How I Learned Eight Languages

how i learnt multiple languagesIt all started back in 2000.

I had just finished my first year at music college and had decided to take a break. A lot of my friends had gone off travelling during their gap year and I was left wondering whether I should have done the same.

I arranged to take a year off from college and, no sooner had I done that, my girlfriend of 2 years promptly broke up with me. (I don’t think the two things are related, but you never know… maybe it’s fate!)

Feeling sorry for myself, I decided that I had to have a change of scene if I was to get over her. I pocketed my student loan from the previous year and bought a one-way ticket to Paris.

French

At that point I spoke virtually no French, or any other language for that matter.Β I’d done GCSE French at school, but it wasn’t much help. I certainly couldn’t strike up a casual conversation with someone. Looking back on it now, I don’t know why I wasn’t more apprehensive or nervous about the trip. I guess when you’re 19 things just don’t matter so much!

I spent 6 months overall in Paris, working night shift at reception in a youth hostel. My French got good pretty quickly, mostly because itΒ hadΒ to – I was dealing with customers every day.

During the long nights at the hostel I met travellers from all over the world and knew then and there that I wanted to be able to communicate with people in their own language as much as possible. I bought some Spanish and Italian grammar books and started reading during the early hours at work.

Italian

When I left Paris, I went to visit a friend in Italy for 3 weeks. He worked in the day, so I spent each morning at the kitchen table with his mum learning Italian. She didn’t seem to mind! I just kept trying things out that I’d studied whilst I was in France, asking her “How do you say…?”

In the afternoon and evenings I’d go out with Claudio and his friends. He’d teach me every swear word under the sun (he’s Italian after all) and his friends would just chat randomly at me in Italian until late into the night.

After 3 weeks I could get by on my own. A friend of Claudio’s even asked me to translate her master’s thesis from Italian into English. I don’t know how I did it, but I just worked through it, figuring it out bit by bit. Using my knowledge of French to help me out, together with some educated guesswork, I translated the whole document and earned a bit of cash in the process.

[Note from Olly: If you’d like to find out which tools and methods I used to learn these languages, click here!]

Spanish

I left Italy and went back to college in London. I started hanging round and playing music with a lot of Spanish people, who were always lots of fun. I couldn’t speak much, but I was up for learning. After French and Italian, it wasn’t all that hard to pick things up.

I become close friends with one guy in particular and for the next two years I spoke more Spanish than English from day to day. I also forgot most of my Italian. Spanish and Italian are so similar that without the opportunity to speak any Italian I just ended up losing it. It’s one of my regrets.

Portuguese

When some Brazilians started hanging around in our circles, my next great passion began, one that endures to this day. I fell head over heels in love with the people, the culture and the music. I set about learning Portuguese, hanging out with my new friends, playing music, learning songs, and fitting in lots of language exchanges. After a couple of trips to Brazil in the semester breaks my Portuguese soon became very strong.

After college, I went travelling in South America, spending 6 months in Brazil and 4 months in Argentina. Spanish and Portuguese weren’t new to me, but living there for that time was the perfect opportunity to consolidate and deepen my knowledge of the languages.

I returned to London and spent the next four years doing all kinds of things, playing music, starting up businesses and, of course, taking advantage of the cultural scene in London to maintain my French, Spanish and Portuguese. (Italian was a distant memory by that point.)

When the travelling bug returned, Japan was the destination of choice.

Japanese

I moved to Japan and spent three and a half years working in Tokyo. Japanese was my first non-Romance language and it proved to be tough. I didn’t learn all that much in the first year or two. I’m not sure why, really, but I think I was too busy acclimatising to life in Tokyo and building a life for myself.

At the 1.5-year mark, I started getting frustrated with my lack of attention to the language and went on a Japanese learning mission. My level shot up. I feel that this experience of struggling with Japanese and striving to find ways of learning and progressing really marked a turning point for me. It didn’t happen naturally, like with my earlier experiences. I had to really do the work myself and seek out the right conditions in which I could learn and improve. The lessons I learnt from those years really inform a lot of what I write about now.

Arabic

I left Japan in 2012 and moved to Doha, Qatar, where I am at the time of writing. I’ve not been particularly motivated to learn Arabic, especially since English is the lingua-franca in Qatar (80% of the population are ex-pats), but I did take classes and learn to read and write.

I’ve since moved to Egypt, where I live now. This video interview with me was filmed in the streets of Cairo and has some snippets of me speaking Arabic with the locals…

And then an update after 6 months…

Cantonese

Strangely enough, whilst in Doha, I started to develop a real love for Cantonese. I’d been to Hong Kong a couple of times, and really got into Hong Kong cinema, and the “fire” had risen inside me, so I set about learning.

Learning Cantonese in Doha has been another defining learning experience for me. Living in an unfamiliar country and learning a completely unrelated language has really forced me to pull out all the stops, looking closely at how I learnt all my other languages, trying to retrospectively learn lessons from those experiences, whilst also figuring out new ways to motivate myself and learn in relative isolation.

This brings me to the present day!

German

For many years, I’ve been fascinated by the German language, and really wanted to learn it.

In order not to spread myself too thin, I’ve resisted until recently. But the bug finally got me, and I spent a few weeks learning earlier on this year.

It’s a big early to claim that I “speak” the language, but I plan to continue learning and hope to post an update very soon.

Click here to read my reflections on learning German.

polyglot pubWhat’s Next?

Right now, I’m back in London, enjoying the rich variety of culture and opportunities to practise languages that exists here!

I run a regular free language Meetup here in London called Polyglot Pub – I’d love to see you there!

On the blog you’re reading right now, you get practical tips for learning languages… based on all my experience and experiments over the years!Β 

You should start by getting my free guide to the best language technology out there – click here to get it.

FREE VIDEO:
Steal my weird trick for memorising words Faster

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

Got a question? I'll answer it on the podcast! Just click here!

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Olly's Top Resources For Learning:
  • Anya

    Hi, Olly!
    I can’t express how I admire that you did it and how happy I am to find this site.
    Let’s study Russian and give me some tricks of learning the language :-P. I bet you will like it πŸ™‚

    • Anya, thanks so much for your kind comment πŸ™‚ Russian? Wow. Is that because you’re learning Russian or you are Russian?

      • Anya

        Olly, is that because I’m learning Russian. I’ve been learning Russian for 11 years but it’s still difficult to express myself in Russian. I’ve finished my university last year, and I just realiazed that my listening and speaking skills were very bad because my teacher only focused on grammar. So I decided to learn Russian by myself and it works. The advice and practical tips like yours really help me so much πŸ™‚

  • Cat Ramos γ‚­γƒ£γƒƒγƒˆ ラヒス

    Hi Olly!ζ—₯本θͺžγ€δΈŠζ‰‹γ§γ™γ­οΌ
    Thank you for this tip. I think any language learner should keep this in mind.

  • Leonardo Stromberg

    Arigatou gozaimasu.

    • γ©γ†γ„γŸγ—γΎγ—γ¦οΌ

  • Reina

    Pretty impressive!! πŸ™‚ I am a native Japanese speaker, born and raised in Tokyo, but I also am fluent in English as I went to school in Canada. I currently live in Doha and have just started learning French. Hoping to be able to speak soon. Thank you for motivating me!

    • Hi Reina! Well, with your background I’m sure you’ll have no trouble at all learning French! πŸ™‚

  • Mariya Tuz

    Olly, let’s study/speak Russian! Thank you for you greate site!)

    • Mariya, Russian is coming soon (I hope)… thanks for the comment! πŸ™‚

  • Jeff

    Wow, those were some inspiring stories! Hope to meet you at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin.

    • Hey Jeff.. thanks for the comment – did we meet in Berlin in the end?

      • Jeff

        Sadly not – I saw you in the crowd several times (but never got through) and also had plans to attend your lecture about Arabic dialects but eventually had to support another speaker (who gave a presentation about the dialect from my area in Sweden).

        • That’s conferences for you πŸ™‚ There’s always next year… unless you’re planning on coming to New York in October?

  • 김희은

    Hello! I am hui-eun.
    I am korean. I intereted in learning language.
    And..
    I found your podcast!!
    Podcast is awesome.

    I don’t learn language. I live in language.
    I Used to It.
    I am imperessed that you told.

    Anyway,
    I want to say thank you!!>_<

    • Hi, Hui-Eun, thank you so much for your message, I really appreciate it! πŸ™‚

  • DanishPastry

    I just found your site and it’s so interesting! I’m a native English speaker, learning German at school, teaching myself Danish at home. Danske er en fantastiske sprog og jeg elsker det.
    Har en god dag!
    – Katie

    • Hi Katie – great to hear from you, and good luck!

  • Nina

    I am studying to be a technician of tourism, so I hope that I’ll have a job as a receptionist/and or continue my education after I complete the study. It will perhaps lead me to some wonderful new things and something that’s in my head “more than that”. I really hope so. I am surely determined to learn languages my whole life.

    I’ve got the inspiration to revisit this post because I was finding the motivation to study for the school and, of course, I’ve found out that I could be a receptionist, so it reminded me of you. Also, my goal is to travel to France when I finish school and stay there for a month. I plan to work when I get there, so now I hope that it would be a job in my field. I don’t know, maybe I’m childish, but the job of a receptionist would be great. πŸ™‚

    • Hi Nina, thanks for your comment! Your plans sound wonderful, and you should always go for what makes you happy!

  • RomhΓ‘nyi Anita Lujza

    Hungarian language is very complex and beautiful.