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Ask Siggi: Polyglot's Secret to Learning Languages

August 2, 2017

There are plenty of language learning myths that circulate around the internet....

Myth: You have to be really smart to learn a second language. You have to be a genius to know more than 2.

Myth: Multilingual people are extraordinarily intelligent

Myth: "Normal" people can't learn multiple languages

Myth: There is a secret formula that polyglots use to learn languages. If I find out what it is, I can learn them really fast too.

| Voyaging Viking | A Polyglot's Secret to Learning Multiple Languages

I have been asked countless times how I can learn languages the way I do. I must have something special or know something you don't know, right? There's no way normal people could get a skill like this, right? 

Well, it would be cool if I was that special or that smart. I would love to gush and tell you how much of a genius I am and that you are so lucky to have found my website but, well, that would be a big fat lie. Sure, I can stroke my ego or let my mom tell me how smart I am but really, I'm not that much different than anyone else.

A lot of language learning blogs or products will say they found the language learning "secret" and now you can learn 100 languages right now! A lot of them will say "this secret makes learning languages so easy" or how you can't learn a language without having the knowledge they have. A lot of times, they will want you to opt-in to receive this "secret". You have to put in your email address, sign up for a class, buy a book, join this community...

I mean, we've all seen this, right? And honestly, I've looked at a few of these. That is totally okay! 

But realize that there is no magic formula that will make you a multilingual person.

You can't buy this book and guarantee to learn a language in a month or a week or whatever. You can't listen to this one guy's tips for learning a language and expect that you will be able to learn 6 unhindered. Unfortunately, it doesn't work this way.

No doubt, many of these people are offering valuable tips and lessons. I'm not trying to say they don't know what they are talking about but you can't tell people "this is THE SECRET to learning languages!" or "the BEST WAY to become fluent is THIS ONE WAY FOR EVERYONE!" I wish it was that easy. I'd probably know 100 languages and be a millionaire.

While there is no universal secret, polyglots and avid language learners have several things in common. We:

-Are committed to learning a language.

-Are willing to put aside time and exert the effort.

-Are passionate about learning languages.

-Found a method that works for us and we stick to it.

-Don't give up (at least not for long!).

Learning a language is hard. It takes effort. Polyglots don't necessarily find learning languages easy or simple-they just know what works for them. They still have to put in all the effort that you do. I wish I was a language super hero but alas, I am not.

What can you do to learn languages like a polyglot? 

This is hard for pretty much everyone. It is hard to continue to be passionate about learning something where you won't see the results for a long time. You may not understand everything you're doing and you may not see progress. You must keep going!

Make mistakes. All of them. All the time.

Making mistakes is terrifying. I hate it. It can be embarrassing (boy I have some stories for you guys!). But it is a part of life. Become comfortable with the fact that you will mess up. That is how you learn. If you make a mistake and someone corrects you, trust me, you'll remember it better than if you read it in a book.

Practice everyday.

This doesn't mean you have to attend a 4 hour class everyday or read your textbook cover to cover every evening but do something in your target language each day. It can be simple, like doing a round on Duolingo or Memrise, use your flashcards. And a couple times a week, have more in depth lessons. Keep your target language at the forefront of your mind.

Listen to your target language endlessly.

Podcasts, videos, news updates, TV shows, radio, songs, anything! There are so many resources for you to listen to your target language. Hearing the sounds of the language will make it easier for you to speak, pronounce, and pick up.

Create a schedule and stick to it.

It's easy to get behind on your language learning if you don't have a schedule or goals to keep track of. Make some goals. Make a realistic schedule. Track your progress and reap the rewards.

learn a new language

How do I learn languages? 

I can give you my secret to learning languages but realize that it may be different for everyone! Let me break it up into levels.

Learning A1 Level: Don't touch the grammar

Tools: Flashcards, Duolingo, Memrise, Quizlet, good ol' fashioned writing and speaking

Don't use any books to teach you the grammar or spelling rules. Do not use any language learning textbooks.

You can't learn a language by studying grammar rules.

Learn the most common, polite phrases and basic sentences and be able to recall these from memory and spell them.

You will use these the most, especially when you first start using the language.

Learn these phrases and words only by using them, not by memorizing grammar rules or structure.

Do not memorize the grammar.

Learn by speaking and listening.

Learn by usage.

Learning A2 Level: Probably still don't touch the grammar

Tools: Flashcards, Duolingo, Memrise, Quizlet, practice writing and speaking, children's songs, books or articles

Learn by speaking.

Talk to yourself. Ask yourself questions. Answer questions. Pronounce things that are hard

Learn by listening.

Listen to native speakers. Go on YouTube and look up basic phrases of your target language and get a feel for what they sound like. Listen to children's music. You will slowly pick up more and more words.

Learn phrases and words together, not as chunks of grammatical fluff.

Again-you can't learn a language by memorizing grammar.

Read any books or articles.

This will be hard at first but as you increase your vocabulary it will get easier.

Learning B1 Level: Okay, you can look at some grammar now

Tools: Language learning textbook, Memrise, Duolingo, WordBrewery, Quizlet, Music, Podcasts, books and articles

Read up on the basic rules and grammar of the language.

You've already learned quite a bit. Figure out why it looks the way it looks. Figure out the patterns and the rules with real examples. It will help you remember and apply it to future phrases and terms. Relearn your phrases and sentences that you've already studied and apply the rules where you can see them.

Listen to your target language.

Your vocabulary and understanding of grammar is increasing. Listen to different music in your target language, learn to sing along with some of your favorite songs. Listen to a language learning Podcast. Listen to a radio station in your language. Watch videos or shows in your language on YouTube. Pick up what you can, take note of what you don't understand. Rewatch and relisten.

Learn your vocabulary in context.

Use websites like WordBrewery and LingQ so that you can see how words are used and remember their translation or definition this way.You will learn sentences and increase your vocabulary.

Never stop talking to yourself.

Okay you might look nuts. But that's will be cool because it is in a new language! 

Learning B2 Level: Kick it into gear

Tools: Language learning textbook, Memrise, Duolingo, WordBrewery, Quizlet, Music, Podcasts, books and articles, TV shows, News, immersion days, access to speakers of your target language

Continue what you started in B1.

These are great tools to learn and practice what you've learned. Continue these and build upon these skills.Learn more about grammar and come up with some real examples to show these rules. Don't memorize the rules, remember the sentences.

Incorporate Immersion Days.

Days or large chunks of days where you can commit to only using your target language.

Read articles and listen to the news.

You may not understand. These typically have words we aren't used to or advanced terms and phrases. Read what you can. Re-read and re-watch as much as you need to.

Find other speakers.

Maybe it's a club or a class. Maybe there is a church that offers services in your target language. Find a language exchange on Skype. There are plenty of ways to find a speaker but you need to start talking.

Learning C1 & C2: Talk, listen, talk, listen

These levels are hard to achieve on your own.

Keep speaking your target language with other speakers.

Practice talking and listening.

Read and listen to the news regularly.

This can be tough as they don't dumb down any words. Take advantage of that.

Read books.

Very hard. Very worth it.

Continue your other practicing methods and listening methods. This will keep it fresh.

The most effective way to learn a language is not the American way by memorizing grammar rules and then learning phrases. Learn the language by reading, speaking, listening. Learn the language by learning another subject through the language.

There are no secrets to language learning. There are no tricks that will enable you to learn a foreign language quickly. It is dedication.

Read: Books, articles, children's books, websites, Wikipedia

Listen: Music, radio, podcasts, conversation recordings

Watch: TV, news, movies

Speak: Sing the songs, talk to yourself, talk to anyone

This is what works for me. I replicate this process with every language I have the urge to study.

This may not work for you! But the goal is to find a program or schedule that works for you and stick to it. Everyone learns different. It will take some trial and error but you can get there, I promise.

Want more on language learning? 

Language Learning Tips

Why I Study 4 Languages and You Should Too

10 Myths that Hinder Your Language Learning Goals

Siggi Einarson

My name is Siggi-dubbed by my American friends because of the Icelandic yogurt-I am a writer, polyglot, and aspiring expat, not a cup of yogurt (unfortunately).

My love for travelling began with a trip to Iceland and Sweden to visit my family when I was just 15 years old. I spent so long dreaming of the possibilities of life abroad but I always figured these dreams were too far reached. Flash forward almost 10 years, here I am again, both cursing and thanking this damn travel bug.

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