How I, personally, learn languages
Recently, I’ve met a lot of new people because we’ve moved office twice and I decided to be a little more sociable in general than usual. And when people ask me my story, it’s difficult not to tell them about my relationship with language.
If I were to break down the important parts of my life, a good chunk would be allocated to love of languages. My own, other people’s.
I speak four languages. I have written about this extensively. It seems self-indulgent, but from speaking with other linguists, I know that I am not alone in thinking: acquiring languages is traumatic in so many ways.
A lot of people have also asked how I learn languages.
I don’t know but I’ve thought about it a lot by this point, trying to make sense of it and I wanted to write it down. If nothing else, the next time someone asks me how they can learn a language, I can share these things.
Language learning is not done by reading books. It is certainly not done by learning sentences. Grammar is a tool for the trip, not the path itself.
Drink deeply from the cultures that a language is connected with. Learn to understand people and share in their history. Without this, you will never begin to see what the words mean.
Watch their films, read their books, eat their food, look at life with their eyes.
Choose a role model
I have chosen a role model in both French and German.
While I was learning French, I decided that I liked the look of the actor Romain Duris. I like the way he moved in films, his facial expressions, his impeccable style. And so I began to copy him. I copied his body language, I studied the uhms and ahhs of his speech and I adopted it all.
When I learnt German, I copied Daniel Bruhl. Before he was famous.
If that fails, choose an accent
I couldn’t find a role model in Welsh. There are lots of people I like, but I don’t want to be like any of them.
And so I did the next best thing (which I also did for French and German as well as all of the other languages I have toyed with): choose the most stereotypical accent you can think of and begin to practice with it.
If you can cause doubt in the mind of a native speaker as to where you’re from early in a conversation, you’re more likely to finish the conversation in the language of your choice than if you sound like a foreigner.
Trust me. At the boulangerie, you’ll get a better baguette if you sound like a person with a thick french accent than you will if you sound like you’re from Staines.
I even practice my accents in English. You may someday overhear me speaking English with a German accent or like a Parisian. You will almost certainly hear me speaking to someone with a north Walian accent that borders on Polish.
One important part of language learning that is overlooked by many is etymology. The root of the words. Understanding how language moves across the world is important. Making connections will help you to expand your vocabulary. For example, think Welsh is a purely Celtic language? Nope, nope, nope.
Purple in Welsh is porffor. But where does it come from? Greek! Now you can build connections by asking, what other words are similar? What about Ysgol? Just like scholastic or school in English, the Welsh word for school comes from Greek or Latin for the same word.
When I meet someone who speaks a language I don’t know, I ask them to tell me what a series of different words are in their language so that I can try to guess what others are. Try asking someone what the word for window is in their language. Pretty fascinating.
Speak as soon as possible
Begin to build sentences with the unimpressive vocabulary that you have from day one. What can you do with fewer than 10 words?
Well, an awful lot. Actually, loads. See what I mean?
Don’t worry when you don’t know a word. Ask what it is, remember what image it conjures in your head, compare it to words in your own language or languages, file it away and use it as soon as possible.
Learning a language is like curating a museum, you put things in drawers, but you always know where they are.
I recently had cause to tell a French person that the house he had rented my family had blown a fuse. What’s the phrase for that? Well, I remember once having a flatmate explain that another flatmate had péter un câble when he heard me playing music too loud.
Years apart, but still fresh, because visual memory is really important.
There is no system
There are many ways to learn a language. And there are many people who tell you that it is easy. Those people are not telling you the whole truth. They can tell you the rules of grammar, show you a dictionary.
But they can’t tell you how to really build a relationship with a language. They can’t tell you how odd it feels to have a different personality in each language. They can’t tell you all the ways your brain views the world differently (I am more liberal in some languages. I am more likely to take risks in others).
There is no magic wand. You must practice and have a good time. I am still amazed by the things I learn about my own brain and capabilities. It disturbs me and amazes me.
And that’s the way that humans are wired. We are amazing creatures and we have created amazing ways to communicate with one another.