The best way to acquire a new skill is to find out about other people who got really at that skill and do what they did. A couple of years ago, I went to Prague for the express purpose of learning the Czech language (this was not a completely random choice: I’d studied in a master’s program in Prague the year before). Anyway, I started off taking classes at a language school, but I ended up dropping out of it because I became bored and frustrated with the teaching methods. The classes were just really slow and boring, and I never felt like I was really improving in spite of all the grammar drills we were doing. I decided to learn Czech by myself by just reading my textbook during the day and trying to find conversation partners, but even this approach, which is more or less the approach I use now, left me feeling stalled. Now my Czech wasn’t hopeless, I could have fairly long conversations with people, albeit with a lot of grammatical infelicities, and I could watch Czech TV, provided there were subtitles (in Czech), but I really felt like I’d reached a plateau, and I certainly didn’t feel “fluent.” So I started googling and looking up blogs of polyglots trying to find tips and “best practices” for learning a new language.
There are plenty of polyglots now who are internet celebrities in some way, and I was always impressed by how good they could get at so many different languages. Thankfully for me at that time, a lot of them happened to have blogs or to have written articles about their approach to language learning. Two polyglots, Gabriel Wyner and Chris Lonsdale, have had the biggest influence on how I think about and approach language learning.
Wyner is an American opera singer (who actually studied engineering in college!) who had to learn German for his opera career and ended up developing an affinity for language learning. He studied at the famous Middlebury College language schools, and then lived in Austria for a year, becoming fluent in German. Afterwards, he studied French, Italian and Russian, and became more or less fluent in all of these languages.
His book, Fluent Forever, is actually the product of a master’s degree that he pursued while he was living in Austria. Wyner did a lot of research on language acquisition and in his book he identifies and espouses three keys to learning a language:
- Not translating.
One of the philosophies of the language programs at Middlebury College is that you should learn a language naturally without translation. If you’re reading a text in a foreign language, don’t use a bilingual dictionary. Instead, use a monolingual dictionary in the new language. According to Wyner, this is the key to reaching the point of thinking in a new language very quickly. Wyner advocates watching TV programs in the new language (without subtitles) and reading books and newspapers without a bilingual dictionary.
- Using effective memorization techniques like mnemonics and spaced repetition.
One of the interesting strategies that Wyner advocates is getting a hold of a list of the most frequent words of a language, and building flashcards out of them. He advocates using mnemonics and flashcards with a spaced repetition feature to learn these words to build up a large vocabulary efficiently.
- Focusing on pronunciation.
As an opera singer, Wyner had to work with voice coaches to learn how to properly pronounce the roles he was performing. It turns out that learning and understanding how to produce the sounds has cognitive benefits in terms of listening comprehension, in addition to speaking the language in a more understandable way.
Wyner gives a persuasive and well-informed account of his program. I tried out all of his techniques when I first learned about them, and they gave me a lot of new tools to try to get past the plateau that I’d reached with my language learning with Czech.
Since I’ve read his book, I’ve developed a lot of disagreements with the program that he lays out and the advice that he gives. I think that going through frequency lists and building flashcards, or watching TV programs without subtitles can be very difficult habits to maintain. Even though his program is backed up by cognitive science, I think it is often quite frustrating and a lot of work to follow his advice, and this can really kill your motivation when you’re trying to learn a language. If you’re the He-Man, eat-your-veggies type about language learning (as I was when I was in Prague), I think his advice can be very good. But I think most regular people (as I am now) will try to follow his advice for a short time and then give up (as I did, eventually).
That said, Wyner’s book is at the very least an inspiring read for anyone who’s interested in learning languages, and I love the idea of really trying to ground your approach to language learning in a systematic method that’s backed by science. Even though I no longer take all his advice, he offers so many practical and inspirational tips and strategies for learning a language that I would feel irresponsible not making aspiring polyglots aware of his approach. I think that his approach is definitely worth a try.
Chris Lonsdale went to China in the eighties and became fluent in Mandarin in six months. I was really curious about his TED talk because the idea of learning Chinese in only six months was astounding to me, and I was initially skeptical about it, but after finding out about his method, and listening to his story, he came across as quite convincing.
There are a lot of really good ideas in his TED talk, which I’ve linked, and much of his advice has been echoed by other polyglots (which is a sign that it’s very good advice), but Lonsdale has one piece of advice that I wanted to highlight because I think it is very important and I did not find it mentioned by any other polyglot. In his talk, he introduces the idea of finding a “language parent,” someone who speaks the foreign language and teaches it to you in a way that is similar to how a parent teaches their child how to speak a language.
What are the characteristics of a language parent?
- The language parent speaks to you only in the new language.
- The language parent works to understand what you are saying.
- The language parent uses words that you know.
- The language parent does not correct your mistakes.
When I went to Ukraine, I effectively had a language parent from day one. The receptionist at my hostel in Lviv found out that I was studying Ukrainian, and agreed to speak to me only in Ukrainian to help me practice. Because she had the night shift, I’d go back to the hostel every night, and we would talk, actually talk, to each other in Ukrainian for one or two hours. Now it wasn’t like I could speak Ukrainian out of thin air. Czech and Ukrainian are very similar languages (analogous to the way in which Italian and Spanish are similar) and so I could recognize the cognates, and also I had studied some Ukrainian from a textbook before I’d come to Lviv. Even so, I was amazed at how much I understood of what she said just from intonation, expression, and context. And even though I was mostly fumbling through my conversations with her, she didn’t spoil the thing by trying to correct me or to teach me the grammar. We were just enjoying a conversation together, and this went a long way in developing the ability to speak fluidly. Not only that, it built my comfort for speaking with others in Ukrainian, and gave me a base which allowed me to communicate solely in Ukrainian while I was in Lviv.
When I was building simplang I tried to incorporate the best advice from both of these polyglots in the lessons. There’s a heavy emphasis on phrases for everyday communication, so that whether you’re speaking with friends, teachers, or your own personal “language parent,” you can start communicating from day one. The flashcard system also makes use of the principle of spaced repetition. You don’t have to make a thousand flashcards, because we’ve already done it for you, and because our flashcards feature authentic speech from native speakers, you can also use them to help train your pronunciation.