How Polyglots Learn Languages
In 2017, Bratislava became the host city of the Polyglot Gathering, which took place on 31 May – 4 June. I couldn’t attend the whole event, but luckily, I was free on Saturday to attend an afternoon lecture with world famous polyglots, which in fact, was meant mainly for the Slovak audience. It was called
“How Polyglots Learn Languages”.
The presenters in chronological order of their talks:
Judith Meyer – Targeted Learning for Amazing Progress
Luca Lampariello – Bilingual Translation: How to Use Translation to Learn Any Language
Benny Lewis – How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World
Steve Kaufmann – The magic circle of language learning
Richard Simcott – Setting Realistic Goals Is The Way to Language Learning Success
***Note: This is not a transcript, but merely my interpretation of the given information highlighting the most interesting points and adding my own remarks.
Judith’s presentation was about targeted learning. The point is that you don’t need to learn everything, all the words from A to Z, but you can focus on ‘subsets’ of words and phrases that are the most useful to you.
Her recommended tools are: Flashcards and podcasts. Both are very flexible tools that you can use whenever waiting or commuting to work. This works even if you’re very busy, so there’s no excuse! 😊
Personally, I’ve recently started to use Anki cards for my Hebrew. They have downloadable sets and you’re can modify them too.
I asked Judith what she would have told her past self if she could have travelled back in time. What approach to language learning would she have advised to herself and what changed? Her answer was to take it easy, not to insist on finishing that single course book and sticking to one learning material, but rather try different resources and learn from materials that keep her interested and motivated.
Luca presented his technique of bilingual translation, known as L2 ⇄ L1 translation.
As he mentioned, translators translate mostly only into their native language, rarely vice versa, but you can do both to reinforce your comprehension as well as active use of your target language. Let’s break it down:
In L2→L1 translation, you improve your comprehension and recognition, while in L1→L2, the emphasis is on enforcing the memory of what is already learned and recalling that information. Translating from your native (L1) to your foreign language (L2) helps you also to synthetize the information.
Luca called this both-directions-process (L2 ⇄ L1) as “cognitive circle”.
Another important part of his method considers the forgetting curve and the importance of having intervals between revisions, known as SPACED REPETITION. This gradually helps in recalling the learned vocabulary.
What does he translate? He focuses on expressions that are useful to him. He likes to assimilate the patterns he observes in the foreign language into his way of expressing himself in the given language.
My question to him was: Does his method work for any language? I’m learning Hebrew now, so I was wondering how it is with a different writing system, also take Chinese as an example… should I use Pinyin (Latinized phonetic transcript) or struggle with characters from the onset?
Luca’s advice was to do both, but focus in the first stage, say, for a couple of months, only on writing in pinyin or directly in Chinese character by using Google voice input. He also advised the tools available on the website mandarinspot.com to improve in written Chinese.
You can also check-out his web LinguaCore.
Benny briefly mentioned his journey. He reminded us again that language learning is not about your genes, family background, and environment, but about determination, inspiration, and persistence. He also warned us not to delve too much into all the technicalities of the language in the beginnings, but start learning the natural way like kids do, by imitating and speaking, trial and error. Important is not to focus too much on learning it, but having fun with it.
How about learning and maintaining more languages at the same time? Benny advised to keep it simple! To focus first on getting in one language to B2 level, then switch from the learning mode to maintaining mode.
Benny also emphasizes to speak the language from the DAY 1. Knowing how to learn a language is one skill and knowing to speak it another. Important is to do both. Later, we can practice also the skill of switching languages by exposure to such environments that force us to do so quickly. What you practice, you get good at. Benny mentioned Couch Surfing events, Polyglot Gatherings and conferences as an example.
Benny is the author of the popular blog fluentin3months.com
started his presentation with his 3 keys:
If you are going to learn a new language, you need to set your mind to it. So, “I CAN LEARN IT” affirmation comes handy to kick off the process and keep you going. Second, you need to invest reasonable time in learning a language. Third, it’s important to notice patterns in your foreign language. What happens here is that you get to talk about the same experiences again, but using different words. You’re not just using words, but referring to the meaning and ideas behind words. Steve also mentioned a Sufi proverb: “you can only learn what you already know” and added:
Before you remember it, you need to notice it. Before that, you need to WANT to notice.
Here comes motivation in place. Steve advises to choose the topics that interest you the most in your target language. His method is to start with 100 most common VERBS in the language. Normally, you must learn those regardless of your area of interest, because they are quite frequent and if you want to speak fluently, you are going to need them. Steve also mentioned that speaking a lot helps us to notice the gaps and we can better identify what we’re missing to get better at speaking.
Steve has developed with his son a software called LingQ and he writes his blog on languages blog.thelinguist.com
“A goal without a plan is just a dream”
Richard was showing an interesting analogy between preparing to climb a mountain (he had a fancy map of Mt Everest and the camps all the way up) and learning a language.
However, he warned not to get bogged down in the details too early!
Richard is very systematic in his learning and he prefers having specific goals, revising, and doing checklists. And apparently it works. He speaks over 20 languages. However, he also picked to my earlier question and said that if he could go back and say something to his past self, it would be: don’t stress yourself too much, you’re not a robot. Doing mistakes is fine.
He also impressed the audience by speaking Slovak quite well and even answering some questions in the local language.
His web is: speakingfluently.com
The whole lecture was eventually concluded by
She was one of the main organizers and moderating this afternoon’s event.
Lydia presented the philosophy behind her signature “quadrant”, which she calls 4 pillars of learning a language.
At first, the picture, which is also the logo of her project Language Mentoring, reminded me of Robert Kiyosaki and his Cashflow Quadrant 😊
However, her point here is much different: you’re not trying to move from one category to another, but approach the language learning holistically by combining these four aspects:
fun, quantity, frequency, and system.
To find out more, you can visit: languagementoring.com
MY SUM UP:
I’ve noticed that all polyglots have something in common. They use language immersion to observe patterns that they can replicate to speed up their language acquisition, focus on the key areas that they want to be able to talk about, apply the 20-80 rule, and use the principles of spaced repetition.