This is fellow irishman Benny Lewis, who is behind the site fluentin3months.com. This is his TEDx talk about the process of learning languages. Some of the video clips are a bit low quality but the content of his talk is high quality! Since I was about 16 I loved languages, although I began secondary school with a stubborn dislike for french, but when I got the chance to learn italian, things changed, and then changed even more when I realised everything I loved about learning italian could be applied to french. I remember distinctly the internal shift that made acquiring language more simple. It was when the language truly became a communicative tool, and not just something I needed to know to pass a test. Once I started watching films and listening to music in a different language, it was like a switch was flipped about how language really works. Sometimes people tell me I have a natural gift for languages, but I studied irish for 14 years in total and can't even make a sentence in it. The real reason I seemed to master other languages was just hours of immersion. I am just a geek about some languages. For a while, I spent all my spare time watching foreign films and reading foreign websites. The point I'm making is, like Benny, that if any of us put enough time in, we can get really good at a language.
Anyway it's something that's really on my mind now that I'm here working in France again. Especially now that I'm using it in a high pressure environment (waitressing - more about that in my next post).
I love the image association memory technique that Benny recommends. I call this 'memory key' and I always ask students that I'm helping to come up with memory keys. Usually they look at me like I've got two heads. I give it as part of the homework, I want you to learn these 12 words, and I also want you to tell me the memory key that you have for each one. Usually, the more personal, the better they work. Unfortunately that's the part of the homework the students always leave out. Sometimes my memory keys are literally the situation I learned a word in. For example: "Tu sais porter un plateau?" as I'm handed a tray full of drinks that I barely manage not to drop, I'm not going to forget the word for tray anymore.
At the moment I work with a girl who is bilingual in chinese and french, as she lived until she was 14 in Taiwan. I know that chinese is a tonal language and so I asked her to demonstrate the same sound in different tonalities, and I can't imagine ever having the fluency to be able to differentiate at speed between these sounds. But Benny's talk has refreshed my motivation! When I was 18 I worked in the European Headquarters of Apple Computers, which, from a multilingual point of view, was an extremely interesting experience. Every european country, and therefore language, was represented in this huge open floor office. I remember first hearing portugese and being really surprised at how unfamiliar it sounded. Right now I'm sitting in a cafe that's got this gorgeous brazilian soundtrack, and thanks to a few artists that I've been listening to recently, the sounds are beginning to make sense. I'm not saying I can speak portugese! But it's lost that incomprehensible unfamiliarity. Instead I can pick out recurring sounds and patterns. So if you're trying to learn a language, find a musician that you like and listen to their songs over and over! Watch films, but watch them actively, you can leave the subtitles on if you want, but keep the remote in your hand, pause at interesting sentences, and repeat them yourself out loud. When you're level is getting more advanced, see if you can notice the occasional disparity between the text and what you can actually hear.
I just want to reemphasize some points that Benny makes: Use it early! Don't wait until you speak the language perfectly. Embrace the beginning stages of language learning, make the decision to speak now! And talk to anyone you can. If you're learning spanish and you're in Spain on holiday, try and make small talk with the shopkeepers, at the market, with older people. Most people love having a little chat and those who don't, well, it doesn't matter! Often these little conversations can open doors in the most unexpected of ways. Maybe you'll make a new friend, you'll learn a new word, or you'll find out about an interesting event.
If you have yourself pegged as someone who's 'bad at languages', please please just drop this phrase from your vocabulary and don't use it ever again! You've already mastered one, why not another? And of course, I can't resist, I have to tie this in with yoga, it's actually the same. If you're 'not flexible', drop that one too. You are. You are whatever you want to be. Actually, as Sibylle Dalmann's blog recently expressed nicely, you are whatever you do on a regular basis. It's all the small daily stuff that eventually makes the bigger picture. I was having an interesting conversation with a girl Maggie I met here in Hossegor who's from NYC. We came to the conclusion if you want to do something, and you try it every day, there's no way you won't get it in the end. And if you don't feel like it would be fun to try it every day, then forget it, and pick something that you do think would be fun every day.