In the last eight years, I've invested serious time into learning 16 languages (so far; I'll be giving clues to the 17th one in the e-mail list throughout August, to be started in September. You can sign up to that on the top-right of the site if you think you'll be able to figure it out!), maintaining and improving about half of them actively at a fluent level and forgetting some of the others.
One thing has become clear and will be no surprise to most people; (with everything else being equal) it gets easier to learn the next language, the more you learn.
Perhaps there are neurological pathways being formed, but I have a completely different theory for what gives me and others the “polyglot edge“.
Apart from my normal advice for speaking a language, I think the following are the real reasons that I and other polyglots will learn faster than a monolingual would with his/her second language. As you can see, most of these are actually things that you can easily start applying yourself, without having to learn a bunch of other languages first.
When I first tried to speak Spanish and failed, there was a voice in my head telling me You're an idiot with not enough vocabulary – who could possibly want to listen to you talk?? People will laugh at your mistakes! and of course this prevented me from trying at all. “Maybe if I go back and study some more then I'll have enough to speak?” Repeat ad nausium.
Now when I try a language in my early weeks, I have done this so many times that I know the secret to super high confidence: think about nothing. Whatever I can say, I say it. Whatever I don't know, I accept it as the way things are for now. Despite these I still walk up to the person and say something.
Even though I'm learning slower than normal in this mission, last night I still went up to a group of seven Turks and held their attention for several minutes with my Turkish, and they were all very pleased with what I was saying (and impressed that I was saying it in such a short time). There are many things I could have told myself to lead to me not even bother trying, but I ignored all that and just went for it.
Confidence is a huge boost that experienced polyglots have. They have failed hundreds of times before and “somehow” survived!
Summary: To get this edge, fail fast and fail often. Speak with people regularly. When you see it's not that big a deal you'll start to gain the confidence to let you try it more regularly.
I'll do it great now because of I've got eight years of “proof” that the world definitely won't come to an end if I walk up to those strangers and hit them with what I've got, no matter how little it is. Do you really need several years to figure that out and realise it for yourself?
2. Common words
If switching between closely related languages, of course you've got a boost from knowing the words they share. When I saw ordinateur for the first time in French, I knew what it meant because I had learned ordenador in (Peninsular) Spanish.
That's great, but did you know that you can already do this to a very useful extent without having to learn an entire other language first?
If you are studying a Latin language for example (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese etc.) then realise that you have tens of thousands of words already before you even begin! In other languages you have words related to technology and brands.
Also, being well read in your own language helps a lot! I'm not actually well read (sorry! Only started reading actively recently when I finally ditched 15th century technology), however when I was applying to do a Masters in the states (long story) I had to sit the GRE exam. I failed the English mock exam, so I had to study a fat book of obscure/pompous English words, and then passed it. Learning these complex words I didn't know before actually helped me in my Latin languages, since their cognates came up frequently!
No language is closed off. For example, it turns out Turkish has borrowed over 4,000 words from French! This has been a great boost for me, and many of these are also recognisable to English speakers who haven't learned French. And when I learned Hungarian, I also managed to compile a list of many cognates I came across (linked to in my Why Hungarian is easy post). These cognates are there even though these languages are not even slightly related to English.
Summary: Among the first things I always do when I start a new language is to try hard to find a list of cognates (full or partial) that I can study. Depending on your language, try and Google to see if you can find a list and you may be surprised that you already have loads without needing to know a closely related language! Learn that list first for a huge boost!
3. Established techniques
A lot of the last eight years has been trial and error for me to test systems (reviewing Rosetta Stone, the Pimsleur Approach, and various websites and strategies to test them out). In some cases I have wasted my time and could eliminate the bad ones, while continuing with what I know does work.
As I eliminate more and more that is wasteful and take on more and more that works, I start to perfect a method that works incredibly well for me.
One way you don't have to test out so much and waste so much time and money is to scrutinise other people's experience and find what works best for you. If you read a few of my blog posts you'll see if following my advice may be good for you. Then again maybe it isn't. Have a look at other blogs and if you like what they say follow what they have. Here's a list of some of the Internet's most popular language lovers.
Some people, like me, devote a lot of time to testing out theories or interesting looking programs and techniques and sharing the results with you, so you don't have to. But don't take anything I or anyone else says as Gospel. Experiment for yourself, and realise that sometimes it's not actually the method but the passion behind it, and that perhaps any method that isn't harming you is helping you if you apply it right.
This may all sound a bit conflicting so let me summarise it as follows:
Summary: Research other people's experiments (so you don't have to do them), check to make sure you can trust them and if you have a similar learning style/personality, and try to follow their advice. If you find any conflicting advice that looks interesting, experiment and see if it produces better results. If it does produce better results, ditch the first approach immediately, even if it was recommended by an incredibly charming (and humble) Irish lad. Experiment fast, and establish your learning strategy quickly.
4. Once you speak one already it gets easier
There is a certain satisfaction with just knowing that you can do it. You have taken on the challenge of learning to communicate in a foreign tongue and have actually used it naturally with human beings. Once you get this Eureka moment, then everything does get way easier! You get the confidence discussed in point one immediately for any future languages.
The second, third, fourth times are going to happen because you know you can do it. You've already proven it to yourself!
To this day, when people ask me what the hardest language in the world is, my answer (after referring to that linked post) is that for me it was Spanish, because it was my first. I hadn't gotten over the “I can't do this!” barrier yet. Hungarian and Turkish are a walk in the park compared to what I had to deal with in Spanish.
Aha! I hear you say – you can't get around this as a monolingual then, can you Benny?
Well actually, you can.
All natural languages have a lot of complexities to them that are going to slow you down when you learn them, so one strategy that I highly recommend is to make your target language your third (not your second) language.
The way to do this is to learn Esperanto, which was designed to be easy, for just a few weeks. Not years, but weeks. That's a sacrifice definitely worth making.
Summary: By learning such an easy language with lots of people online willing to help, and lots of material to practice with (the Esperanto wikipedia has more entries than the Arabic one), you'll reach the stage of being able to say I speak a foreign language quicker than ever before. This overlooked advantage will make a huge difference for when you get back to the language you are focused on.
5. Super amazing memory abilities!
Supposedly, the more words you learn, the better you get at learning them. This may be somewhat true, but the way I learn vocabulary has been something I picked up in recent years and are techniques that anyone can learn and apply themselves quickly.
I use image association to learn new vocabulary, look for cognates (as discussed in #2), and apply spaced repetition to important words so I don't forget them. When you apply efficient techniques for learning new vocabulary, you will learn it quicker. Having done it with other languages before is irrelevant if you have used the technique enough to get used to doing it quickly.
For the first stages of learning a language, I specifically avoid grammar explanations as they will slow me down. However, once I've got the flow I actually get a book that has purely grammatical explanations and go through it in detail.
Now when I do this, the thing is that I have an advantage of the “17th” language I've learned already: grammar-ese. As an electronic engineer, eight years ago I didn't have the foggiest idea what a definite article, conjugation, past participle, accusative and all those other thingies were. Now (somewhat reluctantly) after lots and lots of language learning books I know aaaaall about them!
In my own learning approach, diving into grammar explanations at the right time has helped me immensely to get beyond the speaking a bit stage into able to express myself very well. We ask ourselves a lot do I have to learn grammar? and for the first stages of learning a language I have to say definitely not. But… it certainly makes it easier to perfect it when you do speak grammar-ese, and at that time I do side a bit with the academics (for once) and get my head in the books.
And I do this a lot better because I stopped fighting grammar. Getting your head around grammar explanations aren't hard, and grammar can be lots of fun (I genuinely enjoy it! And I hate studying). The problem is that grammar gets this really bad rep because of how it was presented to us in school.
When my teacher was telling us about DER/DIE/DAS/Accusative/Genetive/Dative in German class, I was daydreaming about anything else. So I get it! I know how you can be frustrated with grammar!
But the thing is, many polyglots speak and like grammar-ese. When it's presented to you about a means of communication that you already have some comfort in, then it's a far cry from the dull stuff your teacher wrote on the blackboard. So my words to monolinguals out there who dislike grammar are:
Summary: Leave grammar aside and focus on getting some flow in speaking your language and getting your point across, but then dive into it enthusiastically when you are ready to tidy up the edges. It can be very enjoyable and fascinating to discover the technical reasons why your target language work the way it does!
All of the above points mean that I know what's going on and start learning a new language with great momentum, and will learn it quickly. If you are focused enough and make sure you maintain your enthusiasm, and share your language mission with others for some accountability and to have friends to encourage you, then you can keep up this same rate!
Maybe you won't be able to do it at exactly the same speed as a polyglot, but you can certainly give us a run and keep us on our toes! In many cases, readers of my blog have surpassed me quicker than I could have expected on their first foreign language, so I know it's possible 🙂