How to become a polyglot

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Whether it’s for business or pleasure, learning a new language can open up a whole new world.

Imagine conversing with the locals when you travel overseas or conducting business in a client’s native tongue. Rewarding, fun and appreciated, right?

According to science, it could make you smarter too. Especially if you’re a polyglot.

A study from Georgetown University medical centre found that adults who are polyglots have more grey matter in the parts of their brain responsible for attention span and short term memory.

What is a polyglot and how do I become one?

A polyglot is someone who knows several languages and is able to understand, converse, read, and write in each one.

Sharon Melamed, Director at Matchboard, is a perfect example. She speaks five languages, has worked in five countries and is an accredited translator in Japanese and German.

She says that learning a language is fun, but there are no shortcuts. The languages you choose to learn should depend on your individual goals.

“You have to be patient and dedicated, so it’s very important to have an end-goal for motivation,” she says. “Whether that’s to close a deal in your target language, or to communicate with your mother-in-law without an interpreter.

I studied French, German and Japanese at university. But, I always knew that Japanese would be the breadwinner for my career, as Japan was Australia’s biggest trading partner and source of tourists at the time.”

So, what are her key tips on how to become a polyglot?

1. Be prepared to make mistakes

When you’re learning a new language, it’s normal to feel conscious about making mistakes, especially with native speakers. But, if you don’t practice, you won’t learn or get better.

“The key is not to aim for perfection,” says Melamed. “As long as you’re making yourself understood, even if there are pronunciation and grammatical errors along the way, that’s OK.

You have to be willing to let your guard down and accept that by practicing a language, even with mistakes, you can get better.”

2. Master your basic phrases first

“If you’re learning a language for business purposes, it’s a good idea to learn phrases for greeting people, getting to know them or expressing pleasantries,” suggests Melamed.

For both business and pleasure, it’s worthwhile learning basic phrases and requests, such as “I like”, “I don’t like”, “menu, please” and “can I order”.

If you’re learning a language for travel, asking for directions, the time, or the cost of an extra serve of ice cream may help too. “It’s so tempting to try to skip to more complex language,” says Melamed. “But, you need a solid foundation first.”

3. Get a native-speaking language pen pal

Signing up to an online language exchange is a great way to find a native speaker of your target language.

Whether it’s via snail mail or email, a native pen pal can help you with grammar, sentence structure or translation. They can also teach you colloquial sayings or informal words.

According to a Japanese University study, participants of an intercultural email exchange reported “improved language abilities,” “new long-term channels for communicating in English”, “a greater sense of cultural awareness”, and many other great benefits.

4. Language apps, books and audio

“Different people respond to different learning methods, so find out what works for you,” says Melamed. “For some it’s reading a book, for others it’s having the radio on in the background, and for people who like more structure, there are various apps.”

Melamed suggests regularly reading the main newspapers online or listening to podcasts from native speakers. If your partner or family has contacts overseas and calls them regularly, listen in on the conversations.

“I do that constantly with my husband who calls home to Israel every second day,” says Melamed. “Exposure to these daily conversations is incredibly helpful and more sinks in than you think.”

5. Travel to the country

“It’s incredibly valuable to spend time in a country where your target language is spoken,” says Melamed. “Even a few weeks abroad can accelerate your skills, and things will suddenly “click” and make sense.”

To truly benefit, hang out in cafes or bars where foreigners will be. Listen to conversations around you and start them yourself. Be the chatterbox not the wallflower.

“There’s nothing like immersing yourself in a native speaker’s language environment,” says Melamed. “It’s the best way to fast-track your vocabulary and understand language in the real-world as opposed to the textbook environment.”

6. Practice makes perfect

A language can’t be learnt without practice, and the more you practice, the better you become.

“You can practise comprehension skills by listening to SBS radio or TV and reading the news online in your target language,” says Melamed.

She notes that you can also practice by speaking to exchange students, friends or family who are native speakers of your target language.

For more creative practice, try following international companies on social media to receive multilingual content in your newsfeed, picking a song out of the international music charts and translating it or writing your shopping list in your target language.