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How to be a polyglot

You would love to be a polyglot. You wonder: Where should I start? You have studied countless languages but have never reached any close to fluency in most of them. But there are polyglots on the internet who have learned so many languages, so how did they do it? Are they fundamentally different from you? Do they have a special gene? Spoiler: Most likely not. But they do have good learning techniques, and they avoid strategical mistakes.

I have learned five languages to fluency and I have also studied countless others. In this article I will share with you the most important rules to study several languages successfully.

1) Start with one language and work on it seriously.

If you are a monoglot (a person who speaks only one language), you can’t hope to study four languages all at once, you will end up speaking none of those and feeling very frustrated. For the start, just choose one. Pick your favourite language, the language you will feel passionate about even when you face difficulties, when you lack motivation, or when your life gets really, really busy. You need to develop good learning habits with this first language before thinking of studying another one. A good learning habit is a learning habit which is both successful and enjoyable for you.

2) Use only the best learning techniques

You can find many learning techniques online, and you can ask teachers or skilled polyglots for advice - I always give a lot of advice to my students. However, you should always keep in mind that what works for someone else might not work for you. The best learning techniques are those which work for you. You’ve heard about a technique which you’d like to try? Go for it. Just try it, see if it feels right, and if it sticks. Keep what’s work for you, and drop the rest. If you don’t enjoy a method, find another one. If a technique that you used to like becomes boring, change it without regret. Maybe you will pick it again later, or maybe not. 

If a successful polyglot recommends a method which turns out not to work for you, don’t feel bad. Successful polyglots are people who have fun with learning languages. The moment your study becomes annoying or boring, change something to make it fun again.

Here are 12 learning techniques which you can use for free. Just try them, and keep your favourite ones.

If you feel stuck, do not hesitate to ask me for help. I will be very happy to give you a hand.

3) Practice everyday.

Regularity is the most important thing. Polyglots fill their days with languages. It doesn’t mean that they study all day long, but somehow, they manage to put languages in everything. If you are not quite there yet, find a way to squeeze 15 or 30 minutes of study in your daily routine. Languages fade from your memory really fast, and the more time goes between two study sessions, the more time you will lose by studying the same things again when you finally get to it. To avoid this, study everyday. Maybe you can find 20 minutes in your lunch break, or listen to a podcast while commuting. Languages are just like exercise: keep it regular and you will get better fast. Drop your study for just a few days and you might have to start again almost from scratch.

4) Learn esperanto first.

Ok, I might a little be biased on that one, but I totally agree with Tim Morley when he recommends to learn esperanto first. He speaks mostly about children, but the same is very true for adults. So why learn esperanto first as an adult?
It is easy. I know hyperpolyglots laugh when you tell them that the language they study is difficult. Russian? Chinese? Swahili? Navajo? Nothing is too hard for them. But you aren’t quite there yet. Learning a language which is genuinely easy will boost your confidence and you will get sooner to the point when you can learn your second language.

It is propedeutic. That’s a very difficult word to say that knowing Esperanto makes the study of other languages easier. Its simple grammar and vocabulary patterns will help you understand the grammar of your own language better, and will help you understand the patterns of foreign languages, giving you a headstart.

Last but not least, you get access to the esperanto community, a magical world which you should totally discover.

5) Wait until your first foreign language is fluent-ish before studying another one.

I would recommend waiting to reach at least level B1 (a teacher should be able to give you a quick estimation of your level) in your first target language before studying a second one. If you are not sure what B1 means, check this article.

Reaching a level of relative fluency will ensure that the language is already deeply rooted in your brain and will lessen the risk of confusion between this language and the next one. Confusions do happen to polyglots and this is normal - it happens to me pretty often. But there is a world of difference between occasionally slipping a word of German into your English and your brain not being able to make a difference between German and English at all.

6) Study only languages you love.

This is important. Do NOT learn languages for the sake of learning languages or for any reason other than you really wanting to learn this language out of sheer passion.
Do not study Russian because “every good polyglot speaks Russian” or because “it is a major language”. Study Russian because you are passionate about the Russian history,  because you really want to read Dostoevsky in the original text, or because your partner is Russian. We are speaking about something that you will do everyday for months, possibly years. Any language study which you don’t feel passionate about is doomed to fail.

7) Languages who share characteristics with those you already know are easier.

If your native language is English, it will be easier and faster for you to learn French, German or Dutch than Chinese or Wolof. This doesn’t mean that you have to chose those languages - choose only those you are passionate about, remember? - but it is definitely something that you have to keep in mind while planning for your study. Some languages will require much more effort, and hence much more time than others.

This also means that each new language you learn might give you an easier access to a group of other languages.

For example:
If you speak a latin language, all other latin languages will be easier for you. Those of my students who learn French the fastest are definitely those who already speak Spanish or Italian.

When you know a language which uses a specific writing system, other languages which use the same system will be easier for you. If you speak English, languages written in the latin alphabet, and, to a lesser extent, other alphabets such as greek or cyrillic are easier than languages using a completely different system (such as ideograms or syllabaries).

Some languages share grammatical specificities, such as declensions (grammar rules which cause words to change according to their function in a sentence). Learning about declension is only difficult the first time. Once you speak a language with declensions, for example German, it is much easier to learn others, such as Russian. If you have studied latin or ancient greek at school, you already have this one nailed down to. Yay! Other grammatical specificities are, for example grammatical genders (affecting most european languages, but not English) or conjugations (affecting European languages, but not Chinese or other Asian languages for example) etc.
Phonetic particularities, such as tones (in Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese…) make it easier to learn other languages with the same particularity once you know one of those.

8) If you start studying two languages at the same time, choose very different languages.

While speaking a language similar to your target language will make your study easier and faster, studying two very similar languages at the same level (especially beginner level) and at the same time will most likely be a disaster, since it will be harder for your memory to tell them apart.

If you already speak several languages and wish to now study several languages parallely, choose very different languages, so it will be easier for your brain to separate them. 

Starting studying portuguese and spanish at the same time sounds like be a terrible idea. On the contrary, studying portuguese and korean will most likely be fine.

9) Never stop practicing

Now, this is the trickiest part - but also the most important. Learning a language can be very difficult and, what’s worse, forgetting it is really easy. As soon as you stop practicing, your beloved language starts to drift away. How do those polyglots keep their many languages alive?

The answer: they never stop practicing. They manage to include their languages in their daily life in the most creative manner. Think of it: almost everything you do involves a language. It is generally your native language, but it doesn’t have to be. Start doing things in other languages instead: watch foreign movies (without subtitles if you can!), read magazines, get a cookbook in one of your languages, hang out with your language loving friends and challenge them to speak different languages with you, subscribe to youtube channels and facebook pages in your different languages. Grab every possible opportunity to keep your languages around.

This is why you should always study only languages which you love. You need them to be around as much as possible. It would be a pity to let a language you worked so hard to master drift away.


10) Forgotten everything? Don’t panic!

For some reason you have skipped rule n°9 and failed to keep your language around. For example you did study French in middle school but it was a long time ago and back then, you weren’t too committed. Now you can’t seem to remember anything. Don’t worry, not all hope is lost. If you have studied a language intensively in the past, it is still kept somewhere in your brain. Basically your brain has put it in the attic because obviously, you are not going to use it everyday, but it is still there and you can reactivate it. Many students come to me saying  that they took French for years but now have to start again from scratch. It certainly feels like it, but it is far from the truth. As you pick your study up again, your memories will start surfacing again. When your teacher explains the grammar rules again to you, it will ring a bell, and relearning them will be much faster than the first time around.

Once you have been close to fluency in a language, it is never completely lost. At worse, it will be lying around in your brain under a thick layer of dust. So, just pick it, dust it off, and start using it regularly so it doesn’t become rusty again. And start learning your next language so you can soon become a polyglot for good.

Is your French currently lying under a thick layer of dust? I will be very happy to help you make it functional again.

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