The secrets of learning a new language | Lýdia Machová


I love learning foreign languages. In fact, I love it so much that I like
to learn a new language every two years, currently working on my eighth one. When people find that out about me,
they always ask me, “How do you do that? What’s your secret?” And to be honest, for many years,
my answer would be, “I don’t know. I simply
love learning languages.” But people were never
happy with that answer. They wanted to know why they are spending
years trying to learn even one language, never achieving fluency, and here I come, learning
one language after another. They wanted to know
the secret of polyglots, people who speak a lot of languages. And that made me wonder, too, how do actually other polyglots do it? What do we have in common? And what is it that enables us to learn languages
so much faster than other people? I decided to meet other people
like me and find that out. The best place to meet a lot of polyglots is an event where hundreds
of language lovers meet in one place
to practice their languages. There are several such polyglot events
organized all around the world, and so I decided to go there and ask polyglots
about the methods that they use. And so I met Benny from Ireland, who told me that his method
is to start speaking from day one. He learns a few phrases
from a travel phrasebook and goes to meet native speakers and starts having conversations
with them right away. He doesn’t mind making
even 200 mistakes a day, because that’s how he learns,
based on the feedback. And the best thing is, he doesn’t
even need to travel a lot today, because you can easily have
conversations with native speakers from the comfort of
your living room, using websites. I also met Lucas from Brazil who had a really interesting
method to learn Russian. He simply added a hundred random
Russian speakers on Skype as friends, and then he opened
a chat window with one of them and wrote “Hi” in Russian. And the person replied, “Hi, how are you?” Lucas copied this and put it
into a text window with another person, and the person replied,
“I’m fine, thank you, and how are you?” Lucas copied this
back to the first person, and in this way, he had two strangers
have a conversation with each other without knowing about it. (Laughter) And soon he would start typing himself, because he had so many
of these conversations that he figured out how
the Russian conversation usually starts. What an ingenious method, right? And then I met polyglots who always start
by imitating sounds of the language, and others who always learn the 500
most frequent words of the language, and yet others who always start
by reading about the grammar. If I asked a hundred different polyglots, I heard a hundred different
approaches to learning languages. Everybody seems to have a unique way
they learn a language, and yet we all come to the same result
of speaking several languages fluently. And as I was listening to these polyglots
telling me about their methods, it suddenly dawned on me: the one thing we all have in common is that we simply found ways to enjoy
the language-learning process. All of these polyglots
were talking about language learning as if it was great fun. You should have seen their faces when they were showing me
their colorful grammar charts and their carefully handmade flash cards, and their statistics
about learning vocabulary using apps, or even how they love to cook
based on recipes in a foreign language. All of them use different methods, but they always make sure
it’s something that they personally enjoy. I realized that this is actually
how I learn languages myself. When I was learning Spanish,
I was bored with the text in the textbook. I mean, who wants to read about Jose asking about the directions
to the train station. Right? I wanted to read “Harry Potter” instead, because that was
my favorite book as a child, and I have read it many times. So I got the Spanish translation
of “Harry Potter” and started reading, and sure enough, I didn’t understand
almost anything at the beginning, but I kept on reading
because I loved the book, and by the end of the book, I was able
to follow it almost without any problems. And the same thing happened
when I was learning German. I decided to watch “Friends,”
my favorite sitcom, in German, and again, at the beginning
it was all just gibberish. I didn’t know where one word finished
and another one started, but I kept on watching every day
because it’s “Friends.” I can watch it in any language.
I love it so much. And after the second or third season, seriously, the dialogue
started to make sense. I only realized this
after meeting other polyglots. We are no geniuses and we have no shortcut
to learning languages. We simply found ways
how to enjoy the process, how to turn language learning
from a boring school subject into a pleasant activity
which you don’t mind doing every day. If you don’t like writing
words down on paper, you can always type them in an app. If you don’t like listening
to boring textbook material, find interesting content on YouTube
or in podcasts for any language. If you’re a more introverted person and you can’t imagine speaking
to native speakers right away, you can apply the method of self-talk. You can talk to yourself
in the comfort of your room, describing your plans for the weekend,
how your day has been, or even take a random
picture from your phone and describe the picture
to your imaginary friend. This is how polyglots learn languages, and the best news is,
it’s available to anyone who is willing to take the learning
into their own hands. So meeting other polyglots
helped me realize that it is really crucial
to find enjoyment in the process of learning languages, but also that joy in itself is not enough. If you want to achieve fluency
in a foreign language, you’ll also need to apply
three more principles. First of all, you’ll need
effective methods. If you try to memorize a list of words
for a test tomorrow, the words will be stored
in your short-term memory and you’ll forget them after a few days. If you, however,
want to keep words long term, you need to revise them
in the course of a few days repeatedly using the so-called space repetition. You can use apps which are based
on this system such as Anki or Memrise, or you can write lists of word
in a notebook using the Goldlist method, which is also very popular
with many polyglots. If you’re not sure which methods are
effective and what is available out there, just check out polyglots’
YouTube channels and websites and get inspiration from them. If it works for them,
it will most probably work for you too. The third principle to follow is to create a system in your learning. We’re all very busy and no one
really has time to learn a language today. But we can create that time
if we just plan a bit ahead. Can you wake up 15 minutes earlier
than you normally do? That would be the perfect time
to revise some vocabulary. Can you listen to a podcast
on your way to work while driving? Well, that would be great
to get some listening experience. There are so many things we can do
without even planning that extra time, such as listening to podcasts
on our way to work or doing our household chores. The important thing is
to create a plan in the learning. “I will practice speaking
every Tuesday and Thursday with a friend for 20 minutes. I will listen to a YouTube video
while having breakfast.” If you create a system in your learning, you don’t need to find that extra time, because it will become
a part of your everyday life. And finally, if you want to learn
a language fluently, you need also a bit of patience. It’s not possible to learn
a language within two months, but it’s definitely possible to make
a visible improvement in two months, if you learn in small chunks every day
in a way that you enjoy. And there is nothing
that motivates us more than our own success. I vividly remember the moment when I understood the first joke
in German when watching “Friends.” I was so happy and motivated that I just kept on watching that day
two more episodes, and as I kept watching, I had more and more of those moments
of understanding, these little victories, and step by step, I got to a level
where I could use the language freely and fluently to express anything. This is a wonderful feeling. I can’t get enough of that feeling, and that’s why I learn
a language every two years. So this is the whole polyglot secret. Find effective methods
which you can use systematically over the period of some time
in a way which you enjoy, and this is how polyglots learn
languages within months, not years. Now, some of you may be thinking, “That’s all very nice
to enjoy language learning, but isn’t the real secret
that you polyglots are just super talented
and most of us aren’t?” Well, there’s one thing
I haven’t told you about Benny and Lucas. Benny had 11 years of Irish Gaelic
and five years of German at school. He couldn’t speak them
at all when graduating. Up to the age of 21, he thought
he didn’t have the language gene and he could not speak another language. Then he started to look
for his way of learning languages, which was speaking to native speakers
and getting feedback from them, and today Benny can easily
have a conversation in 10 languages. Lucas tried to learn English
at school for 10 years. He was one of the worst students in class. His friends even made fun of him and gave him a Russian textbook as a joke because they thought he would never
learn that language, or any language. And then Lucas started
to experiment with methods, looking for his own way to learn, for example, by having Skype chat
conversations with strangers. And after just 10 years, Lucas is able to speak
11 languages fluently. Does that sound like a miracle? Well, I see such miracles
every single day. As a language mentor, I help people learn
languages by themselves, and I see this every day. People struggle with language learning
for five, 10, even 20 years, and then they suddenly take
their learning into their own hands, start using materials which they enjoy,
more effective methods, or they start tracking their learning so that they can appreciate
their own progress, and that’s when suddenly they magically find the language talent
that they were missing all their lives. So if you’ve also tried
to learn a language and you gave up,
thinking it’s too difficult or you don’t have the language talent, give it another try. Maybe you’re also
just one enjoyable method away from learning that language fluently. Maybe you’re just one method away
from becoming a polyglot. Thank you. (Applause)

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