How Polyglots Learn Multiple Foreign Languages

“Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.”
Noam Chomsky

Often, fellow long-term travelers and expats are surprised that I can converse reasonably intelligently in four languages besides my native English. (Spanish and French- advanced level; Russian and Italian- intermediate level).

While I have put a fair amount of time into learning these languages, I enjoyed most of the process and look forward to learning other languages in the future.

Most people tell me they have no skill in learning foreign languages. I don’t believe them. While I am lucky to be better than most language learners, anyone can learn if they have patience and desire.

About three years ago, I asked myself why some people are polyglots (like me) and others have so much frustration learning another foreign language. Then I met Benny Lewis, author of Fluent in Three Months, at a Nomadic Matt conference in Boston in June 2019, and I began to understand that the difference between polyglots and everyone else is passion and discipline not natural ability.

Then I began to study how polyglots do things differently and identified the following common precepts that all polyglots believe: 

  • People over 50 often learn a language differently than younger people. We are often frustrated in classes where everything is in Spanish or courses emphasizing too much grammar. Perhaps more than anything else, many younger teachers don’t understand that it has been years since we were in school, and many of us carry emotional scars from previous fruitless efforts to learn Spanish.
  • It takes time to learn a foreign language. The US State Department provides 600 hours of Spanish classes to people it wants to serve in a Spanish-speaking post. Spanish is one of the more accessible languages they teach. (Some languages take over 2,000 hours to learn, according to the State Department). The level of skill the State Department requires is more than most people need. However, the US State Department hires people with a lot of academic preparation and skill. My experience is that most students can become sufficiently conversational to meet their Spanish, French, and Italian needs after about 300-500 hours of practice, including time in the classroom and talking to natives. (However, it takes another 300-500 hours to become nearly fluent in another language).
  • There is no one surefire way to learn a language. Each person needs to find a method that works for them. Finding this method is a matter of trial and error. In addition, you need to change your techniques periodically as you become more fluent and study different types of languages. (Some languages like Mandarin require different skills to master than English, others like French and German are similar to English in many ways): 
  • Many advertise that you can learn a language in a few hours; however, this is just a marketing ploy. Studies have shown that most people who sign up for gyms do not lose weight and that gyms rely on clients not showing up after a couple of weeks. (I am as guilty of this as most other people). While I have not seen a similar study about language classes, the same situation applies. Most language programs understand that their clients want to be told that they can learn painlessly and quickly but don’t want to accept the simple truth that taking a language takes time and effort.
  • The more passionate you are about learning a language, the better. I learned both Russian and French to talk to my girlfriends. (I have known many people who have learned a language quickly for love), Many of the middle-aged American women I met taking Italian classes in Italy had a love for Italy or some aspect of their culture. In Asia, many people have learned Korean to understand K-Pop songs: If you have passion, you will also have more patience for the bumps in the road, which will surely come along. 
  • Effective communication involves more than just words. You can say something perfectly correctly in a foreign language, and the listener can interpret it differently because they come from a different culture. (Mexicans, for example, often speak in ways that Americans interpret as beating around the bush, Sometimes; as a result, I have said something that I thought was direct, polite, and grammatically correct -all perfectly acceptable ways to talk for an American- but my Mexican friends interpreted as a harsh criticism). 
  • You will never be as fluent in another language as in your first language. If fluency was easy, a computer could translate languages automatically without mistakes. However, despite more than fifty years of computer efforts to translate texts, they cannot. (This is especially true for specialized language situations like visiting a doctor’s office). In addition, studies have shown that people over eighteen have difficulty achieving true fluency in a foreign language. (However, it is not that hard to become almost fluent if you are willing to invest more than 600 hours into studying and practicing the language). 
  • Each language requires students to master a different set of skills. English and French need a lot of work on pronunciation, while Spanish and Italian sounds are pretty easy to master. (For example, Spanish has only five vowel sounds, French 16, and English has 19-21 vowel sounds, depending on the English dialect). However, Spanish and Italian have much more complicated verb tenses than English or French. In addition, there is substantial disagreement about how many words exist in English versus other languages. However, my personal experience shows that vocabulary learning is more difficult in English for students than in French, Spanish, Italian, or Russian. (Mainly because English has one way to express a word from Germanic language and another from Latin languages. As a result, there are multiple ways, especially phrasal verbs, to say more or less the same concept).

Want More Information About How Polyglots Learn Multiple Foreign Languages?

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Also, check out this blog post from I Will Teach You a Language.

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Additional Posts About Learning Foreign Languages; Spanish, English, Cooking, Art, and Other Classes; and Volunteering for Expats and Long-Term Travelers

Paul Heller has been a lifelong avid traveler and language learner and teacher, Even as a child, he told Santa Claus that he wanted to visit all the children worldwide. At seven years old, Paul wanted to retire to Mexico. At eight, he memorized the name, capital, location, and some facts about every country worldwide. At twelve, he found a book "Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" and started developing his own itinerary for a future round-the-world trip. He remained obsessed with travel; after getting a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California and working as an administrator, He spent his vacations going to different countries around the globe studying language, touring, and volunteering. In 1994, he quit his job and lived in Russia as a volunteer English instructor. He discovered that he loved teaching languages. In 2004, he decided to make a living out of his travels and founded a community of people who love to travel just like him. He developed 5 three-hour classes about living and traveling long-term worldwide which he taught in over 50 adult education programs throughout the US. After his parents passed, he realized his dream of traveling around the world; cruising and touring some of the most remote places like the North Atlantic, Patagonia, and Oceania; and learning new languages (he knows Spanish, Italian, French, and Russian). Paul encourages everyone to learn foreign languages. He knows that it can be frustrating and slow but that anyone can learn a language if they put in the work and, most importantly, learning a language is well worth the time and effort because it opens up a whole new set of people, ideas, and cultures. He is currently spending the next chapter of his life in Mérida, México. He is excited about using this blog and his classes and workshops to inspire and equip fellow Fifty Plus Nomads with the language, cultural, and psychological skills necessary to be successful and happy long-term travelers and expats over 50.

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