How I Developed Fifty Plus Nomad’s Exclusive Polyglot Method
Why I Believe the Polyglot Method is the Best Way for Students Who Have Tried to Learn Spanish or English Without Results
“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”
Learn Spanish or English Like a Polyglot
Often Fifty Plus Nomads seem amazed that I can converse reasonably intelligently in four languages in addition to 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.
When I tell people how much I love learning a foreign language, they usually tell me they have no skill in learning foreign languages. I don’t believe them. While I am lucky to be better than many language learners, almost anyone can learn with 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. I began to understand that the difference between polyglots and everyone else is passion and discipline, not natural ability.
What did my polyglot studies reveal? Namely, while some people have more language-learning talent than others, almost anyone can learn Spanish or English if they accept the following precepts:
- It takes time to learn Spanish or English. The US State Department provides 600 hours of Spanish classes to people it wants to serve in a Spanish-speaking post. Most people don’t need to speak as well as a State Department employee; however, my experience is that most students become sufficiently conversational to meet their needs in Spanish or English after about 200-300 hours of practice, in and out of the classroom.
- 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 and will cause you some frustration at times. In addition, you need to change your techniques periodically as you become more fluent.
- No one way of learning works for anybody. It is best to suspend your beliefs about how you learn a language and learn to “go with the flow.” You can express the same idea in a hundred ways, which get your point across and are at least 90% correct grammatically. In addition, many classes teach people canned expressions that seldom work in real life because real life is messy and doesn’t follow a script.
- Languages are an art, not a science. Like cooking, you need to find different mixtures of ingredients (methods, techniques, etc.) until you find the right recipe to express your idea easily. Have patience. Aim to use Spanish or English to communicate an idea, not pass a grammar test.
- Perfection is often the enemy of “good enough.” Many students become so obsessed with being correct that they concentrate on correctness more than actual communication. Aim to be clear enough so that most people understand you about 85% of the time. In addition, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You want to work on communication, not perfection.
- Learning a language nearly perfectly is only necessary if you are going to college or are a professional (doctor, lawyer, etc.) with a primarily Spanish or English-speaking clientele. The difference between speaking Spanish or English “good enough” for most situations and nearly perfectly is an additional 500 hours of study and frustration.
- It takes at least ten hours of practice to see if a new technique works. Sometimes a method will seem uncomfortable at first but will become useful later. Occasionally, a method will be ineffective at that moment but may work perfectly later.
- Many advertise that you can learn a language in a few hours; however, this is just a marketing ploy.
- The more passionate you are about learning a language, the better. I learned Spanish because of my fondness for Mexico and desire to explore the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. I also, over time, developed a passion for language learning. If you share a similar passion for learning, you will progress quickly.
- Effective communication involves more than just words. You can say something perfectly correctly in Spanish, and the listener can interpret it differently than you intended because Latin American and Spanish cultures are quite different than those in the US or Canada.
- You will never be as fluent in Spanish or English as in your native language. If fluency were easy, a computer could translate Spanish to English without difficulty, but computers, at least until recently, were worse at translating than most professional translators.
- You will learn more if you can study every (or every other) day than if you take classes less frequently. If you study less regularly, you will spend part of your time recapping what you learned before and may lose the rhythm necessary to make much progress.
- Learning enough English or Spanish to be comfortable in most situations requires much more study than most people think. Learning English or Spanish well enough to talk comfortably involves learning pronunciation, vocabulary, and listening skills in addition to a little grammar and some basic reading and writing skills.
- You must practice English or Spanish with native speakers as often as possible, particularly once you have some of the language under your belt (after 50+ hours of classes). Just like you can’t learn to drive or cook without getting behind the wheel or going into a kitchen, you can’t learn a language without practicing with local speakers.
- Learning things like foreign language grammar in your native language, particularly in the beginning, is beneficial. When I begin to teach Spanish, I quickly realized that it was much easier to learn Spanish grammar in English. I misunderstood several grammatical points because I was taught grammar in Spanish. I also found that I thought several things were different in English and Spanish that weren’t actually different after all. When I studied the past in French, I spent hours listening to all the rules (and sometimes getting unnecessarily confused) only to discover that 90% of the rules were basically the same in both Spanish and French.
Fifty Plus Nomad’s Polyglot Method
After three years of experimentation and studies of polyglots, I have developed an exclusive Polyglot Method to teach 50+-year-old students English and Spanish.
While I teach every student differently depending on their needs and interests, I have developed the following strategies that I typically use for most students based on my polyglot studies:
- During your classes, I will find language partners so you can practice your English and Spanish with native speakers. If you decide to study with me in Merida, I will also arrange a homestay with native English or Spanish speakers to encourage you to practice your language with native speakers as often as possible.
- I encourage students (particularly beginners) to devote, if possible, at least a couple of months (or at least 100 hours) to taking courses in my home in Merida. Taking the classes in Merida allows us to practice your language skills in real-life situations like buying a bus ticket, taking a bus, visiting a market, or ordering food from a local street food vendor.
- I teach Spanish and English using a mixture of both languages. I gradually use more and more of the target language in class as your Spanish or English improves. In addition, as your Spanish improves, you’ll spend more and more class time talking to my native Spanish-speaking assistants, such as Juan Carlos, in Spanish. (I will also find native Spanish-speaking partners for you to practice your Spanish outside of class).
- I use a lot of videos to teach English and Spanish. I have found that students usually only begin to understand a grammatical structure if they hear it explained several ways. I also like to use videos, so students get used to many different accents.
- I also use a lot of songs. Many students enjoy learning songs. Songs are also a great way to teach many common daily idioms, help students to hear individual words through fill-in-the-blank exercises, and ensure that students hear the way that words are often informal contracted in everyday speech (for example, I “got you” becomes “gotcha” in spoken English). In addition, you can listen to songs repeatedly while doing mundane daily tasks.
- As students listening skills improve, I use clips from TV shows to help improve listening skills, teach idioms and expressions, and teach more about English and Speaking-speaking cultures.
- I will explain different regional word usage whenever possible. Words can have different meanings in different countries. Most Spanish classes teach the verb “coger” in Spanish frequently. (“Coger” in Spain and most of Latin America means to “take”). However, they seldom teach that “coger” means “to fuck” in Mexican vernacular.
- I frequently correct students’ pronunciation and teach pronunciation exercises whenever I think students’ pronunciation can interfere with their ability to be understood by native speakers. It is difficult for English speakers to understand what Spanish speakers are saying if their pronunciation isn’t clear.
- Spanish verbs are difficult; however, you can’t make yourself understood (or even more important, understand what other people are saying) unless you have a decent mastery of verb conjugations. Verbs are less important in English, but English pronunciation and vocabulary require more work than Spanish.
- Once you reach an intermediate level or above, I will use news clips and shows to discuss English and Spanish-speaking countries’ history, culture, and society.
- I spend a fair amount of time explaining the cultural differences between Spanish and English-speaking countries. Spanish is more formal and less direct than English. Many expats in Spanish-speaking countries are rude in Spanish even though what they say is considered proper and polite in English. I also give Spanish students a free version of my “Living and Traveling in Mexico” Workshop so they can speak Spanish in culturally appropriate ways.
- I also like to show videos and read books (designed for English and Spanish students) about the culture and history of English and Spanish-speaking countries and give students suggestions for traveling in these countries. Most students enjoy learning a bit about the countries where English and Spanish are spoken.
- I use jeopardy, hangman, and other games to make review exercises and tests more entertaining and easier to remember. (You may also win a prize if you win a game!)
- Many people over 50 often learn Spanish differently than younger people. We are often frustrated by many younger teachers who 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.
- In addition, many students over 50 have difficulties learning when classes are completely in the target language from the beginning. While this technique often works for young students, it is not effective in my experience for teaching grammar (don’t worry. I teach grammar sparingly) and can be intimidating to older students, especially at first.
- Learning a foreign language can be frustrating at times. You will not enjoy every lesson with me. That’s OK. I want to teach you Spanish or English more than be your friend. (Though, I hope we can become friends). I also know that once you begin to speak comfortably with native speakers, you’ll probably be glad you spent time and effort learning Spanish or English. Watching you succeed gives me joy and will make our small problems seem moot.
If you are a snowbird or know some Spanish, you may take classes as frequently as possible online and then take an intensive language class with me in Merida (or vice-versa).
How Does the Polyglot Method Work?
After teaching around 50 students one-on-one Intensive Spanish and English, I noticed that most students learn either intuitively or structurally.
Most online programs and teachers are fervent exponents of the virtues of learning intuitively or structurally. Teachers often spend too much time needlessly trying to justify that either learning intuitively or structurally is better than the other way. When, in fact, often, they are advocates of their own approach simply because they don’t know how to teach using the other approach.
However, neither is better or worse. It just depends on how the student learns.
Students who learn intuitively understand that learning a foreign language is both an art and a science. They grasp that they need to understand and communicate just the gist of a conversation. Perfection is not possible or even desirable. There is no right or wrong way to say something. They know they won’t ever be able to understand everything.
Generally, I use a lot of songs, TV shows, short stories, and conversation sessions to get these students to develop an intuitive sense of how the language flows.
Students who learn structurally like rules and are excellent at finding speech patterns and duplicating them. They love doing grammar exercises and learning lists of vocabulary. They get frustrated when they deal with things they can’t understand immediately.
In fact, while most people favor either the intuitive or the structural ways to learn, very few people can really learn another language using just one of these two ways. Almost everyone needs both.
The challenge for me as a teacher is to:
- Figure out when I must gently push students out of their comfort zone. If they favor learning intuitively they will not learn the language until they spend some time learning the structure. If they learn structurally, I have to push them to listen and talk in situations where they won’t be able to think about the rules and just have to settle for understanding or communicating the gist of the conversation.
- Find what works for the student. It often takes me at least 20-30 hours to try different methods to figure out whether the student is an intuitive or a structural learner and then to find a way that the student can learn that feels comfortable and effective. One method will invariably work well for a while and become less useful over time.
This is why I love using videos to teach. I can try out different ideas and approaches quickly. If a student feels uncomfortable with one way, I can easily try another approach. Usually, the way that works actually is an amalgam of several ways.
Videos also allow me to:
- Show students several different ways to look at a topic. I generally find that students get something out of each video and that sometimes it just takes listening to the same thing told differently by several people to truly begin understanding a concept.
- Train students to listen to different regional accents and learn regional idioms and expressions.
One of my biggest surprises is that students do not really know whether they learn intuitively or structurally. Many students who groan whenever I teach grammar and structure secretly love the sense of mastery and the black-and-white nature of grammar exercises. Many students who like structure often learn over time that they enjoy just going with the flow of the conversations without worrying about grammar.
Whenever I have students who learn intuitively, they resist learning grammar even though it is sometimes necessary. They also don’t like learning things they don’t see as immediately useful. Yet, you can’t go very far without some grammar and don’t know if what you’re learning will be useful often until years later.
Students who learn structurally do not like to learn songs, watch TV shows, or converse because they are uncomfortable not understanding everything. Yet, you can’t learn a language unless you have to talk and listen to it used in real-life situations.