Let’s get clear on one thing first.
Are you learning a new language to fulfill an academic obligation? Do you learn languages for the convenience of traveling? Do you learn languages to impress others? Do you see learning a language as a game? Do you learn a language because of your origins or because you’re from a multicultural family? Or because of that cute exchange student who just joined your school?
Whatever reason you may have, it is important to identify your motives for learning the language before you proceed, because different goals demand different strategies. For example, if one of your objectives is to impress someone, you’d better learn the language of humor as well.
Some other common reasons for learning languages are:
- You won’t have to read the subtitles when you’re watching foreign movies.
- You will supposedly increase the number of brain cells you have.
- You will impress your date at a fancy restaurant by ordering dishes like “Boeuf Bourguignon” with the perfect pronunciation.
- You can drop names like “Ibsen”, “Confucius”, “Nietzsche”, “Camus”, “Cicero”, “Dostoevsky”, and “Cervantes” at cocktail parties after having read them, in the original.
- You will know what words like “deja vu”, “Perestroika”, “Tiananmen”, “smorgasbord”, “Zeitgeist”, and “macho” really
- You can appreciate foreign music, art forms and the opera better.
- You can get on track early with foreign language classes to prepare for study or internships abroad for a year, a semester, or a summer.
- When you travel or study abroad you will be able to speak to people in their language, which gives you a more enriching overseas experience.
- You will understand the English language and American culture better through exposure to another language and culture.
- You will acquire a highly marketable skill and thus get a job that will make your friends jealous and your parents relieved.
- You will become a better-rounded world citizen.
There are other concrete benefits you could gain from knowing more languages. You could become a language tutor, a translator, a tour guide or even an international undercover agent. The possibilities are endless.
When you’re done setting your goals, I want you to write them down.
There is a world of difference between mumbling to yourself and putting your words down in black and white. When you write your goals down, you are making a commitment. Now say them out loud to yourself. (If there are other people around and you are not comfortable doing it now, make sure you do that later when you’re alone.)
The most frequent question asked when someone starts learning a new language is, which language should I learn (first)?”
The assumption behind this question is usually that learning any language is an endlessly tiring task. For many, it’s a lot like asking “Which mountain should I climb first? The Everest or the Kilimanjaro?”
But what if I told you that you can master any language you set out to learn within 6 to 12 months? Would the choice of languages still be a problem?
You may be working on one or even several languages already, then it’s good that you know which languages you want to master. But if you don’t, you might be tempted to ask questions like “which is the easiest language?”, and “which language is the most useful?”, “which one should I start off learning?”
Some might tell you “of course it depends on what your goal is”. But I’m sure that’s not the answer you’d like to hear.
If you have asked those questions, I’d imagine that you don’t have a particular desire for a specific language but just want some general advice. Or you just want to be able to pick up any language as fast as you can.
What if I tell you the difference between them is negligible once you apply the techniques in this book? What if learning any language is just as easy as learning another? Which one would you pick then?
If you still don’t have any idea, take a look at the bonus “Language Inspection”. If you can then decide on a main language to learn, good for you; otherwise, you can simply close your eyes and jab your finger onto the list.
First, you shouldn’t just listen to someone who’s had a good or bad experience with a certain language. Just because someone else can’t handle Chinese doesn’t mean you can’t. Everybody, based on their background and social experience, has different affinity and levels of exposure to different languages. By the way, did you know that Chinese is one of the easiest languages, as far as the quality of a language is concerned.
The reason why many people find learning Chinese such a traumatizing experience is because it is not like other alphabet-based languages. Asking a native English speaker to switch to a tonal language all of a sudden is indeed very demanding.
But for a new-born baby, speaking a tonal language with little grammar could be easier than speaking a precise alphabet- based language with a huge vocabulary and stringent grammar rules such as German.
So here is my advice:
Learn the basics of all the following languages, and then decide for yourself which of them you want to actively pursue. Here are my suggestions:
Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Russian, Spanish
Yes, I am suggesting you learn 6 languages at one time (after all, this is a guidebook for hyper-polyglots, isn’t it?).
I’ve read many language books where authors gave nice examples of some rare languages to illustrate their points. For me, I’d rather show you systematic techniques of picking up a complete web of languages, than to illustrate with random examples that don’t give you the complete picture. Once you have mastered the learning skills of 3-4 language families, the rest is just a matter of time and patience.
I have read many books on language skills, but they all offer little actual language knowledge. They never go beyond examples that only serve to explain theories (and do a poor job of it too). This book will not be the same. It will not only show you exactly how to apply the skills and the languages themselves, but also the complete system or web of those languages.
In other words, this book deals with not only mere theoretical knowledge, but also how to actually apply those languages in real life.
If you would like to find out more about most languages and choose the one you are most interested in, refer to Appendix 1 for a comprehensive list of languages and their characteristics.
Now, the next question is: Why these languages?
Well, firstly, on a more practical note, it’ll be impossible to cram in details about all the languages out there in this book. Secondly, those are the most useful languages in the world. Here is my definition of useful:
- It must have a large population of speakers.
- It must be widely used.
- You would actually want to use the language/travel to that country (high probability of coming in handy).
- People don’t really speak English in that country.
Therefore, I don’t plan to teach you languages that have less than 50000 speakers, a language that is not frequently spoken outside the country of origin, such as Bengali, any African languages (very few of you will actually travel to Africa and speak the local language), Finnish or Swedish, etc. (people there will invariable switch to English when conversing with foreigners – I know this sounds a bit extreme, but most of them subconsciously believe it’ll save both parties the trouble of conversing in a different language other than English).
In fact, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish are the 6 official languages of the United Nations. If you are reading this book, I assume your command of English is already beyond “basic”. As for German, let’s face it, 25% of the European population speak it; it is the 2nd most popular internet language. The reason it is not listed in one of the top six is highly political.
I choose these languages also because of their variety. In other words, once you get a taste of the different families of languages you will be more-informed and better equipped when it comes to choosing languages to learn in depth.
As you were reading the paragraphs above, it might have dawned upon you that all along you’ve never really had a clear idea of what exactly you wanted out of learning a language.
Do you want merely conversational skills? Or do you want to learn enough of the language to be able to watch a movie in that language? Or maybe read a book? How exactly do you measure your fluency in that language and whether you have met your goals?
Although you might be constantly pleased and satisfied with the small steps of progress you are making, it is important to know what you want, so that your language learning endeavors will not be in vain.
Now, you have to set very specific, measurable, and realistic language goals to achieve.
How specific? Should you set a goal such as “being able to translate 392 words by the 27th of this month?” That would be a bit too specific. You should, instead, set a specific proficiency level as well as when you want to achieve it.
You may set goals like “being able to understand the editorials of a major newspaper in the target language without a dictionary”, “listen to the radio in the target language and understand what’s going on”, “strike up a conversation with a native speaker in the target language and sustain it for at least 10 minutes so you can converse beyond the customary greeting”, or “pass an upcoming language proficiency test”…
To set an appropriate deadline for your goals, you need to make them achievable yet tight enough so that you’ll follow them. I would suggest a timeframe anywhere between 1 to 4 months for “long term goals” and 1-2 weeks for “specific tasks”. Of course, the timeframe also depends on how much energy you can afford to devote each week. Students will have a shorter time frame than full time professionals.
Finally, make a master plan for the next two years, include the specific language abilities (more on this later) you want to gain and the language tests you want to pass, if any.
It is also very important that you set incremental goals. That means if you just started learning German you shouldn’t aim to obtain a C2 (native) level in 3 months (when I learned German, it took me 4 years, but I guarantee that if you follow my advice properly you can cut out at least half of that time).
Slowly give yourself intermediate targets. This will have two effects on you. Firstly, as you hit each target, you get many confidence boosts and the motivation to continue. Secondly, and more importantly, these targets are your milestones on the way to your grand goal – truly mastering the language.
Here comes the most crucial part of goal-setting…
It must be a stretch goal.
A stretch goal is one that seems too hard to achieve in your current capacity. It’s the best you can possibly do; Stretch goals are not unrealistic goals. An unrealistic goal is to shoot the moon, miss it, and crash back to earth.
Stretching yourself and being realistic are not contradictory. Let me give you an example by asking you a question first.
How high can you jump?
1 meter? 1.5 meters? If you can jump 1.3 meters high already, setting a goal of 1.35 meter is probably not quite motivating. It’s not a stretch goal. But looking at a 1.8 wall and deciding to practice till you can jump over would be a stretch goal.
But wait. What if I asked “how do you jump over 5 meters?”
Unrealistic, you say. The current word record is 2.45 meters.
Well, I never said you can’t use helpful tools. Remember what I said earlier? Different goals demand different strategies.
I asked my students the same question and I received answers ranging from using a pole to jumping from a helicopter. Try not to get carried away, as most of us have limits on our resources and on a more practical level, you’ll need to make sure you get good returns on your investment. For example, using a space shuttle probably not a very a good idea.
Did you just experience a mindset shift? Many of my students did.
Asking yourself a slightly different question will often result in a drastically different outcome
Do you ask yourself, “Why can’t I remember this word?” or do you ask yourself, “How can I remember this word so that I don’t forget it again?”
You become the questions you ask.
Also, it is important to find out what you have to do in order to achieve your goals.
Now that you have a clear idea about what you want to achieve and how much time and resources you are willing to devote, you’ll surprise yourself with your own progress when you start to learn a language while applying the techniques in this book.
You didn’t set your goals just for the heck of it. And you certainly didn’t set them for me because I asked you to. You set them only because you want to achieve them. Most importantly, you must believe that you can.
Before learning, it is important to picture yourself conversing, reading and being able to understand everything in your target language.
And feel it. Really feel it.
Take a break after reading this paragraph and visualize yourself speaking the foreign language with complete fluency. Notice the look on the face of the people you are speaking to. Notice your own posture, breathing pattern. Notice the look on your face and every little detail around you. Do it now. I am dead serious.
You know, this exercise is not going to work if you do not really do as I say. Really, I want you to close your eyes and picture everything that I just mentioned. Take a few minutes to do this.
Truth be told, many people underestimate the power of the mind. You have to harness this power and use it to your advantage.
Constantly carry out this imagination exercise throughout your language learning course. It serves as an excellent motivator and keeps you on track.
The most famous hyper-polyglot (a polyglot is someone who speaks many languages and a hyper- polyglot is, according to my understanding, a polyglot among polyglots) is said to be Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a 19th century Italian Cardinal, who was reputed to speak 72 languages.
Although the example of Mezzofanti still seems a bit extreme, I do want to point out that after you pick up your first foreign language, the subsequent ones become progressively easier.
For example, Spanish and Italian, German and Dutch are similar to each other. Knowledge of one of them would help you very much in the learning the other. The more languages you know, the more you know about how languages work in general and this works in your favor when you want to pick up more languages.
As you get more and more used to the differences and similarities between languages, be it grammar rules or intonations, becoming adept in a new language takes far less effort than before.
I usually tell my students that if they use the right language learning strategies and system, they can expect to become conversant in any language within 6 months, proficient in 1.5 years and master it in 3.
Now, here’s another problem. Many people hear from fellow languages learners about how difficult learning a new language is, and they start questioning their ability to learn that particular language.
This is a huge mistake.
Do you realize that all self-doubts are restrictions that we are sub-consciously placing on yourselves? We limit our abilities based on that of others and this prevents us from reaching our full potential.
“But my friend said that learning Chinese is very difficult as it is a tonal language and being English speakers, we would have much difficulty identifying the various tones.”
Do you really know for sure that learning Chinese would be very difficult? Have you even tried?
You might also be hesitant about picking up Chinese because you do not see a point in learning a language that is mostly spoken in a country thousands of miles away. Look at it from this point of view. The thought of learning Chinese must have entered your mind for some reason right? And give yourself a bit of credit. It just might be a pretty good reason.
The truth is, learning a new language is only as difficult as you think it is. If you are going to start learning a new language believing that it is difficult, every obstacle you encounter is going to be magnified to further feed your belief. But if you start off thinking that it is going to be easy, nothing is going to stand in your way of mastering the language.
So before you learn a new language, you have got to discredit all myths saying that language learning is difficult. You’ll also have to wipe out all the reasons that are lurking in your head saying that you shouldn’t learn the language. Once you’ve dealt with these doubts head on, you’ll have fully convinced yourself that you’re going to learn a new language.