Polyglot Gathering Report Day 2

polyglot gathering berlin(Photo: with Connor Clyne and Ellen Jovin… in order of height)

At 10am yesterday morning was a fascinating panel discussion with five hyperpolyglots who were asked about different approaches to language learning

“How Hyperpolyglots Learn Languages” – 10am Monday 16th June, #PolyglotBer

This is a brief summary of each panel member’s main points. You will find a lot of interesting, differing and somewhat controversial points of view.

I hope it will be thought-provoking.

How would you learn a new language from scratch?

maria de vera1. María de Vera

I would focus firstly on sounds by listening to a lot of natural language, relaxing, and immersing myself in the language.

Next, I would go into the grammar in-depth because I personally like to know the structure of the language in order to have confidence in moving forward with it.

cesco reale2. Cesco Reale

I start with phonetics, because it’s my speciality and main interest. So I’d spend a few hours exploring the component sounds of the language in as much depth as possible.

After that, my main tactic is language exchanges, and I tend to exploit my available friends during lunch and dinner to do this! I have no special system while doing this, I just work with sentences in the target language.

niels iversen3. Niels J.L. Iversen 
My main criteria for deciding whether to start learning a language is whether you can pronounce it from the script alone.

Chinese or Arabic, for example, I wouldn’t learn because the pronunciation isn’t evident from the writing.

I start by looking for a good dictionary and a good grammar book. I also need a beginner’s textbook. I don’t follow the textbook as they intended, rather I just look at the easy texts.

I then make huge word lists (aim for 10,000 words) and just learn as many as possible so that I can enjoy reading. I won’t even consider speaking with anyone because even if I can say something, I will certainly not understand the reply.

richard simcott4. Richard Simcott

I look at the materials that are available, especially songs, and spend a lot of time listening, copying and eventually singing those songs myself.

I then look at available courses and see which one strikes me as interesting and matches my learning style. I go through the first chapter as intended, then write out all the texts myself, as it helps me to recall the language later.

I will speak from day 1, because I love speaking with and producing a reaction from people. This reaction then gives me the motivation to learn more. I set myself goals like “this week I will be able to talk about the weather”. The overall aim is to start to adopt the language for myself and begin to interact with people.

With vocabulary, it’s really just a question of “keep going till you know it”. Multiple repetitions of words are necessary, including planning for forgetting, which is inevitable, and letting vocabulary build up in your mind gradually over time.

5. André Liss

I wouldn’t add much to what’s already been said. However, music is a big thing for me. I would start with the 500 most high-frequency words and look for those in songs in order to make a start.

How long do you spend learning a language everyday?

Everyone had totally different answers to this question, which varied from 15 minutes to 8 hours per day.

There was no real consensus on what would constitute “normal”; everyone said it would depend in each case on motivation to learn the language and urgency to do so.

How do you learn vocabulary?

1. María

I never use Anki or other SRS systems. As I’m a translator I’ve always used a lot of parallel texts. I like to read and use things I like and grow my vocabulary that way – cookery books in particular, but it could be romance novels or movies.

2. André

Vocabulary lists and copying out words work for me. I also download classical literature onto my iPad and read it with an offline dictionary.

Mnemonics I’ve found to be useful at the beginning stages, but less so as you get more advanced.

3. Richard

I look at vocabulary from common topics in course books (eg. weather) and see if there are any similarities with languages I already know. I also use mnemonics and word association a lot.

Vocabulary learning is a continuous process that never stops. At school, I used to write out word lists with English and German on each side of the paper and then test myself until I knew them. It’s rudimentary but it works.

4. Niels J.L. Iversen

I use word lists based on texts. Word lists can definitely work for those who don’t mind using that method, but are horrible for those who don’t like the idea.

5. Cesco

I’m a lazy language learner and so never use any special techniques. I’m interested in etymology, and this helps me a lot, but mostly only in Latin languages with common roots.


This was a fascinating discussion, probably not done enough justice from my brief notes!

What really stood out for me was just how different an approach to learning everyone has.

Judith, moderating the discussion, made the interesting observation that the methods and approaches discussed were all very low-tech, which is something that should give us all pause for thought!

Were you at the conference in Berlin? Click here to Tweet out this report!

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  • Thanks again for posting another update, Olly! All sounds so interesting 🙂

  • Woo hoo, I love Judith’s observation. For many learners, developing their own method means eventually becoming quite independent from the restrictions of a computer system like Anki. I’ve recently noticed some good results using Memrise, but that’s only for new vocabulary that I’d encountered and handwritten down in class.

    • I’m fairly low-tech myself compared to a lot of people, although there are a few resources I couldn’t live without (SRS being one of them!)

      • I always wonder…SRS isn’t really something introduced by computers and technology. How many people are aware that spaced repetition totally works when you work with paper?

        • What I like about it is the ability to just pull a deck out of my pocket while I’m waiting for the bus… and all my decks are in one place. Plus when I’ve used paper SRS before it’s ended up being really messy, as I tend to erase, correct, exclude and add things quite a lot.

          Can you point to a good resource about SRS on paper?

          • Hmm, I do have quite a bit of ideas that I wrote down in the vocabulary guide that is coming out soon (sorry to plug it, but hey it’s going to be great, http://www.fluentlanguage.co.uk/book).

            For example, working with paper flashcards could be awesome for this: Determine a set of the week, pin it up on a board at home. Or carry just a small set with you and swap a card every time you are done with it, put it at the back of the pile, so of course it will come back once you’re through with a set. I like how paper = tactile and not dependent on a screen.

            Spaced repetition is also the basis of many audio courses such as Pimsleur.

  • André Müller

    Nice report, well written. 🙂
    Only one thing: Actually that was André Liss on the panel.

    André Müller (me) is the one with the lecture on Klingon, the one who knows all the writing systems, gave a talk on tonal languages and later explained ergativity in 5 minutes in Esperanto. 🙂

    • André – I’m so sorry! Actually I was having trouble finding out his surname and someone told me your name by mistake! I’ve edited it out! Thanks for letting me know!