One thing that’s fascinating about polyglots is their lists of languages. All of them have one, and each of them is totally unique and tells a very different story. Some seem logical, focusing mainly on Asian or European languages, while others seem to have a bit of everything. But how do polyglots decide which languages to learn, and how do they get so good at them?
As the largest event of its kind ever to be held, the Polyglot Conference this October in New York was a great opportunity to reflect more on this. The line-up of speakers was impressive, but the list of languages they could speak was mind-blowing. Dothraki creator David Peterson kept referring to how he’d drawn on languages he’d studied like Arabic and Japanese when inventing the languages of Game of Thrones, while Dr. Rob Leonard, who uses the forensic analysis of language to solve crimes, revealed himself to also be a fluent Swahili speaker. Slovak polyglot Vlad Skultety, whose 19-language YouTube video has gone viral around the world, told the conference his story and how he became a native-like speaker of some of the hardest languages in the world.
‘Inspiring’ doesn’t quite cut the atmosphere at the last conference. The feeling was electric. As we took our final group photo and left the theatre for the last time, I heard people buzzing with plans to learn new languages and improve before the conference in Thessaloniki next year (where of course Greek will be very handy!).
But is deciding which language to learn really as simple as ticking them off a list? Or are there slightly bigger factors to consider too?
Pick a language
At the Polyglot Workshops, Richard Simcott and I have demonstrated this process in one of our opening activities. “Pick a language” the participants were told, and we came around and let them pick one out of a hat.
If the languages we learned were really as random as that, you should have no problems going off and learning it. However, the reactions tended to vary.
“Portuguese?” one person said. “Why on EARTH would I want to learn that?”
That’s a valid question. It’s one that I used to ask myself, until a recent trip to Brazil after which I was finally able to find some answers. Yet I do regularly get emails from people with lists of languages that they want to learn, asking whether I think it will work. Here’s one example from an email I got a few weeks ago:
French, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Romanian
German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Afrikaans
Russian, Polish, Czech, Croatian, Bulgarian
Arabic, Hebrew, Maltese
I answered that the list looks pretty good. Apart from the fact that 19 languages in four years is a pretty tall order, they make sense from the point of view that they are all related and so learning them will not be as difficult as starting totally different languages.
But the problem with this list – and the reason why I know it won’t work – is something more fundamental: it’s a list! Ask any polyglot in the world which languages they speak best, and you’ll be sure it won’t be the ones they picked like this. There are a couple of other things you have to think about first.
Use it or lose it
The languages I speak best are the ones that I use. Greek I speak very regularly with family and friends, I teach German and Russian and so use them every day, while I was living in Hungary speaking Hungarian felt very spontaneous and natural.
The other languages I feel comfortable using are also ones that I use regularly. I have friends who speak Hebrew, Serbian, Dutch and Afrikaans, so keeping them up is not too much of a challenge. As for the rest like French, Italian and Yiddish, I use them so rarely in an every day context that when I have to speak them it feels like they need a good hour in the microwave first in order to defrost.
I know from bitter experience that if you don’t speak languages regularly, you will lose them. Having had this happen several times, I now think I would go about choosing my languages very differently. I wouldn’t want to plan my way tactically across a language family, instead I would look closer to home at the ones around me that I’m most likely to actually use.
So which languages do your friends and neighbours speak? Which languages do you hear when you’re out and about town? Which courses are offered in your local language schools or libraries?
No matter how much you read about how useful Mandarin Chinese is going to be, if the answer to the questions above is Polish then you’ve found your new language. Why learn a language that you might have to wait more than 18 months to even hear instead of one that you could walk into a shop and speak tomorrow if you wanted?
Of course I have nothing against Mandarin Chinese at all. If that’s the language you hear all the time where you live then definitely learn that.
But how far are you going to take it?
This links directly back to how much you’re going to use it. If you’ve got the opportunity to meet and form friendships with people who speak a language, chances are you’re more likely to learn it to a higher level. You’ll want to talk to them about real life things, not just whether or not it’s going to rain next Thursday and exchange tips for protecting the environment.
But the reason why ‘use’ is so powerful, is that it can often take your language learning project to whole new heights. As I tell everyone, the only reason why I started learning Hebrew was because easyJet started flying to Tel Aviv. After arming myself with the bare minimum phrases to order food and buy bus tickets, I went there and made friends who I’ve stayed in contact with. People I still talk to and still see. Before I knew it, my A1 basic Hebrew suddenly became more like a B1 intermediate level, because I found myself needing vocabulary and grammar structures that you only ever need when you reach that next level.
So if you really want to ‘master’ a language rather than just ‘get by’, the question of finding ways to use it is one that is going to become more important. But equally, there’s no shame in aiming for an A1 level, getting to an A1 level, and being proud of your A1 level. I’ve been there many times too.
My new language projects
So Budapest is over and that stage of my Hungarian language learning project has come to an end. So what’s next? Estonian? Basque? Arabic?
The truth is none of those. I don’t have a list of impossible languages that I want to learn and blog about, and I never have. My language projects for the next year are going to be quite different.
2016 is the ‘defrost’ language year. My Romance languages, which I used to know so well before I went to university, were in danger of becoming fossilised, and I missed them. These are languages that I get to use every time I go to an event like the Polyglot Conference, and that most people generally ‘expect’ you to learn. Yet after 5 years concentrating on German, Russian and then Hungarian, they’d started to get stuck in my throat.
So now I’m in Valencia, Spain, where I’m going to be defrosting my Spanish, Italian, Catalan and French. I’m also planning to keep going with Serbian, and perhaps even to take some exams. But that’s a story for another post.
As for now, hasta la vista.
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:
Valencia, Spain | 30th January 2016
London, UK | 27th and 28th February 2016
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!
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