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Advice on Learning a New Language From People Who Speak Up to 16

Anyone can learn a new language, no matter their age. Simply follow this expert advice down the sweet-talking path to success.


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Looking to be a polyglot? We’ve got you covered. Photo by Alejandro Escamilla/Unsplash

Being fluent in a language other than your own is a skill in a league of its own. Even learning one more allows you to #traveldeeper a little more than before. But what if you could speak six, 10, or even 15 languages? It’s not impossible—in fact, a person who can speak five or more tongues is known as a “polyglot,” and many people take on languages as a hobby.

We spoke with some of these polyglots—Conor Clyne (Language Tsar); Donovan Nagel (The Mezzofanti Guild); John Fotheringham (Language Mastery); Olly Richards (I Will Teach You Language); and Shannon Kennedy (of the Fluent in 3 Months team)—who each speak anywhere from six to 16 languages, many of which they acquired in adulthood. How difficult is it really for adults to pick up une deuxième langue? Read on for expert advice from these multilingual masters, who insist we’re all capable of learning new languages at any point in our lives.

But first: Why embark on such a daunting challenge?

“Even knowing just a modicum of a new language opens up so many doors that remain closed to monolinguals,” Fotheringham explains. “When I was working at a startup in Bangladesh, I only knew a smattering of Bengali words and structures, but this helped me forge much stronger personal and professional relationships and helped show respect for the local culture.” Clyne similarly agrees that it helps to be multilingual. “The more I traveled, the more I realized how much knowing a language gets people to open up to you,” he  says. For Nagel, “Being a polyglot has enabled me to get beyond superficial travel experiences and really connect with people around the world.” An added bonus? Learning new languages helps us to retain neuroplasticity into old age, keeping our brains young and active (move over, Sudoku). 

Speak, Speak, Speak

“Spend your time actually acquiring languages, not just studying them,” says Fotheringham. “The two are very different beasts, which is one of the major reasons most adult language learners fail, despite years of effort. They spend all their time reading about the language instead of spending the requisite time immersed in it. This is like trying to learn how to drive by reading a car’s owner manual.” This means that you need to actually practice speaking the language you’re learning, all the time, as much as you can, and starting from day one. It might be scary, but interacting with native speakers is essential for growing comfortable with something that will initially feel downright strange. And that’s not uncommon. Says Kennedy, “For a lot of learners, speaking is the hardest part of learning a language because there are so many things that play into it. It’s more than just knowing the language. The sooner you can conquer your fears regarding this aspect, the better off you are.” 

However, this doesn’t mean that learning Japanese requires moving to Japan. Access to Wi-Fi unlocks myriad resources that allow you to interact with native speakers face to face (such as Skype, for example). Similarly, listening to the language from your native-speaking friends is also crucial in learning to produce those same sounds yourself. In this vein, Nagel promotes a method known as “chunking,” which involves listening to chunks of language over a period of time and repeating them, verbatim, until they start to come from you naturally (in the same way that musicians repeat scales until they become second nature). Fotheringham recommends topping off your wholly immersive experience with other helpful details, such as changing your smartphone settings to the language you’re learning and listening to music in that tongue. You’ll be amazed at how quickly things start to sink in.

Use the Right Study Tools and Methods

Equally vital to your language-learning journey is creating an all-star study method. This requires resources. Do your research and compile a hearty toolkit of helpful translation apps, websites, textbooks, and/or tutors—whatever combination makes you feel most comfortable in your path to success. “As you progress,” recommends Richards, “begin to spend more time listening and reading. Find listening material in the language you’re learning that is slightly above your current level. Make sure it comes with a written transcript. Spending regular time listening and reading (at the same time) gives you large amounts of exposure to the language, which is essential to becoming more proficient.”

Note that focusing on grammar is not the way to go here. It’s much more effective to put your efforts toward vocabulary so that people can still catch your drift even when your grammar isn’t spot-on. Kennedy’s ultimate formula? “More vocabulary, more practice, more exposure to the language,” over and over and over again. Once reading your textbook begins to feel easier, move on to more difficult media meant for native speakers (books, movies, magazines, etc.). Set goals for yourself that help to push you through this process but that are equally realistic as well. Fotheringham recommends “S.M.A.R.T Goals”—that is, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. This process will certainly be easier if you’ve learned a new language previously, but newbies, have no fear: You have the power if you put in the work.

Put in the Hard Work

The final piece of this puzzle is a go-getter attitude. Adding a new language to your repertoire of skills takes passion, motivation, and some serious dedication. It requires consistency—a daily dose of consistency. This may sound daunting, but it’s a notion that each polygot we spoke with asserted wholeheartedly. “Think of language learning as a lifestyle,” explains Richards. “You need to work at it every day. Personally, I set aside one hour every morning to work on the language I’m studying at that time. Consistency is the key, and so I recommend you follow the same approach with your self-study at the beginning. Work at it a little every day, and after one month you’ll have made a lot of progress.” Persist through the difficulties, ambiguities, and mistakes. (They’re inevitable, so embrace them! Mistakes will help you grow.)

There’s no “arrival point” as to when you’ll reach fluency, for “fluent” in itself is a fundamentally subjective term. “How long it takes is determined by a variety of factors,” says Kennedy, “how efficiently you study, how close the language is to your native language, how dedicated you are, what else has your attention, if you’ve learned a language before, if you’re doing it on your own or with a tutor, which resources you’re learning, and how you define fluency.” As Nagel says, “For some, [fluency is] being able to order a coffee. For others, it’s being able to discuss economic policies.” You’re embarking on a constant evolution of learning, so buckle up, be patient, and be sure to enjoy the ride. Finding fun in the process will aid your success by leaps and bounds.

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This post originally appeared on Afar and was published May 19, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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