I started learning languages seriously at the age of 14. That’s when my journey officially began. I had limited language learning experience from my 6 years in French immersion, but I didn’t really take the plunge until 2008 when I was 14. Wow, that means that this is my 12th year learning languages for fun… Writing that and reading it back to myself made me feel really old, but they say that wisdom comes with age which leads me into the subject of today’s blog post! Today I’m going to be talking about 6 things that I wish I knew when I first started learning languages 12 years ago!
ANYONE can learn a language!
I felt like I needed to mention this one first because this is something that I really really wish that I knew even before I started taking language learning seriously at 14. French immersion was pure pain and suffering and it really effected my self esteem. I honestly didn’t believe that I had what it took to learn different languages. I literally thought that something was wrong with me. Language learning seemed like something that everyone EXCEPT me could do. I still believed this when I tried to learn German for the first time in the 8th grade. I still carried with me a lot of the self-defeating beliefs and mental baggage that French immersion had left me with. I decided to try anyway. All that led me was faith and curiosity, I didn’t know if I’d be able to reach my goals or not. It was all pretty much a gamble and I honestly believe that if things had gone even a little bit differently, I may have given up learning languages and you wouldn’t be reading this right now.
I now know that anyone can learn a language with the right methods and know how. Language learning is no different from learning to master any other skill. Let’s use sports or learning to ride bicycles as examples. Both take time and require you to figure out what works for you and your body also needs to adjust. There aren’t really very many short cuts, but almost anybody can do these things. You need training wheels when you get your first bike, but eventually take them off. You fall many times, you probably end up with a couple cuts and bruises, but eventually you do it! You make it that first couple meters without wobbling or falling and soon you’re riding without even thinking about it.
Language learning is no different! It will seem hard at first, but it will all get significantly easier once you figure out what works for you! I promise, ANYONE can do it!
You need to have a gift to learn languages!
This is something I believed for quite a while even after I already had 3 new languages under my belt. I had learned French, German, Spanish and felt kind of accomplished, but things changed when I started going on YouTube in search of likeminded individuals. This is when I discovered the youtube polyglot scene. There were a few videos of people speaking 10+ languages at the time and it blew my mind. I wished I had the gift to be able to do what they did, but I’d probably have to just stick with my measly 4 languages. Unfortunately, I wasn’t born with the magical gift.
I decided to keep learning and the number of languages that I was able to speak slowly climbed. Eventually, I hit 10…. Wait a minute… 10 languages? How did I learn 10 languages if I didn’t have the “language gift”? Easy! Because there was no gift! All it required was hard work and determination! I’m serious! That’s literally all there is too it! I know ten languages may “seem” like an impressive number, but it’s totally attainable. It may seem like a lot on paper, but don’t forget that I’ve personally been doing this since 2008! 12 years have already passed, so that’s just under one language a year. See? When we break it down this way, it makes language learning seem a lot more human and attainable, am I right? I understand why it seems so daunting though.
I don’t want to call anyone out, but nowadays there seem to be genuine polyglots on youtube and what I like to call “3 Sentence Polyglots”. The genuine polyglots do a great job of inspiring people to learn and genuinely share their learning materials, experiences and methods with their followers. The 3 Sentence Polyglots, on the other hand, seem to memorize a few basic phrases and then brag on youtube saying that they can speak tons of languages. I sometimes feel like they’re doing it for clout or to show off (But I may be wrong). This phenomenon seems new and seems to have emerged within the last 2-3 years. With so many 3 sentence polyglots popping up on youtube, I totally understand why most people think they need to have the magical gift. The youtube Algorithm bombards you with videos like these and the genuine ones unfortunately get hidden behind the smoke. So I repeat: You do NOT need a gift! I was able to learn several languages after FAILING French immersion and WITHOUT a gift. All that was required was hard work, determination and time! You can do it! If you don’t believe in yourself, remember that I do!
Some of the really good OG Polyglot channels that helped me and kept me on the right path were Steve Kaufmann, Laoshu5500, Loki2504, Luca Lampariello and Benny Lewis. There were many more, but these were the channels that I watched the most. I recommend checking out all of their youtube channels if you’re looking for more motivation and guidance!
PS: At the end of the day, people are completely within their rights to learn a few sentences and claim they speak X amount of languages if they want. I believe that Language learning is meant to be fun and anyone can do whatever they want with the languages they speak/learn!. It’s their free time and I’m NOT telling people what they can and can’t do, it just kind of rubs me the wrong way when I see people who seem to be doing it just to show off because it can be misleading to people who are just getting into learning languages. I just feel like it would be waaaaaaaay more impressive to communicate well in 2 languages instead of a few sentences in 100.
Everyone learns differently!
This took me a while to learn, but it’s true. Everyone actually does learn differently, so what works for me might not work for you and that’s perfectly fine. Some people learn best by getting out there and using what they’ve learned on day one while some people need a lot more time before they feel comfortable enough to start speaking. I personally learn best by getting as much input from multiple sources and using it as early and as frequently as possible. My one friend, on the other hand, enjoys writing things down in notebooks and reviewing them. I never use notebooks, but he does and we both get results. It took us both a long time to figure out what worked for each of us and we will continue to improve how we study and learn. The important thing here is that we’re both using two different methods, but still getting results. Find out how you learn best! It takes a bit of time, but you can do it! You’ll thank yourself later.
It’s not always going to be easy!
This may seem like common sense on paper, but trust me, you’ll feel very discouraged once you hit your first plateau. This is when most people tell themselves that they don’t have what it takes and give up. You’ll hit walls when trying to master any new skill and learning a new language is no different. Keep at it and don’t give up! If you keep at it and work hard, you’ll get past the wall and things will get easier. Don’t allow the plateaus and walls to discourage you! I find that ensuring that I know WHY I’m learning a language always helps me when I hit plateaus. I’ll give y’all an example; I tried to learn Czech for a week “just cuz” a couple years ago. Don’t ask me why because I can’t even answer that question myself. Anyway, I hit my first plateau and couldn’t rationalize going forward and dropped it after 2-3 days. There was no answer to the “WHY am I doing this” question so I couldn’t justify battling the confusion I was experiencing and gave up. Russian, on the other hand, has thrown everything it has at me, but I keep going despite all of this because I know WHY I’m learning. I find Slavic languages very intriguing and there are a few Russian speaking countries that I would love to visit. THIS is what keeps me going despite all the obstacles that I encounter along the way.
I repeat; Learning your target language will not always be easy, but you CAN do it! Always remember WHY you’re learning. Write it down and stick it on your fridge! You can even make it your phone wallpaper if you need to!
It takes time!
We’re human and we want results fast! That’s just a fact. We want to be fluent in mere days, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Language learning is a journey that everyone embarks on at different times. Some people reach their goals faster than others and that’s ok! Can you remember learning how to drive? It was hard at first, right? It was hard at first and it took time, but if you have your license right now, that means you did it! I remember thinking that I would never get good at driving no matter how many hours I put in behind the wheel. Despite all this, I have my license and can drive. It took time, but I mastered it in the end! You won’t become fluent overnight. You also won’t become fluent after a week or a month either, but you CAN become fluent in the near future if you keep at it. Try and enjoy the new words, the funny mistakes you’ll make, the people you’ll meet and the experiences you’ll have as you go! All of these things make the time fly and make the journey itself feel shorter and more enjoyable!
Don’t study grammar at the beginning!
If I could only tell myself one thing out of this whole list, it would probably be this! I have nothing against grammar itself, but I do honestly and truly believe that grammar is best studied once you already understand the basics of how the language functions. In my opinion, studying grammar at the beginning is analogous to teaching Pi to children with no prior knowledge of how math works. They won’t understand the concept and it will seem like nonsense to them. If you try to teach Pi to somebody with a prior knowledge of math, they’ll be able to grasp it a lot more easily. The same thing applies to learning languages! Try to get as much input as possible and try to learn new words and phrases naturally and in context. You want to emulate how a new born baby learns language as much as possible. Have you ever seen a 5 month old with a grammar book? Nope, because it wouldn’t understand what to do with it and would probably try to eat it. They just absorb everything they can and then use it when they feel comfortable. That’s exactly what you should do! Learn words and phrases and then test them out on native speakers. If you notice that you don’t know food words, go back and learn more food words. If you don’t know colours, learn more words for colours. Using the language with people will show you what you need to work on and learn.
After repeating this process for a while, you’ll eventually reach the intermediate stage. This is when I would recommend dabbling in grammar and you’ll notice that you’ll already have a decent grasp on a lot of grammatical concepts because you will have picked them up subconsciously through simply using and being exposed to the language. Studying grammar at this point will supplement what you already know. It took me a while to figure this out because it’s seems so counterintuitive. Schools normally tend to focus highly on grammar while spending little time on practical use when it should be the other way around. School is all most of us have to go off of, so it makes perfect sense that most people end up adopting the same approach when they attempt to learn languages on their own. One of the patterns that I’ve noticed in the youtube polyglot community is that most of the most successful polyglots seem to avoid grammar when they start out. I decided to try emulating their methods and got better results than when I took a more grammar based approach. Remember though, everyone learns differently, so studying a lot of grammar early on may actually work for some people, but they seem to be the minority from what I’ve seen.
I hope these 6 things help you guys to learn what ever language it is that you’re learning!
Oh, and by the way…. If anybody has access to a time machine… please comment and we’ll discuss printing this blog post, going back to 2008 and giving this list to my younger self!
Thanks for reading!
PS: I’m serious about the time machine!