How to really learn 30 languages

Nobody ever taught me how to learn languages, so when I first started, it was slow. I didn’t know what I was doing. We’d only just had the Internet installed at home a few years beforehand, and I didn’t know anybody else who was doing it.

Whenever I’d tell people I wanted to learn more languages, they’d ask the same thing: “Why?”

The impossible task

So many people told me three languages was the absolute limit. Nobody could learn more. When you’re being told this from all angles, you can even start to doubt yourself. And as results are always slow at the beginning, I began to get demoralised.

In 6 whole months of study, I only ever got to the third unit of my Teach Yourself Russian course. I then forgot it all immediately. In my Spanish speaking exam at school, I once said a whole sentence in Dutch by accident. Everybody told me that I was mad.

I remember clearly my French teacher telling someone in my class “No, Alex doesn’t speak all those languages, he just knows some phrases in them. It’d be impossible for him to actually speak them all.”

Yet here we are today. I blocked out those voices and found the strength to keep going.

One person was a huge inspiration for me: my first French teacher. I’d occasionally catch him reading Spanish and German books in breaks. He told me he spoke five languages, and that it was easy.

How I kept going

Fast forward, and today I have a degree in German and Russian from scratch at Oxford University, I was named the UK’s most multilingual student after being tested in 11 different languages by native speakers in 2012, and I’m now learning my 15th and hardest language so far: Hungarian. It’s not always been a smooth ride, and it’s taken me a lifetime to get to where I am. But if I knew then what I do now, I can only imagine how much more I might have achieved.

alexrawlingsvidspeakBut now that I have my learning techniques, I can achieve more. Hungarian has had its ups and downs so far, but I knew now to expect it. I also had a great idea of how to make a good start on it.

I knew what vocabulary I would need, how to get practice before coming to the country, how to fix my pronunciation, and how to understand what people were saying even without knowing the right words.

A lifetime of learning languages has given me the skills and experience to know what works and what doesn’t. What I have learned can help you too.

Why should you learn languages?

At school we don’t learn languages, we just get taught them. Everything goes in one ear, down onto a test paper, and then most of us forget it for the rest of our lives.

Our teachers help us to get the top grades in our exams, but these become meaningless if years later you apply for a job that requires it and you’ve forgotten how to even ask the time.

At school people will tell you that universities and employers like to see languages in an application, but they’ve lost sight of the real reason why you should learn them: for you.

Languages are an asset for whatever you want to do in life. They open your mind to worlds you never knew were there. They introduce you to amazing people that you might otherwise have just walked by. And now we even know that they will delay the onset of dementia by 4.5 years.

So why aren’t you learning languages?

Can you wave a magic wand?

richardfluentUnfortunately not. But some ways to the top are faster than others.

Richard Simcott and I have both spent our lives speaking different languages, and were recently featured in a piece on multilingualism by the BBC. We do it almost full-time now, and as we’ve tried so many different techniques with different languages, our experiences and insights into what works and what doesn’t are pretty unique.

We wanted to share our experiences with people, so we developed a series of special training days to teach people how to learn languages. We call these the Polyglot Workshops, because they are run by polyglots for you.  The workshops are a unique opportunity to spend the day with two experts on language learning and take part in fun, interactive and informative activities that will change the way you learn languages.

The Polyglot Workshops have been run across Europe, and we also have events coming up in Brazil, the US, Canada and the Far East. We both love doing these workshops, because of the opportunity meet so many different types of people, and really make a difference to their lives.

Here are two examples of people we have helped so far.

How one simple tip changed Anna’s English forever

Anna comes from Poland, but her son lives in the UK. She’d been studying English for most of her life, but wasn’t very confident about using it. She was very self-conscious about using English around native speakers, and said she felt stuck.

Her English wasn’t improving. Plus, with a grandchild on the way in England, she realised if she didn’t overcome her problems now, she might never be able to fully be a part of her son’s new life.

Anna came to see us at the Polyglot Workshops in Poland in March and told us her story. She wanted to know how she could practise her English while still living in Poland. She also wanted to stop making silly mistakes, so she would feel people were taking her more seriously when she spoke.

poznanworkshopRichard and I were able to help her. It was clear she was at a language-learning plateau. We told her this was totally normal, and gave her advice on how to get past it. We suggested she would feel more confident in every situation she’d be in by working on specific areas of vocabulary. We even helped her to find an expat book club near her home where she could go to practise English every week.

A few months later, Anna wrote to us. She was in England with her new-born baby grandson. She was staying for six months to help her son and his partner adjust to their new life. At the hospital she’d had to talk to all the nurses and doctors, she’d had to buy things for the baby in town, and she’d had to read all sorts of books about newborns and explain them to her son and his partner. She was doing all of this in English, and she felt on top of the world.

Anna had taken our advice and focused on learning the vocabulary we told her would get her out of her rut. The book club helped her to improve her English without even realising it, as she was so busy concentrating on talking about things she cared about that she forgot to think about whether she’d always used the right word or made a grammar slip.

English had become a part of her life because she’d embraced it. She told us that since our advice, she now felt almost as comfortable speaking English as she did speaking Polish.

One small step that brought Jakub years closer to his dream of becoming a polyglot

Jakub is also from Poland and also came to our workshops in March. Unlike Anna, he felt OK about his English but less so about his Spanish and his German.

Jakub wanted to be a polyglot, and after hearing about us online he decided to come and see us. He found it hard to keep these languages separate in this head, and was wondering how he could stop getting them mixed up.

He wanted to know whether he should even be studying two languages at the same time, and whether there was anything he could do to stop them merging into one.

We told Jakub that the key to speaking a lot of languages at the same time was using them. If you’ve only ever spoken one or two languages at a time, then of course throwing more into the mix can be tricky.

readhandoutpolyglotworkshopsWe told him that to avoid getting crossed wires, he should try studying different ones on different days, and even go to different places to do them. Like with Anna, we found him some local expat events that he could attend in Warsaw to get used to speaking them every day. We also gave him some simple exercises he could integrate into his study that we use ourselves to stop mixing up languages, which he started using that night when he got home.

We heard again from Jakub quite recently. He stopped studying both languages on the same day, and that had allowed him to focus more and make more progress with each.

The events we had sent him to had been a huge success. He’d even made two whole new groups of friends, one Spanish speaking and one German, that he met up with regularly, not just at the events. He was planning to go and visit them in the summer.

He told us that after making just the small changes we told him had worked for us, he could hardly remember thinking of Spanish and German as being hard or even foreign languages. He’d made so much progress, that he was now thinking about studying Italian and Russian as well.

What are the Polyglot Workshops?

polyglotberlingrouprichardJust on that one weekend, we met over 50 people at the Polyglot Workshops with all sorts of different stories and different questions. We found them answers.

Everybody who came to us was from different backgrounds, and had different goals in mind. Some people wanted to learn lots of languages, like Jakub, while others like Anna were happy with just the one.

But because Richard and I both learn languages full-time and have made and learned from all the mistakes there are to make, we can guarantee that we’ll be able to help you, no matter how specific or unusual your question might be.

At the Polyglot Workshops, we tell you how we’ve learned nearly 50 different languages between us, and how we keep speaking them all today.

If you sometimes feel like you’re learning your new language but have run out of steam, then there is no better way to refresh your learning than to come to the Polyglot Workshops yourself. You’ll have your individual questions answered, and get unique and practical advice on how you can move forward with your languages.

As one participant wrote to us: “The way I learn languages will never be the same again.”

So, are you ready to make 2015 the year you finally learn to speak a new language fluently? Whether you’re just thinking about learning your first foreign language, or have been learning for a while, if you want to up your game, we’d love to have you join us for one of our workshops. 

Want to find out more about how I learn languages?

Come to one of my live events! Richard Simcott and I will teach you:

  • the fundamental techniques required for learning any language
  • how to take your languages to an advanced level
  • how to understand the real language native speakers read in books, watch on TV, and use in conversations
  • how to deal with motivation issues and set realistic goals for your success

Our next event will be in:

logo-blueValencia, Spain | 30th January 2016
London, UK | 27th and 28th February 201
Or… Join us online! Programme starts 4th January 2016

Places are limited, so book now to secure your ticket! Once we’ve sold out, we can’t make any exceptions.

Can’t make any of those events? Don’t worry, we’ll be planning a new one near you very soon!

Like the Polyglot Workshops on Facebook for fresh updates!

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