Have you ever wondered why there’s some people who can speak several languages while you keep struggling just to learn one? And how polyglots learn languages?
I asked myself that question many times and this is what was going on in my head. Every single time I met, heard or read about someone who could actually speak several languages I thought of them as kind of superheroes, with an incredible memory, a magnificent ability for conscious learning and study and a tremendous talent for languages. I believe we’ve all heard about this a couple of times, haven’t we? They’re exactly the opposite of those myths that we believe to be true deep within ourselves: I’m not talented enough for languages, I’m not good at studying, I can’t remember what I learnt and so on. Fortunately, all this myths are not real, they play no role in true language acquisition.
So it’s not individual skills nor external factors that make people be able to speak several languages while you continue to struggle, but rather something they know that you don’t (pretty much what happens many times in life).
But before we go deeper into what polyglots know that you don’t, let’s take a closer look at my old ideas about language learning and those “superheroes”.
The idea that we do need our memory in the process of language learning obviously comes from the way we’ve been told pretty much our entire life languages should be learnt. We’ve all heard about grammar rules, vocabulary lists, language drills and so on.
The problem is we’re talking about conscious learning in this case and then memory does play a role.
However, we already know what that teaching approach does to you because we’ve all suffered the consequences. First of all, every time you go out to the outside world and want to talk, you need time to consciously build every single sentence, chunk or phrase you want to say, what leads to a sort of hesitant style with a lot of stops that I’m sure we all have witnessed some time when someone’s speaking in a foreign language. That makes your brain feel very tired after a few minutes too.
Because we’ve grown accustomed to taking exams in which we had all the time in the world to recall everything we consciously learnt, we believe that’s got to be the way languages are learnt, but once again we just have to go out to the outside world and see what happens to realize that this can’t be the way.
We can also realize how our knowledge decreases when we stop studying the language, because all this teaching approach relies on is memory and conscious learning.
On the other hand, and taking a look at the example of kids and their native languages, true language acquisition is a subconscious process in which we develop knowledge of the language and we process it in our brain through comprehensible input, in order to be able to improve our language skills and later on, start speaking naturally and spontaneously. Just imagine how hard it would be to have to consciously think about everything we want to say in our own language.
Thus, we can see that memory plays no role in true language acquisition.
The idea behind having to possess a great studying willingness and ability is closely related to that of the memory. Because we’ve always understood language learning as a conscious process, studying was the focal point if we wanted to improve our language skills. We all know though how many hours of English study an average Spanish student gets from age 5 to 18 and what the results are.
So the only way we knew in order to be able to improve our language skills was to study longer and harder, which not only does it take you nowhere but it also ruins anybody’s motivation.
This conscious knowledge also gives you a (false) sense or a feeling of improvement after learning certain grammar rules or memorizing a certain vocabulary list, but again we all know how useless all this is in the outside world.
We can see then, and we’ll talk more about it later on, that conscious and hard study is not one of the tools that helps polyglots improve their language skills.
Let’s now take a look at the idea of talent for language learning.
Obviously, it all has to do with the wrong approach to language learning, but this idea of talent is a pretty good excuse we make up to justify why there’s some people who speak several languages and it helps us take on the victim’s role on why we don’t. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about because I had these ideas myself. At the end of the day, we consider talent to be the main cause for success or failure and that’s certainly not the case.
There are actually individual differences but that will only make some people acquire the language or start speaking earlier than others. Getting back to the example of children and their native languages, we can see some of them start speaking the language earlier than others due to those individual differences I just mentioned, the environment and other reasons, but in the end they all get to acquire their native languages.
Thus, individual variations will make a particular person acquire or start speaking the language earlier or later, but they have nothing to do with the fact that one person speaks five languages while other just speaks one. By following the right principles, we can ALL acquire any language.
Let’s now get down to business and see what it is that polyglots know that you don’t. As we’ve just seen, this process has nothing to do with memory, studying hard or talent.
Basically, they know the right principles by which a language is actually acquired, but let’s try to be more specific.
1. It's a subconscious process
They know that acquiring a language has nothing to do with memory and conscious learning, but it is rather a subconscious process in which,as I’ve said, we process the language in our brains and develop our language skills through comprehensible input, just like children do.
2. Comprehensible input is the key to success
In that sense, they know that comprehensible input is the absolute key to succeeding, and that output is just a consequence of having gotten enough comprehensible input, and not a cause of our progress as we’ve been told to believe. I know this is hard to believe because of the way we’ve been told languages are learnt, but by speaking, practicing or whatever you want to call it, we don’t develop our language skills directly at all. Our output is a result of the improvement that came from comprehensible input.
Obviously, output does help us improve our language skills indirectly because whenever you speak to someone you’re going to get a response. This is the reason why people living in the country where their target language is spoken get to acquire the language. We give output or speaking the credit, but it should be given to the large amount of comprehensible input they have access to.
3. You don't need to produce from day one
Pretty much connected to this last idea, they also know that we don’t need to speak from day one as we’ve been made to believe in traditional, grammar-based classes. Instead, they know our ability to speak will show up when we’ve received enough comprehensible input. We witness time and time again how children receive an enormous amount of comprehensible input until they’re ready to start speaking. And that doesn’t mean they’re not progressing (we can see they’re indeed progressing because they can understand a greater share of the language), it’s just the way the process of acquiring a language works.
4. Communication is what really matters
They know our focus should be on communication and not on form as well, and that’s why they don’t care about making mistakes (we constantly make them, even in our own language). They also know that the fact that your mistakes get constantly and consciously corrected doesn’t help you get them right the next time around, and that all that leads to is a fear of speaking because you’ll be actually afraid of making mistakes. We don’t get our mistakes right when they’re consciously corrected, but rather when we hear them correctly an “x” number of times.
For all of us who have attended traditional grammar-based classes, how many times have we made a mistake concerning a rule we were perfectly aware of from a conscious point of view? You got it, thousands of times. But for whatever reason we keep trusting the inefficiency of getting our mistakes corrected.
5. Be patient and trust the process
Last but not least, people who speak several languages are patient and trust the process. They know that is just not possible to acquire a language overnight (this might sound pretty straightforward but for some reason there’s still some people who believe and hope this is actually possible) and that there’s a process involved to make it happen. They know that any method that promises you’ll acquire a language in a couple of days is just a scam.
As I’ve said many times, we have an example of how a language is actually acquired in front of us, but we keep looking away from it. We know it works every single time with children and their native languages, so let’s use the same principles! I’m not saying we should learn exactly the same way, but the principles must be the same.
I’ve mentioned in several occasions that I attended a workshop in Agen (France) in July 2016 for teachers that understand this is the way languages should be taught, and it’s not a coincidence that pretty much all of them spoke at least three languages, and some as many as six or seven.
I truly hope this article’s helped you understand a little bit more the process by which a language is actually acquired, and especially improve your attitude towards languages and realize that we ALL can acquire any language. And all that with no need for grammar rules, conscious learning, study, memory…
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