I’ve always thought of myself as an avid learner, someone who enjoys challenges and discovering new things. In truth, I’m only avid when I have a choice in what I’m learning. Ahead of our extended stay in France, I thought I would approach French with the same zest with which I studied Spanish.
In reality, I’ve halfheartedly completed three (out of 78) levels in Duolingo and left it at that. It’s not that I’m resistant to French but that I don’t want to dilute my progress with Spanish.
With this in mind, I spoke to a number of polyglots and multilinguals to see how they acquired their numerous languages. They shared a wealth of information, the best of which is shared below.
Note: ‘First language’ is used to denote the first foreign language you have chosen to learn, not your mother tongue.
1. Don’t give up on your first choice
Most people choose their first language for a reason. This may be via a systematic review of the best language to learn, a desire to speak with locals while travelling, or an interest in a specific foreign culture. Giving up on your first language sets a precedence, making it easier to quit subsequent efforts.
“Instead of quitting, find what works for you,” says London-based Kiyeun Baek who speaks English, Spanish, Korean, Japanese and French, some daily in her role as head of business development at global publisher DK. “For me, it’s starting to read real novels in the language as soon as possible.”
Judith Meyer who runs learnlangs.com and organises an annual polyglot gathering speaks nine languages (with another four at beginner or intermediate level).
She advises: “Try a different method or different materials first. If you’re bored with a course or you can’t understand it, just do something else for a while: a different course or even some fun activities like surfing the web or watching funny videos.”
Meyer advises native English speakers to choose a European language first before advancing to more difficult languages further afield: “Any European language is an okay first choice and it doesn’t make much sense to switch – for example, from French to Spanish – when you run into trouble because you’ll lose your progress only to encounter the exact same difficulties again.”
2. Understand the components of ‘natural talent’
Our experts agree that motivation is the most important ingredient in learning multiple languages. Interestingly, they urge us to interrogate the notion of ‘natural talent’. Rather than a singular trait that some people have and some don’t, natural talent can be broken down into components.
Julia Saperia, a London-based statistician who speaks five languages, told us: “I think there are several different talents – if you happen to have them all, then you’re lucky.
I’m good with grammar because I have a logical mind and my ear is good because I’m musical. Some people are able to absorb languages by being immersed in them, others are unafraid to make mistakes and learn without knowing or caring much about the rules. That is a talent with which I am not blessed!”
Meyer elaborates: “I think there are talents for various aspects that are important in language learning. For example, there are people who have the gift of imitating accents: they hear very well and they are able to reproduce sounds more faithfully than the rest of us.
There are also people who have particularly good memory skills. Daniel Tammet, who made the news for learning Icelandic in a week, formerly placed fourth in the World Memory Championships. [His memory] definitely helped. Synaesthesia also helps. However, I don’t believe in a separate language gene.”
Framing natural talent in this way makes it less daunting. You may not have a great memory but you might be great at talking to people without worrying about making mistakes. Equally, you may not be great with grammar but your accent might be perfect.
3. Layer your learning by following the 70/30 rule
One question asked by every aspiring polyglot is: should I learn my languages in parallel or in sequence? Our considered answer is neither.
Lora Green from 2Polyglot speaks four languages and explains:
“Don’t start learning two languages at once because all rules and definitions will be mixed in your mind, but don’t wait until you speak one language fluently before taking courses in the second because there’s no strict line where you can tell you speak a language fluently. You will just waste time. When you can express your opinion, understand grammar basics and follow what’s going on in a TV series in your first language, use this as a sign that you may start learning another one.”
Green adds: “I use a proportion of 70/30. I use 70% of my language learning time on the new language and 30% for the language I know on an intermediate level.” This allows her to build her languages in layers.
Meyer uses a similar approach: “The approach that works best for me is to have just one beginner language that I’m actively studying and one intermediate or advanced language that I’m also focusing on. With the intermediate/advanced languages I sometimes focus on more than one but not with the beginner languages. That has always turned into a disaster!”
4. Develop personas for each language
Once you have made progress in several languages, it can be hard to compartmentalise them, especially if they are similar.
Natasha Asghar, a London-based presenter for Zee TV, speaks three Indo-Aryan languages and three European languages – four of which she uses in her job on a daily basis.
She tells us: “I learnt English, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi at the same time and then went on to study French and German later on. One useful tip for new learners is to develop ‘personas’ for each language. This will help keep them separate in your head.”
So, for French, your persona may be a whimsical waitress like Amélie who smiles and gesticulates a lot. For German, it may be a stern scientist who speaks in clipped tones. If you adopt their mannerisms, their tone of speaking and cadence of speech, it will help you keep the languages separate.
If you layer your languages following the 70/30 rule, it may also help to change your environment for each language and study them on different days.
5. Be systematic
If you are serious about learning multiple languages, consider logging the hours you spend on each one.
Meyer tells us: “I’m impatient when I don’t quickly see results, so I keep a log of when I study and how long I study. I use a spreadsheet for this because daily updates should take no time at all. My current major project is Hebrew and I can tell exactly that I have studied 136 hours of Hebrew since January 1st, which is a little over half an hour per day on average.”
Recording your study in this way will encourage you to celebrate small wins, motivate you to keep putting in the hours and give you solid metrics against which to measure future language efforts.
6. Understand that language learning is more long than hard
Most of us believe that language learning is hard. Without a doubt, it can be frustrating, challenging and unrewarding for long stretches of time but it’s not hard in the same way astrophysics or advanced mathematics are hard.
Learning multiple languages – or indeed just one – is more long than hard. Even the arguably easy languages take 600 hours of study to achieve proficiency. Staying focused and motivated is clearly the key.
San Francisco-based designer Shannon Del Vecchio speaks English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Japanese. She tells us: “When I first met my wife, Gina, I already spoke four languages. I learned Italian in part because her family is Italian and I now have an Italian last name. She used to tell everyone, ‘Shannon is so good at languages! She is amazing! She speaks four of them like it’s nothing.’ After watching me learn Italian, she now says, ‘You would not believe Shannon’s power of concentration when it comes to learning languages. She can sit down and work on it for two hours and nothing sways her focus. It is crazy.’
7. Don’t worry about keeping them all in your head
One of my concerns about learning French is that it will somehow ‘override’ my progress in Spanish, either diluting it or pushing it aside, an erroneous belief most likely linked to the discredited ‘separate underlying proficiency’ (SUP) hypothesis.
Academic Nayr Ibrahim explains: “This theory suggests that languages are stored in separate compartments or containers, which represent half the capacity of the monolingual brain. These ‘containers’ have limited storage space, and, as the brain cannot hold so much information, it ‘elbows out’ the other language.”
Ibrahim adds that SUP has been discredited by decades of research into bi- and multilingualism. In short, your brain has space for numerous languages. Just don’t worry about keeping them all in your head at the same time.
Baek tells us: “In my experience, the languages I use the most are readily ‘accessible’ and the others I’ll have to ‘activate’.” Meyer adds that “it’s hard to keep all languages equally accessible” but that she can reactivate dormant ones with a few hours of study.
Don’t be defeated by the fear of losing a language before you even begin.