Language Learning: The Journey of a Polyglot
Final Project - WRTC 103
We live in a very interconnected world with so many languages being used for so many different reasons. Language is the most used and emphasized tool that we have for communication between one another, and the numerous things we can do and accomplish with language are incredible. It is estimated that around half of the world’s population can speak another language, while some others even estimate that this statistic could be as high as 65 percent (Grosjean).Throughout the world there is even a great number of polyglots, individuals who are able to use several different languages. In any area of life in which you find yourself, the ability to speak another language gives you a better understanding of life, of others, of different situations, and of yourself. Understanding another language or multiple other languages gives you a very unique and interesting perspective of life and of the world, and the experience of this specific perspective is truly indispensable in the most positive way. This experience is not limited to certain individuals with certain capacities, rather it is an experience waiting for any individual who seeks it.
It is very possible that you have experienced a struggle to learn a different language in a classroom setting or in some other environment in the past. These struggles may have led you to believe that you do not have the “innate ability” to learn a new language or to overcome a current struggle that you may have in your language learning journey. To say so in the simplest way, this is wrong. Benny Lewis discusses this extensively in his TEDx Talk from 2013 in San Antonio. He explains the extremely long list of presumptions regarding his old belief that he did not have the “language learning gene” and all of his other experiences which led him to believe that learning another language was not going to be possible for him. But, in a last-ditch effort, Lewis realized that he needed to take a new approach using one key strategy: actually speaking the language! From there, his abilities soared and he began his incredible language-learning journey. His progressions can be observed in a video he posted in 2010, as he has continued to apply this method to become a world-renowned hyper-polyglot. In 2014, he wrote an entire novel about all of the “hacks” he has discovered, which is called Fluent in 3 Months.
Why do people so often shy away from learning another language? The reasons for this are endless. But, the real question we must be asking is whether or not these reasons are actually real. What are the things that people like to say are their immensely daunting obstacles to learning a new language? Is it their age? Their time? Their lack of the “language learning gene”?
Frankly, when examining all of these “obstacles” that person after person says he or she cannot overcome, they simply do not exist. In his book, Fluent in 3 Months, Benny Lewis discusses many of these common language learning myths. Similarly to what he explained in his previously linked TEDx Talk, he reveals that the language learning gene does not exist by explaining that most of the world’s population is not monolingual. The entire populations of some nations are bilingual if not multilingual, like the populations of Switzerland and Luxembourg. And if you are an American, someone in your family tree most likely spoke another language on their journey to America (23 & 24). In the rest of his chapter, Lewis discusses 19 other common language learning myths and the reality of each. In their TEDx Talk (http://www.tubechop.com/watch/7882264), Scott Young and Vat Jaiswal discuss some of these myths as well.
Although Lewis discusses each of these myths separately, he summarizes the basis for all of these myths and how they can be overcome into one main point and theme: passion. He discusses how important it is to allow your passion to push you past these aforementioned obstacles and problems that lay before you. Passion will then push you to gain momentum in your language learning journey, as you will have the strength, confidence, and desire needed to overcome any obstacle, allowing you to have all of the tools to become fluent or beyond in any language you set out to learn and use (46 & 47).
Once you get past all of the phantom difficulties, the fun of your language learning adventure truly begins. Using your passion for your target language as fuel, every moment of your learning experience will be one that allows you to grow into a better person and a better user of that language. One question then remains: Where do I go from here?
There are so many different ways to learn languages. You can learn it in school. You can buy a Rosetta Stone package. You can try to travel to a country and “naturally” learn it. Nevertheless, the options are endless. But, what are the best, most efficient, and most enjoyable ways?
Benny Lewis discusses this extensively in his novel as well, highlighting many different aspects of learning a language and the best ways to master/become proficient in each. For vocabulary, he does not suggest rote memorization, which is the flashcard method that is done in schools, rather he suggests a keyword method, which is learning vocabulary by visually imagining something that relates well to the word that you are trying to learn. For example, the word “gare” (pronounced gar) in French means a train station. To remember this word, Lewis imagined Garfield in a train station running frantically in an attempt to board the train on time. So, whenever he hears the word “gare” he immediately pictures Garfield in the train station (68-72). To learn full phrases, he suggests singing it over and over. If combined to a degree with the keyword method, it works even better. After singing it a couple of times, you will surely know the phrase by heart (80).
But, the most important piece of advice that he gives in his novel, and the big idea on which the entire book is focused, is to speak with other people from day one (107). Just being in a country for a period of time is not good enough to become fluent in a language. Lewis has met many individuals who have lived in countries for months, even years, who have not been able to learn the local language nor speak it efficiently. He has shared this experience with them, as he could only speak Spanish with minimal efficiency after living in Spain for six months (88 & 89). The more important thing, rather, is that you do your absolute best to try to not speak your native language, where the focus is on “creating an immersion environment, exposing yourself to native speakers, and doing everything you can in that language” (92 & 93). This concept is further described very well in Scott Young and Vat Jaiswal’s TEDx Talk (http://www.tubechop.com/watch/7898441). Also, in his TEDx Talk on language acquisition, Sid Efromovich discusses his 5 key tips to language learning: making mistakes, scrapping the foreign alphabet for a collection of sounds, finding a stickler to point out your mistakes to help you improve, having “shower conversations” with yourself on both ends in different scenarios, and finding another person at the same level to speak with to get better.
Prior to reading Lewis’s novel, my language learning journey never took off to become incredibly enjoyable. Sure, I coasted through, got decent grades, and was praised for my so called “talents”, but I was never truly successful. When I went to Costa Rica for two weeks in my junior year of high school, I got involved with the locals to an extent, but I never truly dove into the experience to really improve my Spanish and my knowledge of the culture. After reading Lewis’s work in my senior year of high school, everything changed. I suddenly became much more interested in the fascinating adventure that was to come and I felt ready to jump in and actually get started. I immersed myself in the Spanish language and culture, and it paid dividends. I started to speak more, I began to change the way in which I learn vocabulary, and I became much more creative while using the language to convey my thoughts, opinions, and beliefs. I started listening to more Spanish music, I took a greater interest in reading more Spanish stories and poems to find and appreciate their greater cultural contexts, I began to watch soccer and other television in Spanish, and I also started to think and speak to myself in Spanish. Although I cannot constantly live my life through the language every hour of the day, the growth I have undergone has been exponential and undeniable. Spanish has become a very important aspect of my life since I revitalized my ways of language learning and I would not change anything about this incredible change and improvement that I made. I am on the edge of my seat waiting to see what is to come. In this video, you can watch and listen to me talk about my language learning experience in Spanish.
These changes have also inspired me to take on a new challenge of learning a third language, Catalan. Catalan is not a well-known nor widely spoken language, as it is only spoken on the northeastern coast of Spain (a region known as Catalonia) and in the Mallorca Islands. This has made learning the language much more difficult, since resources, handbooks, guides, and other people who speak the language are not as prevalent. Although I have acknowledged its great difficulty, I am very eager to start and immerse myself in this incredible challenge. As you can see in the video, which is an example of a short “shower conversation” I have had with myself, I have progressed decently so far and I hope to improve much more. For three and a half weeks this summer, I will be in Barcelona to study Spanish culture and the effects of the Spanish Civil War. While there, I will have plenty of opportunities to practice Catalan, to speak with locals, and to immerse myself in the language to improve my language skills. I will also have opportunities to do the same in Spanish. I highly look forward to both of these language experiences, and I hope to get the most out of them by using the same tips, tricks, and methods I have previously described and have used while learning Spanish.
Language is one of the most powerful tools that we have as humans. Our means of communication through language leaves infinite possibilities for our increase in knowledge and deeper understanding. This quote below from Nelson Mandela truly encapsulates this theme of what language can do.
Language gives us the ability to understand each other at every level. Being able to speak and communicate in another language opens up another world for exploration. As said by Federico Fellini: “A different language is a different vision of life.” And this is definitely true. In the video below, you will see Benny Lewis and his friend and fellow hyper-polyglot, Moses McCormick, speak multiple different languages in a mall in Columbus, Ohio.
As you can see, many of the individuals are surprised when they hear them speaking their native language to them, but they then elicit a great reaction of joy, happiness, and comfort. Using language, you can see into who someone truly is at heart on a micro-level and you can also see into the greater culture that they come from and the values that their culture has deeply rooted within them. These deeper connections open up doors, opportunities, and even the individuals themselves. Each experience is unique, and your own incredible experiences await, should you choose to accept such a new and intriguing challenge that will surely pay off plentifully.
Benny Lewis. “Benny the Irish polyglot speaking 8 languages (2010 version).” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 16 May 2010. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
Benny Lewis. “TEDxSanAntonio - Benny Lewis - Fluent in Three Months - Rapid Language Hacking.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 28 Jan. 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
Benny Lewis. “Two polyglots speak a dozen languages in a mall in Ohio: Benny and Moses level up!” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 23 July 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
Grosjean, Francois. “How many are we?: On the difficulty of counting people who are bilingual.” Psychology Today. Psychology Today. 19 Sept. 2012. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
Lewis, Benny. Fluent in 3 Months. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014. Print.
TEDx Talks. “One Simple Method to Learn Any Language | Scott Young & Vat Jaiswal | TEDxEastsidePrep.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 24 Apr. 2015. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
TEDx Talks. “5 techniques to speak any language | Sid Efromovich | TEDxUpperEastSide.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 30 Aug. 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.