How I Learned More Than A Dozen Languages

09/08/2016 07:44 EDT | Updated 09/08/2016 07:44 EDT
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People often ask me how I learned 15 languages. What's my secret? I will share what works for me in the hope that you can use these tips to help you reach your language learning goals.

1. Spend the time


When I study a language, I spend at least an hour a day with that language. But when I say study, I don't mean sit in a classroom, answer questions or drills or review grammar rules or lists of words. What I mean is spend time with the language, listen to the language, read things written in the language or listen to songs sung in the language, even watch movies. If you have friends who speak the language, spend time with them, even if most of the time you're just listening because you don't speak well enough to say very much.

The classroom can be very important as a place for you to meet with your friends and find stimulus, but in the classroom you're listening to the teacher or to your classmates half the time. What matters is how much time do you spend away from the classroom with the language.

2. Do what you like to do


If you don't enjoy studying the language, you won't put in the time, so it's important that you do the things you like doing.

What I like doing - and what has proved extremely effective for me - is listening and reading. When you are listening and reading, you are relying entirely on your imagination to convert words into meaning.

When I start out with a language I will quite often listen to a short piece of content until I understand 50-70%, then I'll move on to the next thing. I always want to read whatever I listen to and I want to listen to whatever I read, certainly in the beginning. I listen to things that I like: I like the voice and I'm interested in the topic.

3. Learn to notice


This is extremely important. The ability to notice is probably the most significant difference between people who are good at language learning and people who are not good at language learning. So how do you develop the ability to notice? There are a number of things you can do.

First of all, you need to make sure you get a lot of exposure to the language through listening, reading or, if you prefer, watching videos. You can't notice something until you've actually consciously and subconsciously experienced it at some level. So you need to first absorb a lot of the language.

Next you have to hone your ability to notice. If I'm reading, I'll often underline certain expressions or words. If I'm reading online I will save words and phrases to my personal database. Just the act of saving them helps me to notice. When I review these words as flashcards that again helps me notice. Some words I'll remember, some I won't, but it all slowly builds up this ability to notice.

4. Words over grammar


Vocabulary is much more important than grammar. In fact, if you learn words and phrases naturally through lots of listening and reading, the grammar will eventually fall into place. Nothing prevents you from occasionally reviewing grammar rules in a small grammar book. It's probably a good thing to do. I do it, but my major emphasis is accumulating words.

Even if you memorize the rules of grammar, which can be very difficult to do without a sufficient amount of input, without enough of a vocabulary to follow a conversation or express your ideas, you would not be able to say very much. On the other hand, if you have a large vocabulary you will be surprised at how much you can say, especially if you've seen these words in different contexts. You'll notice how easily you start to speak, more often than not with the words in the correct order and in the correct form.

5. Be patient


I see many frustrated language learners who get upset because they forget words or don't understand. Even after listening many, many times to the same content, certain parts remain difficult to understand. This is absolutely normal. What's more, you will continue to have times when you find it difficult to say what you want to say.

It's important to realize that the brain is constantly learning. It will constantly learn, change and renew itself. However, it does so on its own schedule. Just because you've studied something doesn't mean you're going to learn it. You have to accept that it's not going to happen overnight. It may take six months for certain things to sink in, but all of a sudden they do. Almost without realizing it (and I've had this feeling), I'll go back to a text that I struggled with months earlier and all of a sudden it's crystal clear to me.

6. Get the tools


Any job is easier if you have the proper tools. In order to learn languages effectively, first and foremost you need to have a good listening device. I use my iPhone when I'm out and about and my iPad at home. Also, I think you should buy some language books. A book will last you a long time and it's not a big investment, whereas language learning is a major investment of your time. I suggest beginner learners in particular buy a beginner book in their target language. While my main interest is listening and reading to dialogue, I also flip through these kinds of books for some of the explanations, never expecting to remember them but as sort of a gradual refresher that helps me notice.

7. Become an independent language learner


It's maybe the most difficult thing to achieve: taking charge of your own language learning.I believe that only independent language learners are successful and convert themselves into fluent speakers of another language.

There are millions of people who go to language class and most of them don't achieve success. The only way to truly succeed is to take your learning out of the classroom and spend time alone with the language.

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