Once you’ve spent enough time as a foreign language learner–especially if you’ve learned several languages–you become a valuable resource to others who are just beginning.
In November, we published a post all about the in’s and out’s of polyglots, someone who speaks a minimum of three to six foreign languages. We dove into the exact definition of a polyglot, the kinds of communities available to polyglots around the world, polyglots’ keys to success, and ended with a few tips from a polyglot who was kind enough to share his insights with us.
In the second part of this series, we interviewed Ko Ricker, a polyglot living in Portland, Oregon, USA. Ko works as a writer, editor, and linguist and has a background in translation and narrative media. She has advanced knowledge of German and French; beginner's skills in Mandarin, Korean, and Spanish; and has started dabbling in Italian, Japanese, and Vietnamese.
We asked Ko to share some exclusive insider tips on how polyglots do what they do best, to get an insider look at polyglot tips for learning languages. Here is what she told us.
When did you begin learning foreign languages?
I started learning my first foreign language at the age of four, which is ideal, and also primed me for later language learning. Of course, it's not something adults learning a foreign language can choose to go back in time and do, but I think it is significant that I had a bit of a "leg up" in this arena from the get-go.
If there are any parents in the audience, it's worth knowing that linguists generally agree that the best time to start learning a language is before the onset of puberty (at least—the younger, the better).
What polyglot learning methods, study tips and strategies can you share?
Watch TV and listen to audiobooks. Services like Netflix and Libby have tons of foreign-language movies, shows, and audiobooks, and their collections are increasing all the time. I watch German and French TV with German and French subtitles, respectively, because it helps give me a feeling for the relationship between orthography and pronunciation. (It's also just easier to understand that way for me—I watch English shows with English subtitles too.)
Consuming media in a foreign language is a great way to get a feel for how people talk in a natural setting, and you might even get a taste for some dialects you might not be exposed to in educational materials, as well as subtle cultural elements. Some people recommend watching dubs, like German dubs of your favorite English-language shows, for example, but I prefer not to, because then you're not experiencing language use in its relevant cultural setting.
Even if the setting doesn't have anything to do with the language, like it's a fantasy series for example, I contend that there are some cultural elements to the writing that you might miss if you watch a dub.
But the important thing is that you choose polyglot learning methods and strategies that work for you. If you're into gaming, you can also look for video games or phone apps in different languages, or switch the language settings of your favorite games if available.
How do you memorize vocabulary?
This is probably not going to be practical or interesting for everyone, but since I have a background in linguistics, I am familiar with the international phonetic alphabet and its conventions.
Doing some research on a language's phonetics can be helpful for me when it comes to pronunciation, because you can learn exactly where each sound is supposed to be in your mouth, and how to pronounce it.
Plus, it's interesting to compare the phonetics of different languages, see which sounds they have in common and which are different.
How can immersive experiences help?
Travel isn't something that's accessible to everyone, everyone, but if you have the opportunity to go to a country where your language of choice is spoken by the majority of the population, that's extremely valuable.
Especially if you can take a few weeks or months to enroll in an intensive course there, so that you truly get the environmental immersion experience, and a chance to use the skills you're developing in everyday life. English speakers are sometimes at a disadvantage when they try to learn a foreign language in another country, because English is so widely spoken, and it often becomes an option for conversation no matter how hard you try to speak the language you're learning.
So if possible, try to go to smaller towns or areas where the local population is less likely to speak English. Then you won't even be tempted, and you'll be forced to try really hard to be understood.
How can you stay motivated to learn a language while abroad?
I think friends are a great motivator, so if you can find some sort of buddy program or homestay situation, then even after you leave the country (or, if it's a penpal, if you never left your home country at all) you'll always have someone to practice with.
Thanks, Ko, for sharing your insights!
Becoming a polyglot isn’t as complicated as it sounds if you have the right strategies in place. What’s more, if one person can manage eight languages, anyone can manage one.
In that sense, there’s a lot of inspiration to be gained via polyglots learning methods – from people who pursue language learning because they love it.
Stay tuned for further polyglot tips for learning languages around the globe as we continue this series.