29/08/2016

Polyglot's Guide to Learning Languages


If there's one ace up my sleeve to impress people in my wandering life, it's my ability to speak six languages. I've turned from a Silent Sam to a self-functioning polyglot. But how did that happen? Was I bit by a venomous spider? Or was it all just hard work? Read my simple 5-step list to find out how to learn languages quickly and efficiently!

We all have a different set of factors to start with: whether we have a better long-term or short-term memory, what kind of teachers (if any!) we've had in the past, and how motivated we feel to learn a particular language. Even our own mother tongue can play an important role in our ability to master a new language: to this day I haven't been able to decide whether it's a curse or a bliss to have the odd-one-out Finnish as my first language, since it doesn't resemble any other language I've ever wanted to learn. Despite all these variables, speaking six languages has no magic involved - no matter how often they try to tell me so! It's not a gift you're born with. Don't believe me? Well listen to this:

I started studying English at the age of 9. Shy as I was, my first lesson didn't go as expected. We were supposed to introduce ourselves one by one by saying "I am (insert name here)". When my turn came, I choked and started crying. The teacher was merciful enough to let me skip my turn, and thus, I never actually ended up saying a word in English on my very first English lesson. Then life happened, and today, countless of hours (days and nights), years of studying, some English-speaking friends/lovers, months of living in multiple anglophone countries and an infinite amount of frustrations later, I consider myself a fluent speaker of English. It was not magic: it was a carefully harvested project filled with sweat, tears and at least 2 whole hours spent by repeating the word "zucchini" in front of an Australian.

After English a few other languages have tagged along, and now, as a 25-year-old, my linguistic quiver consists of six languages: Finnish, English, Russian, French, German and Swedish. I've also had a beginner's course in Mandarin Chinese, but let's not talk about that - so far the only thing I can still say is Zhè shì wǒ de míngpiàn (这是我的名片, "Here's my business card"). The project continues...

This blog post aims to share my tips on how you can achieve the same. Whether your personal project is to master Spanish as a second language or juggle six languages at once, I hope this list of useful techniques clinically tested on yours truly will turn you from a choking 9-year-old to a linguistic ninja pirate wizard. There will be no concrete advice to help you learn verb conjugation in Portuguese: instead, my list consists mainly on mental training and ways you can improve your own mind-set towards learning a language, since my observations have shown that our own attitude is often what holds us back.



1. LISTEN TO NATIVE SPEAKERS


Native speakers are your key when learning a new language. Read what they read (newspapers, social media, books), listen what they listen to (music, radio and TV shows), and take every chance to talk with them. They usually know how to use their language properly, and even if not professional teachers, they're able to offer you an authentic approach to your target language. They can correct you on the spot if you make a mistake in your grammar or pronunciation.

However, when I specifically advice to listen to them, I mean it. And not only for the pronunciation: by listening to everything you can possibly find from singers to audio books to your Spanish neighbour, training your ear to be comfortable around that language is, in my opinion, a fundamental part of beginning to learn it. You can't magically absorb the language to your brain through your ears, but as someone who moved to a French-speaking country with close to none knowledge of French and who now considers French to be my third strongest foreign language without any systematic studying, I believe the daily exposure plays a crucial role in the learning process. Beginning to understand what is said is where it all starts: if possible, find a text and ask a native speaker to read it out loud for you, or find audiobooks with scripts. Actively bring the actual authentic language along to your studies from the very start so you won't get distanced from it as you advance in your studies. Learning vocabulary by reading is one thing, but learning real, spoken words is another.

I was once approached by a girl after my Russian oral exam carried out by a Moscowian girl. She had listened to me chat about my studies and interest for Russian literature with the examiner, and wanted to know where I had learnt to pronounce so well. Back in the day I had to ask myself the same question, but today I'm fully aware that my frequent trips to St. Petersburg 5 years ago might be to blame. I didn't speak a word in Russian back in the days. What I did, though, was sitting hours upon hours on the benches of Letniy Sad and strolling back and forth Nevskiy Prospekt all the way from the Winter Palace to Neva river. I didn't understand a word spoken or written around me, but I listened to them. And as I finally started my systematic Russian studies a year later, I knew exactly how Russian is supposed to sound like. Later on I added Russian news and music to my training material, and today I can happily listen to Vladimir Putin's annual presidential address to the federal assembly without much struggle!

TL;DR - Listen to everything you can find from radio shows to native speaking friends. Using authentic material to support your systematic grammar and vocabulary studies brings you at ease with being around the language and trains your ear to catch familiar words and phrases. You can start with children's TV shows, as the vocabulary is often fairly simple. Native speaking kids are also the best: merciless and fast to criticize, but sincerely eager to help!


2. REPEAT, THEN REPEAT AGAIN


You'd think this one is stating the obvious. To my experience, however, the importance of routine and repetition just can't be highlighted enough. I'm actively teaching English to a native French-speaker on a daily basis here in Dublin, and man can he be stubborn at times! The same mistakes happen time and time again even after telling him at least five times to put that S at the end of his plurals. Then I tell him ten times, but he still keeps saying "There is many cat in this city". And then, after twenty times and long after crossing the line of my patience, I hear him casually say: "Well luckily there are many restaurants around."

My heart probably missed a beat. I almost had tears in my eyes. He finally got it.

You don't learn a language overnight. You learn it by reading that list of irregular verbs, then re-reading it - and then re-reading it again. There are no shortcuts when it comes to grammar. I personally rely a lot on memorising tricks: as an auditive learner, I create little songs of word lists and then hum them in my head when a missing case is needed.

The thing is this: in order to become a fluent speaker you absolutely have to learn the basics. It's the cold hard truth. I promise you it all gets nice and cozy once you take your time and thoroughly learn those irregular verbs, case lists and whatnot. There will be a day when you wouldn't even question the irregular conjugation of the verb aller in French because it's so deeply burned in your spine that saying anything else but the right form feels like a serious offense.

TL;DR - We can sometimes be extremely impatient when it comes to learning languages. We want it all and we want it right now. However, before mastering a language we have to learn the basics. Take that list of irregular verbs of yours, tape it next to your bathroom mirror and read it through every time you brush your teeth. (And remember to concentrate while reading it!)




3. STOP TRANSLATING IN YOUR HEAD


You know that frustrating moment when you know just the right saying to brighten up an unfortunate event - in your own language? We've all been there. Translating your favourite aphorism word by word for a foreign friend just seems to make it sound even more confusing. (I'm looking at you, Finns: despite your numerous attempts, saying something "took off like from Esther's ass" doesn't make any sense no matter how you're trying to explain it)

I get it: the temptation of doing some on-the-spot interpreting from your inner native voice to your second language is huge. It makes you feel like you have more control over your sentence structures, and it gives you more time to really think what you want to say. It might also be easier for you to remember words if you think of them in your native language first.

Sadly, this is not how any of this works - at least if your goal is to become a fluent speaker of your target language. On-the-spot interpreting isn't only making your speaking much slower and more complicated for no reason, it also does some serious harm to your 2nd language grammar. As we know, not every language follows the same sentence structures. Your own language's peculiar order of words might make sense to you even after you've translated that whole phrase word by word from English to German, but for your target audience, that poor German fellow, that... thing you just said might just be the most confusing moment of the day.

When speaking a foreign language, think in that foreign language. As slow and frustrating as it gets, it's your only way of developing a comfortable relationship with a strong base with your second language. Walk around looking at things and name them in your second language in your head. Memorize phrases. And when the time comes and you're face to face with a native speaker asking about your weekend in French, take a deep breath and start that sentence immediately in French! Don't use any other language in between: by persistently going for your second language right from the beginning you become more at ease with using it, and it also trains you to speak it faster.

TL;DR - I was still translating from Finnish to English in my head when I moved to Leicester, UK. Needless to say, I often stuttered and took pauses when trying to explain my academic thoughts on Shakespeare's Hamlet while trying to translate that long, complicated idea from Finnish to English on the spot. Everything changed after I stopped and concentrated on constructing that academic thought in English from the beginning. I turned into a fluent participant of university-level English Lit discussions in a month.



4. DON'T BE AFRAID OF CONFUSION BETWEEN LANGUAGES


So you have successfully mastered a foreign language, and now it's time for another one? Right. You will soon witness the walls of your carefully nurtured language boxes crumbling down. Your Swedish box gets mixed with your German box. French suddenly starts to look exactly like Russian. Everything you try to say in Italian comes out in Spanish. What's going on? How do I stop this?

You don't. Your brain wants to deliver that message to your foreign opponent in any way possible, whether the words pop into your mind from the correct language box or not. It's highly likely that your first attempts of speaking your third language will end up a fiasco, and it's ok.

There's a fine line between mixing up languages and letting them softly lean on each other for support. At first it may seem like you're never going to learn to keep all these foreign languages in order and you'll be doomed to frequently embarrass yourself, but there's more to that. Knowing multiple languages will actually make learning new ones much easier, and the more you know, the faster you'll master them. My first attempts on speaking French after moving to Québec were a catastrophe, as all that came to my mind was Russian. However, after going on about my life in a French-speaking city I soon noticed how many words Russian has borrowed from French. That bliss! Many signs and warning plates soon made complete sense when I spotted words like étage (етаж, a level/floor) and magasin (магазин, a shop).

It will be a bit tricky at first, but with time you'll learn to keep your foreign languages in their rightful order. It's all about associating new words and phrases with the correct language: I immediately get triggered when I hear someone speak French, and suddenly it becomes immensely hard to continue my ongoing discussion in English. It's like Pavlov's dog.

TL;DR - I was 14 and doing my German exam when my teacher arrived behind me, pointed at my sheet and whispered: "Melissa, you're writing in Swedish." 11 years later I still occasionally mix up these two, but by combining my knowledge of both languages I can actually expand my vocabulary in both German and Swedish. Mix-ups happen - make the most of it!


5. DON'T STRIVE FOR PERFECTION - IF YOU DON'T WANT TO


Language is, above all, a tool of communication for me. It's not as much a part of my identity nor public image as it's a medium I use to get my message through. So next time you feel too self-conscious to open your mouth and speak a foreign language due to your insecurities related to your non-native level pronunciation skills, STOP.

If your goal is to train yourself that perfect BBC-Oxford-David Attenborough British accent, by all means go for it, but not wanting to have that accent is perfectly ok too. Don't keep yourself from speaking a foreign language because you feel like everyone else around you speaks it much better and has an accent much closer to a certain native speaker dialect. Concentrate on coming to comfortable terms with speaking that language at first - and later on, when speaking it starts to feel fluid and natural to you, you can finally take on that challenge and start practicing a consistent style of pronunciation.

Having a native-level accent in your second (or third, or fourth!) language is not a merit in itself. Being able to become fully understood and deliver your message without misunderstandings or confusion is. I'm not saying you shouldn't practice pronunciation - of course you do, it's a fundamental part of learning to speak a foreign language. But remember to stay merciful to yourself. Don't become so self-conscious of those little hints of wrongly rolled R's that it keeps you from trying.

TL;DR - It's perfectly ok to reach an agreeable level of pronunciation and concentrate on becoming a fluid speaker instead of striving for a native-level accent. Too many times I've heard (especially) native speakers bashing a foreigner's accent, saying "He speaks perfect *French* but there's this little hunch of something in his nasal that gives him off..." My message to you is: SO WHAT?


Is there something else you would've added to the list? Or do you need more help with your language project? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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4 comments:

  1. Great post! It caught my eye as my son and I are about to embark on learning German together. It'll be my third language (English first, then French Immersion in school) and his second (can't quite say he knows French when all he can tell me is Bonjour! :-) ) . I have a feeling his 15 year old brain will pick up the German faster than my 40+ one but I'm excited to try.

    You are SO right about thinking in the other language and not translating things word by word. It had been many years since I had spoken much French and then I worked in my company's France office for a month. At first it was a struggle daily, not so much to understand but to speak. By the end of the month I was back to thinking (and dreaming!) in French and the words started flowing then. Too bad that's when I had to come home! :-(

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    1. Thank you! It's true that kids seem to have this natural ability to learn and adapt much faster than adults. I wish it was still as easy for me to learn new languages as it was when I was 15... Maybe your son can then help and teach you if he'll be able to pick up the language faster. :)

      Your experiences in France sound pretty much the same as what I experienced in Québec. It's funny how our brains have to adjust to a certain language "channel" before we're able to start speaking the language. I think you can really say you've reached that channel when you start dreaming in French! :)

      Good luck with your German project! As someone who studied it for 9 years I can say the task isn't always easy and the language maybe not as logical as Germans themselves, but when you catch the drift, it's a bliss.

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  2. I'm in my second semester of Japanese. I studied it in school but you're right - if you don't use it, you lose it. So here we are ten years later.

    Finnish sounds an interesting language but those 15 noun cases is pretty intimidating. Are you looking to pick up any Irish while you're here?

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    1. Oww that's too bad for your Japanese. But it's never too late to have a fresh start! Something tells me my German would also be absolutely horrible if I tried to speak it now, 7 years after finishing my studies... Often our motivation to study languages is better when we're adults, so things we've studied at school seem to get forgotten pretty easily.

      Finnish sure is a special cookie - my Canadian boyfriend won't stop complaining about it! But I want to believe it's just hard to start - I used to live with a Russian girl who had lived in Finland for 5 years, and her Finnish was so good I didn't even realise she's from abroad at first!

      And funny thing you asked about Irish: I'm actually about to have my very first Irish lesson tomorrow! I'm super excited, but maybe just a wee bit terrified too...

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