I got the question again yesterday, “How long will it take me to learn German?” The language matters little of course, but the question is always the same and reflects I suppose the heart of the “everyday language learner”. We want to learn it fast, get it over with and get on with our lives. Learning another language for many is a means to an end and little more. We want or need to talk with people in their language.
I define the ‘everyday language learner’ this way:
- an ordinary, regular person who is learning another language
- someone who may not have a special love or excitement for learning another language but who wants or needs to learn it none the less
This of course contrasts sharply with polyglots learning an assortment of languages one after the other. There seems a certain glee that is seen in their quest to master as many languages as they can. They are not learning languages because they have to, but rather because they love everything about learning languages and can’t get enough.
I am definitely an everyday kind of language learner. You may be too. I learn languages when I need to learn them – like when I moved to Mexico or when I moved to Turkey. What I love is not some much the languages as it is the role I get to play as teacher and encourager and coach to language learners. I love sharing the things I’ve learned on the journey with others who are just getting started.
But what I don’t like then is to see the process of learning another language made into more than it really is. Donovan Nagel posted an interesting video last week that has generated a bit of discussion in the comment section of his post, Word Play: Hyperpolyglots On 16X9 – The Bigger Picture. (watch the video before you wade into the comments)
The producers of the video were looking at those known as hyperpolyglots – those folks among us that have studied and learned to a high degree of proficiency in as many six or eight or more languages.
The tone of the video is that folks who speak more than one language are somehow gifted above and beyond the rest of us. It’s sort of left me feeling like there were those who had an exceptional ability and there were the rest of us.
And this is unfortunate.
Certainly some do have a special gift for language. Certainly some are inclined to more quickly remember vocabulary and comprehend new grammar structures. But no one is incapable of learning another language.
I hear that one all the time too:
Oh, I’m not good at languages.
I could never learn another language.
I just don’t have a gift for languages.
One of the problems people with this attitude have run into (among others) is the myth of fast fluency.
The idea is that there is some sort of silver bullet (a special ability could suffice) that leads to fluency in a matter of months.
We want it to be easy. We want it fast. We want the purple pill of fluency.
I saw it on display yesterday as I walked through the streets of Istanbul to meet a friend: Learn English in 48 Days! read the language school sign.
The problem with this of course is that we think of achieving fluency in terms of months and years yet we learn languages in minutes and hours. There is no way aroud this.
The Word Play video begins with a look at Axel Van Haute’s language routine:
- Work eight hours everyday at a translation firm where he is required to speak and read many different languages.
- Go home and spend up to eight hours studying as many as sixteen languages.
- Go to bed, wake up and repeat.
That sounds like how I learned Turkish! Oh, wait, that must be someone else.
In the comment section of Donovan’s post, Rick Henry touched on a very important point that I want to talk about here:
- You need comprehensible input (read about comprehensible input)
- You need a chance to practice
- You need time (minutes and hours as opposed to months)
The difference between the everyday language learner and the polyglot then lies mostly in this third ingredient – time. (more on “mostly” in a minute) They quite simply put in more time than the rest of us. That is the main difference.
So when I watch Richard Simcott give his six month update on Turkish (and realize he is quickly approaching what I’ve accomplished in four years) I don’t jump to the conclusion that he has a special gene that allows him to learn faster than me. I assume rather that he has put in more dedicated time than I did in my first six months.
And when I watch Benny speaking at what seems a fairly passable level of Mandrin Chinese after just three months, I don’t think it is because he is somehow gifted or better than me. I think he has put in more time.
So I don’t really believe there is any such thing as fast fluency. There is just putting in the time – one minute at a time.
You will notice that I said mostly above – it is “mostly” about time. I’d be kidding myself is that was the full story. It’s not of course. There are other factors at play that explain why polyglots seem to learn languages faster than the rest of us, but even in these we can learn and improve our own learning journey.
The first factor is that most polyglots love learning languages. We all do a lot of the things we love. If you are a gamer, you spend as much time as you can playing video games. If you are a Manchester United fanatic, that is where your time will be spent. We all have our hobbies and passions and spend our time accordingly.
For one reason or another, they fell in love with learning languages and what knowing other languages could do for them. So where the everyday language learner has to make a choice to put in the time, these guys and gals have to chose to to take a break from it. (These are all broad generalizations of course)
The second factor is that they have learned how to learn. They have learned what works and what doesn’t work. They understand their learning style. They have created systems that help them get more comprehensible input and waste less time. If you are working to master your first language you are quite often working through trial and error trying to find out what works best for you. By the time we figure out what works best, most of us will have already achieved a high enough level of proficiency to not worry about it any more.
I am sure there are other factors as well that could be discussed or debated – personality, the affects of bilingualism on the brain, and even genetic factors.
The goal here is not to write about why polyglots learn faster than the rest of us (in terms of months and years) but to learn from them. And putting in the time seems to be one of the biggest lessons we need to learn.
This is good news!
Time seems the only common denominators between all of polyglots that I know and have read about. Some study grammar. Some dive into speaking right away. Some read novels. Some watch loads of movies. Some take classes. But they all put in a lot of time. And we can too!
Is there such a thing as fast fluency?
Not really. There is just putting in the time. And that is something we can all improve upon.
A Word About Polyglots
I am not a polyglot. Perhaps I will be one day, but I am not now. To me, being a polyglot is as much a mindset and attitude as it is an actual description of what one can do with the language. I run, but I am reticent to call myself a runner.
Most of the polyglots that I have read about or follow are true inspirations. Language learners are extremely lucky in this regard. Imagine if Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney had a blog and a Youtube channel where they regularly taught about all the tricks and training they do to be world class footballers. That is what we have.
Most of the polyglots I see online are genuinely interested in helping others develop a passion for language learning. They are approachable, humble and inspiring. They are generous and helpful. For this we can all be thankful and we can all benefit.
I know I’ll miss a few, but here are some of my favorite blogs and Youtube channels. I’d encourage you to take a look and to learn from them. Watch their videos too and be inspired. We may not all aspire to become polyglots, but we can all become better language learners.
You can find loads more great blogs at The Top Language Lovers competion. I’d love your vote, but there are 100 great blogs on the list to explore and learn from.
Ready to get serious about learning another language?
"Aaron consistenly pumps out top quality language learning advice and motivational posts,
and is probably one of the best sources of encouragement you'll come across."
-Donovan Nagel, The Mezzofanti Guild