreshing, his passion is infectious and his methods bear fruit.
The best way to spend the first 20 minutes of your language learning journey.
Duolingo is great. It’s not the best way to actually learn a language beyond a passing familiarity, the mobile version’s lack of grammatical guidance can be infuriating, and it’s not necessarily geared towards vocabulary retention, but it is fun and by far the best way to kick-start your journey. Duolingo’s chief strength is tricking your brain into believing it’s all just a game. It will give you a reasonable, if basic, foundation on which to build your skills, can be used on the move and it is completely free. It’s also easier to use, more fun and educationally superior to costly programmes like Rosetta Stone, and it leaves yawn-inducing applications like Babbel trailing.
Gabriel Wyner’s technique is based around immersion using the flashcard system Anki. Though his method is somewhat time consuming and a real labour of love, involving creating a flashcard by selecting the individual foreign word you wish to commit to memory, then using Google to obtain an image associated with that word, and finally linking it to a personal memory of your own, it does produce solid results. Wyner’s approach is a mix of science and visual memory prompts that he has used to successfully teach himself a variety of languages.
You can learn anything with Memrise. Presidents of the USA. Famous historical battles. Renaissance painters. You can also use it to study a language. Similar to Anki, it’s essentially an enhanced flashcard system. Select your course and begin working through the individual modules. While it’s not quite as much fun as Duolingo, it is nevertheless something I’d recommend and it’s completely free. The updated version even has a timed language game that’s a bit like a linguistic version of Tetris.
Can’t afford that trip to China but still want to converse with a native speaker in Mandarin? Thinking about relocating to Brazil one day but want to brush up your Portuguese first? Then iTalki has thousands of native teachers at reasonable prices standing by to help you unlock the secrets of their language. Each teacher sets their own rate, but thanks to a strong pound you can always find a teacher for far less than a one-to-one lesson would ordinarily set you back. There are also regular language speakers like us on there to interact with too.
HelloTalk is like a free, mobile-based app. that is a bit like a hand held version of iTalki. Simply set your mother tongue, write a quick profile and then search for users to chat with who speak your target language. As language exchange apps. go, it’s a revelation: the ability to speak, write and interact with native speakers from your mobile, for free. Yes, free. The basic version is all you ever really need and should you want to speak multiple languages, then you can opt for the enhanced version for pretty much next to nothing.
Adventurous linguists Scott Young and Vat Jaiswal challenged themselves to accomplish the unthinkable: one year, four countries, four new languages from scratch, no English. Watch as they share what they learned along the way and learn how you can incorporate their valuable insights into your own daily language learning experience.