learning how to learn languages

Every so often – maybe when I’m feeling like I need a bit of inspiration, or I’m just feeling bored and listless – I watch TED Talks. Usually these are TEDx Talks but they’re more or less the same thing. Usually I watch talks about psychology and human relationships, or about behaviour and the way the brain works; but a couple of weeks ago, YouTube was suggesting some talks about learning languages.

As you may or may not know, I’m currently in the process of learning Persian (AKA Farsi) and also kind of re-learning Mandarin, so when I saw videos like “How to learn any language easily” pop up, I figured “why not”. I used to be quite wary of these talks because I thought they would just tell me to spend three months in whatever country speaks the language I’m learning, and I’d miraculously master it (obviously I can’t just pack up and move to Iran or China for three months); but I had spare time that day, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to watch one talk, and see if it offered anything worthwhile. 

(For the record, that total immersion thing was a technique used by two of the speakers, but they were doing the talk together, so I’m not sure if that counts as one or two suggestions… Link for that talk is not included in this post, but you’d probably find it easily enough from the ones below.)

I was, however, pleasantly surprised by most of the talks I watched, and actually felt very inspired and motivated afterwards. And I didn’t just become more motivated to learn Persian and Mandarin, but I was inspired to learn more languages too. (Fun fact: After Persian, I want to learn Russian too. Maybe Greek after that, or I might go back and revise Japanese. I seem to be particularly drawn to languages with different alphabets…)

I was actually using my BIL’s computer at the time, so I wasn’t logged in to my account couldn’t be bothered logging in to save the videos, so I thought the next best way to “save” these inspiring videos was to write a post on my blog. And this is arguably the best way to “save” them because it means I get to share them too (and we all know sharing is caring).

This one, by Matthew Youlden, was the first one I watched. His talk was so encouraging that it made me want to (1) actually try harder to learn new languages, and (2) watch more TED talks about how to learn languages.

I especially liked the point he made about not being afraid of making mistakes (which are inevitable anyway), and this was reiterated in the three or so other talks I watched.

I reckon just about any polyglot has their own tips for learning languages efficiently, and there’s probably going to be a lot of overlap, so I don’t know why I watched so many talks (good scientific method?) but if you only watch one TED talk about learning languages, Youlden’s is a good one to watch. He has a lot of good advice that will (hopefully) help you get rid of frequently used excuses for not trying to learn a new language.

If you have more time, maybe watch this one by Gabriel Wyner too. The most valuable thing I got from his talk (which I don’t think anyone else mentioned) was that we should make real, sensory associations with words i.e. instead of learning a foreign word for “camera” by just using the English word “camera” (or whatever the equivalent is in your native language), learn the word using an actual camera or a picture of one, so that when you see/hear/hold a camera, your mind thinks of its name in the other language. If that didn’t make sense, watch his talk – he explains it better.

I was originally only going to provide links to the two talks above, but, after I wrote this draft, I watched another TEDx Talk about learning languages… I’d noticed this one in the suggested videos list when I watched the other talks, but I kept ignoring it because it was about speaking English. Eventually, though, curiosity got the better of me. After all, how could I ignore a title like “Why you should speak English like you’re playing a video game”…?

I’m actually really glad I watched Marianna Pascal’s talk, and that I could include it in this post. Pascal asserts that attitude is as important (or more important) than actual skill/proficiency level when trying to communicate in a new language. Her talk reiterates what Youlden (and others) said about not being afraid to say something silly and make mistakes, but she also makes a good distinction between correctness and clarity:

Often, you don’t have to communicate in a grammatically correct way to get a message across. You might not even spell/pronounce the words 100% correctly, but if the other person understands you, you’ve communicated effectively and successfully. Granted, we’d all probably like to be technically correct as often as possible, but this perfectionism shouldn’t be a barrier to actual communication, which is the whole point, isn’t it?

One last bit of advice – something else that was mentioned in some of talks: You’re never “too old” to start learning a new language. It is a myth (apparently) that young children learn languages better than adults. As adults, however, we have the advantage of knowing how to learn.


13 thoughts on “learning how to learn languages

  1. You inspire me with your focus on learning new languages. I’m lousy at learning to speak languages and would like to change that about myself. During the summer when my life calms down a bit, I’ll watch these videos to see what I can do better. Thank you for the videos. Great find.

    • Don’t worry, everyone starts out bad with languages at first 😉 Several years ago, I tried French – abandoned that; tried Korean – abandoned that too!
      Is there a particular language you want to learn?

      • I want to get better at Spanish that I studied in school, but never quite got the hang of. Also, French might come in handy. Especially if I ever visit parts of Canada, which is something I’d like to do.

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