IWTYAL 228: In what ways do polyglots become better language learners?

Tom asks: “How does learning multiple languages make you a better language learner?

Episode Summary:

I discuss three ways in which you improve as a language learner through learning multiple languages:

Resources Mentioned in Today's Episode:

Full Transcript:

Good morning everybody, welcome back to the I Will Teach You a Language podcast. Right after a few weeks of very specific talking about listening skills and conversations and things like that, we are now back to normal. So, without any further ado, we're going to thank the sponsors and get on with the show. The sponsors of course are Italki. Italki helped me keep the podcast viable and running, and they are a place where you can find language teachers. Whatever language you're learning, whatever dialect or nationality you're looking for, you can filter through and search thousands of different teachers on Italki. If you'd like to get a free lesson you can go to IWillTeachYouALanguage.com/freelesson. Alright then, let's hear from Tom.

Hey, Olly. Tom Seers here from Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. Most of my life I've been a Spanish language learner, and I've come to a pretty comfortable point in that. When I was in university I began taking some classes in Mandarin, and after university spent some time living in China and continuing that process of learning Mandarin. When I was in college I really came across a phenomenon that I don't really quite know how to explain on how learning Mandarin, even though it has nothing to with Spanish, just the fact of me learning a second language before helped me immensely go through the learning process with Mandarin. In a different course, in a linguistics course, I did a project on this and tried to write a paper and do some interviews on some people that have learned several languages in the past and asked them the question, ‘How has learning a second language helped you with the acquisition of a third or fourth or whatever language?' It was so difficult for me to get past the concept that the target language that they were learning was similar to a previous language they have learned and that's why it was easy. My question for you is, in your past I know you have learned languages that are similar to each other but you've also learned languages that are very different from each other, just like my experience with Chinese and Mandarin. How has learning a language helped you with the acquisition of a third or fourth language, etc.? If you could try to strip away all similarities of that language from previous ones, how has learning a language helped you learn a language, whether that's cognitively or neurologically, however you want to answer that question? I'd just love to hear your thoughts on that. Thank you, bye.

Hey, Tom, thank you very much for a great question. I really like this question because you've kind of not just asked one question you've kind of drilled down into what is a very interesting and intelligent point, which is the fact of separating the challenge of language learning by itself from the actual language that you happen to be learning. You've identified what is a very common phenomenon which is that lots of people, particularly in the West, will learn lots of romance languages. They'll start with one romance language and then move on to the next. What you're kind of getting at is obviously learning a second and a third romance language is easy, but to what extent are you improving as a language learner because actually you're already done half the work. If you know Italian and then you learn Spanish you've already done half the work, because the grammar's very similar, the vocabulary's very similar, etc. So, how can you judge whether or not you're actually becoming objectively a better language learner independent of the language that you're actually learning?

In my case my first language was French. Let's say that French was hard to learn. I don't remember it being massively hard, it was just a process that kept going and eventually I learned to speak pretty well. I was helped by my environment, I was living in France for a few months which helped. I got a confidence boost from that, and I went on to learn Italian and then Spanish and then Portuguese, all the standard romance languages. They were progressively easier, but the question is were they easier because I became a better language learner, or were they easier because I'd simply learned a bunch of romance languages before so I had this preexisting knowledge? Difficult to say, probably a bit of both. What gets really interesting is when you think I want to learn totally different languages. Tom, you've learned Spanish and Chinese which are completely different. In my case my first non-romance language was Japanese and then went on to Cantonese. Cantonese is pretty much unrelated to Japanese. There are some vocabulary links, but the grammar's totally different. I've learned some Arabic and some Thai as well which are all very different as well.

Your question is, to what extent have you become a better language learner? I think there's lots of ways to answer this, but I think the main angle I want to take to answering this is what you touched on which was cognitively. I'm not going to say neurologically, because I think we don't know enough about that to say, but cognitively and behaviorally, the behavioral aspect of it is extremely important, this is where the real gains come. I don't think I would have got to where I am if I hadn't learned very different languages, because I really struggled with Japanese. For years I struggled, and I had to totally change my approach to learning with Japanese, and it was because I couldn't rely on preexisting knowledge. When I learned Portuguese I could rely on my Spanish. When I learned Italian I could rely on my French. I couldn't do that with Japanese, so I had to really start from scratch. The experience of going through this with lots of different languages means that now, and this is the main benefit I think, when I'm approaching a new language now I don't get phased, I don't get worried, I don't panic. Everything is familiar territory. I'm not talking about the words and the grammar and things like that, because that's all new. When you've experienced what it's like to encounter a difficult word or a difficult grammatical concept and you've also experienced how that simply becomes clear after a while and you simply know it after any particular work or effort or study, over time suddenly it becomes known to you for no other reason than that time has passed and you've just carried on. Once you've been through this a whole bunch of times it relieves so much pressure from you.

In my recent talk with Stephen Crashen which is a few episodes back on the podcast, lots of you guys really enjoyed that, he said very forcefully that there is no role for active study in language learning. Now, I don't buy that 100%, I think there is a role for active study, but I think the broader point he's getting at is that sure you can actively study but actively studying doesn't result in you learning. What results in you learning is simply being exposed to the language and paying very close attention to it over time. By doing that and by carrying on and by not giving up what happens is that your brain will absorb the language in its own way. As you learn new vocabulary and grammar it's not because you've actively studied it, it's because you've given yourself the right amount of exposure to the language. You've paid attention, you've been noticing patterns as much as you can. That is what ultimately ends up being acquisition of language. It's not the fact that you've sat down and tried to memorize a bunch of words or learn these grammar rules. I happen to believe that by actively memorizing stuff and learning grammar rules you can speed up the process. These concepts don't exist in bubbles, there is always overlapping, I think there is a role for both of them. The broader point is that most people don't struggle with the language itself, they struggle with the process of learning. People get demotivated, they get frustrated, they get bored, they have self doubt, they get nervous when they speak to people, they can't find the time to study, they don't study regularly enough, they don't stick at one thing for long enough to give it the opportunity to work.

These are the struggles, these are the things that sabotage most people's language learning process. I've said this many times before, there's no such thing as a language problem that can't be solved. However difficult a particular grammar point is in time you will become familiar with it and you will know it inside out naturally, that's gonna happen. There's no particular thing in any language which is going to cause you massive problems. All you've got to do is give it enough time and not get frustrated. Open your mind to it, open your brain to it, spend time with it. The thing is before you've experienced that it's hard to believe, because at school we are used to learning things intellectually. Your teacher gives you a maths problem or gives you a science problem to solve and you work though it step-by-step and then you get the answer. That's the way we're taught to learn. We think that knowledge of things can be logically deduced, but language doesn't work like that. We've got to in many ways untrain our brains.

With each new language, cognitively we become smarter, more resilient, more mature language learners. Behaviorally we also up our game. We know that if you don't study every day or at least most days you're not going to make progress. We know that if you take weeks off at a time you're setting yourself back. We know that we can make use of our commuting time to study. We know that we can watch TV or movies in the target language to get a bit more exposure. All of these things behaviorally we train ourselves to do so we get better behaviorally as well. We know that if we start a new language project we have to dedicate ourselves to it and spend a certain amount of time, and we're happy to do that. Importantly we don't let all these cognitive problems we've talked about get in the way. If we feel frustrated or whatever it doesn't matter, we still come back every day and we keep learning and we keep studying and working at it, because we know that without that you have nothing. Without doing that there's no way you can succeed. So, behaviorally as well as cognitively we improve.

The last thing I think is methodologically which is a fancy way of saying the way you study. I've used so many different approaches to studying, different books, different activities that I now know what works for me and I've got confidence in that, which means that if I went to learn a new language I probably wouldn't start doing things in a totally different way. I've got confidence through experience of what works personally for me. To put it in a slightly simpler way, I know how I learn languages best, so I do those things. Some people do lots of translation, other people take classes. What I personally like to do more and more, the direction I'm traveling in is after going through a beginner's textbook to get a really good grounding in the basics of the language, then I just spend tons of time trying to read and listen to interesting content. That's why I've created my books of short stories and why I've created conversations, because I just believe that is the smartest way to go about learning. You can't learn a language unless you spend lots of time listening to it and reading it, you just can't do it. Most people look for shortcuts and hacks. The point is I know what works for me and I therefore have the confidence to do that. That makes me a better language learner because I'm not messing around doing what so many people do of flitting from one resource to the next, buying one book after the other trying to find the perfect method, whereas actually the perfect method is inside of you and you've just got to have confidence that works for you. I've got that confidence now because I've just had to experiment so much in the past.

So, we talked about three different ways in which I think learning multiple languages makes you a better language learner. Cognitively in terms of how you think about the task and your personal reactions to it, behaviorally, how you organize your time and the actions that you take to learn and to get yourself studying and then methodologically, so what actual language activities do you do. In each of these three aspects you become more more mature and have confidence in your own way of doing things.

So, I hope that's helpful, Tom. That's my take on the question. I think it's a great question, thanks for leaving it. If you would like to ask me a question, please do. Go to IWillTeachYouALanguage.com/ask. You can do it on your phone, on your computer, on your iPad. There's a little button that you can press to leave me a question and I will answer it in due course.

At the end of every episode I like to leave you with a resource of some kind on the topic of the show. I want to refer you to an earlier episode of the podcast, Episode 106, where we answer the question, ‘How useful is laddering?' Laddering is the opposite of what Tom was asking about because Tom was asking about I don't care whether one language helps you to learn the other, what I care about is how you become a better learner. Actually using one language to learn another is also a really great way of exploiting multiple languages. In Episode 106 we ask the question, ‘How useful is laddering?' Laddering is this term where you use one language to step up a rung on the ladder to learn another. To check out that episode and get this alternative viewpoint on this topic go to IWillTeachYouALanguage.com/episode106. Alright then, see you next time.

Thank you so much for listening to today's episode, I really hope you enjoyed it. One of the questions I get asked most often about language learning is how to improve your memory, because things get so much easier when you learn new words and you don't forget them later in conversation when you really need them.  What I decided to do is put together a short email course, it's a three part email course over three days that teaches you my favorite techniques for memorising vocabulary and actually putting that vocabulary into your long term memory. It's a short course, three days, it's completely free and if you'd like to sign up for it please go to IWillTeachYouALanguage.com/freememorycourse.

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