[BY REQUEST] I AmA polyglot (multilingual person) from Ireland. I only spoke English when I was 21, but now I speak 10 languages and can sign ASL. I've given a TEDx talk to inspire adult language learners. AMA
I am NOT naturally talented in languages. I took German and Irish (Gaeilge) in school, and barely passed German and had to drop down to a lower level in Irish for a basic university entrance requirement. I have a degree in Electronic Engineering and when I moved to Spain at the age of 21, I only spoke English. I even managed to spend six months in Spain and not learn the language to any useful degree. I've given a TEDx talk about my story and what I changed to become the polyglot I am today.
I've had a completely different approach since then and can now speak ten languages and sign American Sign Language. To watch my TEDx talk, and then see me use several of my languages with a native speaker in a spontaneous interview, check out the videos on this page (here's a direct link to watch my TEDx talk) or my Youtube channel. About six of these languages are genuinely fluent - this would be a European Common Framework level B2-C2, with officially recognized diplomas in several, and the others are various degrees of conversational. So for example, my Spanish is C2 (mastery) and I've worked as an electronic engineer in the language, but my Chinese is B1 (conversational, but still hesitant).
I'd be happy to answer any questions you have about my thoughts on how to go about learning a language efficiently.
For proof that I am who I say I am, you'll see that I'm pretty active on Reddit, Youtube, twitter etc. and it's always under the handle irishpolyglot.
Here are some typical questions people ask me:
1. What's your secret? Are you naturally talented, or did you grow up in a multilingual environment?
No. I did poorly in languages in school and only spoke English when I was 21. My secret is that I stopped using excuses like "I'm too old", "I've got no language gene", "People will laugh at me" and other absolute nonsense, and I focused on speaking my target language every single day. A communicative approach, rather than a studious one, will get you much further. I do study, but it's based around my spoken sessions.
2. I see from your blog that you travel a lot. That's all well and good for you to be in the country, but I can't! I guess I can't learn my target language until I'm rich or go on holiday?
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, travelling as the core of your "strategy" is a terrible idea. I've met thousands of "expats" living abroad with nothing in the language. I always tell people it depends on your attitude, not your latitude (and longitude). I actually learned most of my Portuguese while living in France, and in September I plan to learn a language totally unrelated to anything I've ever learned before, to fluency in three months, in the wrong continent, to prove how it's what you do, not where you do it, that matters. You can talk to people on Skype via many sites (one I like is italki), or you can meet up in person! The video that is doing so well on /r/videos shows me and my other polyglot friend speak a dozen languages in a mall in Ohio. Not New York City, not at a language conference, but in Columbus, Ohio. There are always opportunities if you open your eyes or try harder! I also like to use Couchsurfing.org and search the city I'm in for the target language, and invite that person out for a coffee. You can meet up in person with native speakers of many languages if you are in any large city, or you can practice via Skype. Some languages are a little harder to do this than others, but once you find ONE person to spend time with consistently, you are good to go!
3. Should I go out and buy Rosetta Stone/Pimsleur etc. What books do you recommend?
I reviewed Rosetta Stone for my blog while learning Dutch. It's the first or second result when you Google "review of Rosetta Stone" and one of the few reviews on the Internet that isn't actually a pitch (for RS, or for a competing product). I've written a book myself that I sell on a site separate to my blog, but I say specifically not to buy it as an alternative to RS - it's only for people who are more curious about how I learn languages myself.
Basically, I find RS to be marketing geniuses. You can't miss them in America. But the product itself is simply not good. They copy and paste 90% of their content to all languages, which means you simply are not learning what you need to. Obviously a course needs to be unique for each language and its subtleties. The course is also too expensive. It has been effective for some people, but I feel it's because they've spent so much money that they feel obliged to use RS and other (more useful) resources.
I've also reviewed Pimsleur and a few other products. The bottom line is that there IS no product that will solve all of your problems. This is basically throwing money at the issue. What you need to do is learn a few words and phrases and use them immediately with a human being. I got so frustrated with this product-focus that I actually wrote a "sales pitch" for the best product in the world, HB 2.0 (Human Beings).
Note that if your focus is just on passing examinations, or something else like reading a book, rather than communication with people, then a lot of what I say becomes less relevant. Not me, or anyone else has the ultimate solution to learning a language, this is all down to what is relevant for you. Many people do the opposite of what I say, and more power to them because they have very different goals. The great thing about the Internet, Youtube etc. is you can get to know other polyglots and see where their focus lies and see if you'd jive more with their advice. "One size fits all" products are always a terrible idea.
If you are really curious though, I tend to invest in "Teach Yourself", "Colloquial", and Lonely Planet phrasebooks when starting off with most languages. I find these teach you to get by pretty well, and are light on grammar. From there you can advance quicker. I would study grammar when I have a base, never intensively at the start.
4. Does speaking a lot of languages get you laid a lot?
I get asked this a LOT!! Look, I'll admit that I kind of got inspired to become multilingual partially because the Brazilian guy I met (mentioned at the start of my TEDx talk) had ladies drooling over him. I thought it was because he spoke all these languages, but in fact it was because he was charming, attentive and a nice guy, while also being assertive and a man of the world.
And that's what it all comes down to in the end. After my first four years of travelling, I think I spoke five languages, which is already "impressive" enough. I made the mistake of saying this immediately when I would meet a pretty girl, thinking she'd be so impressed with me that we'd be going home within five minutes. It never ever happened. It's as bad as waving a Rolex or pointing to your Porsche. That doesn't impress people ever. Some girls are attracted to guys with money, but if you come across as an insecure asshole then that charm vanishes and the cute and charming bum becomes way more interesting. (For the record, I'm not rich. I earn about the same wage as people I graduated university with, but I am a minimalist and this helps me travel easier. Living in foreign countries also helps you leverage currency differences to your advantage)
So no, speaking a bunch of languages does NOT get you laid. It's the kind of person that you are. It's true that now because I speak more languages, I am open to more opportunities to meet more interesting people. I travel a lot and have learned to become less shy and approach more people (guys and girls), and this naturally leads to more opportunities. It's true that if I happen to speak the girl's native language, my chances increase dramatically, but actually you only need to speak ONE language for this, not a dozen.
As it happens, I'm not travelling the world to shag every girl in sight, and it's a pity when people think I have "a girl in every port". I prefer quality over quantity, and building deeper connections than having a string of empty one night stands. Being a world traveller influences my love life (for better and worse) more than speaking many languages does.
Speaking more languages does make you more of a "man of the world", which is of course an attractive quality. DON'T learn languages to get laid though. You'll be terribly disappointed. Work on becoming a more interesting person. If more girls are interested in me, it's actually because I can LISTEN in more languages, not because I can speak in more of them.
5. What's the hardest language in the world?
I've learned Hungarian and Czech to basic conversational level (haven't maintained them though, my ten non-English languages I maintain are Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Esperanto, Irish (Gaeilge), American Sign Language, Mandarin and Dutch), dabbled in Thai and recently learned Chinese. And you know what the hardest one out of all of these has been?
Yep - not Chinese, not Hungarian. Spanish. When you look at a language from a purely linguistic viewpoint, comparing grammatical concepts or how many cognates it has with your mother tongue, it's easy to think that you could theoretically come up with a "hardest" language.
But this ignores the psychological aspect. The hardest language in the world is what is hardest FOR YOU. Any generic list can never take this into account. I had the most inefficient learning approach (for a language I genuinely tried to learn) for Spanish. It took me almost a year to get the stage of OK conversational in Spanish, whereas it took me about five months to get to that same level in Chinese. I went on to improve my Spanish after this, but the point is that my APPROACH made the language hard, not the language itself.
If you are passionate about a language, then don't waste time comparing it to others. Some people like to learn a language because it seems hard (I'm not a fan of this; seems like a rather superficial reason to take on a means of communication with human beings), but for most of us this is nothing but intimidation, or the ego of someone who is a native speaker or who has learned it and wants you to think they are smart because of that.
Yes of course, if you have no personal attachment or motivation to learn languages and impersonally compare them, one language will come out as much harder than another to learn. But if you love Japanese Manga, then maybe this would be the "easiest" language (in passion) for you to learn, or if your family is Czech then you'll dive into that with way more enthusiasm than you ever would for Spanish or French.
Don't compare language. Learn the language you want to learn and learn it well!
Bonus Q. 6 How do you learn so many languages??
One language at a time. Focus, stick to it until you get to a very comfortable level, and then start another one, while maintaining the previous one. I've seen people try to learn two or three languages from scratch at once, and sometimes it works, but for most of us this is too confusing.
My fluent languages are a part of me now. I lived my life through them and have friends in these languages. I focused entirely on each one for several months or over a year, so it's a means of communication to me that I switch into.
I don't mix them up so often because I try to use them frequently. This allows me to compartmentalise them in my mind (I do other things like associate body language, posture, voice with one language so it's harder for another language to invade it).
Focus is the secret. If you are patient, and stick to one language that you are GENUINELY passionate about, then after you have reached a great fluent or mastery level in that language, you will be may more skilled to take on the next. It does get easier - not necessarily because your brain is tuned to language learning, but because your personality is. If you gain the CONFIDENCE to do it once, then you can do it again.
People don't realize how important confidence and ambition are in language learning. It isn't about good memory, but genuinely using it. This is how languages work - it's you and another person talking. Make it about that rather than sticking to the books and you'll be good to go!
* EDIT 1: Several people are asking Have you ever overheard people talking about you or dissing you thinking you don't understand?, so I'll answer it here.
I have found indeed come across people talking about me in general, curious about this white traveller (especially in non-touristy places) but to this day, never bad mouthing me that I was aware of. In China this year they kept referring to me as an American 美國人, rather than simply foreigner 外國人, since I'm white and they presume most white people are Americans. I found that a little annoying, but hardly offensive. They'd say this loudly enough that I was bound to hear it, but presumed that I couldn't understand them.
And one girl on a metro in Taiwan said to her friend I was cute, and got so embarrassed when I said 謝謝! (Thanks!)
Also, another question coming up a lot is What language do you think in? Generally, at any given time, I'm focused on improving a particular language. With this in mind, I force myself to voice-over in my head in that language. So even in the early stages, I'd try to think "Oh damn! I'm out of milk! I'll have to go to the store" or "That girl's cute!" etc. in the target language. It's unnatural at first, but soon I get used to it.
Right now I'm in the Gaeltacht in Ireland and think about such things in Irish. It's a conscious decision that keeps me in the flow. If you are curious about what language I dream in, you'll get that and a few other FAQs on this page: http://www.fluentin3months.com/learner-faq/
EDIT 2: Wow! Front page of Reddit an hour after I posted it! Incredible! This has exploded the number of comments well beyond what I can handle. I'm trying my best to answer questions that are unique or that I can answer quickly, so sorry if I don't get to yours, because some are coming up regularly. Please do click the links below because I discuss everything on my blog! Subscribe to follow my blog as I attempt my next language in September, and ask me your question again in a few weeks when the dust settles if I don't get to it this time :)