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CHAPTER 9: Hyperpolyglot: When One Is Just Not Enough
Take language learning to the next level. Speak multiple languages without mixing them up or forgetting the one(s) you’ve already mastered.
Using the tools from previous chapters, you should be able to progress toward fluency and on to that elusive mastery level in a single language, and even sound and look convincing as a speaker of that language.
While reaching the B1/B2 spoken level is certainly possible in a matter of months for someone dedicated and putting in considerable hours each day, reaching the mastery stage requires a longer investment to tidy up the mistakes picked up along the way, learn specialized vocabulary, improve reading and writing skills, and absorb the culture intentionally through many sources. Ultimately, after lots of such investment, you’ll be as effective in that target language as you are in your native one.
But many people dream of doing so in multiple languages. In this chapter, I’ll share the techniques that have worked for me and for other people to be able to converse in several foreign languages.
The Catch–22 of Wanting to Be a Polyglot
Not to be confused with a linguist, someone who studies or specializes in linguistics, a polyglot is a person who can speak multiple languages well.
Trying to become a polyglot, however, is a terrible goal! While you can keep this goal at the back of your mind, in my travels, meeting other polyglots and interviewing them about their language learning processes, and in my own experience becoming one, one thing has become blatantly clear across the board: you can only become a polyglot if you are passionate about each language, and not because you want to “collect” a large number of languages.
While it may sound impressive to know Chinese, Arabic, French, and German, if you are not eager to live your life through each language or discover different cultures, fascinating literature, or wonderful and interesting people—also in each individual language—then it’s clear you are interested in the wrong things. The same rules apply: if you’re not willing to put in the work, your chances of success drop.
That’s why you need to pick your languages carefully.
Learning Multiple Languages Simultaneously?
Another aspect of taking on multiple languages, even if you are sure you are passionate about those you are looking at, is the question of whether to jump on all of them at once or take them in succession. While some language learners can take on several new languages at once, most cannot. In fact, for most language learners this is a really bad idea, especially if they don’t have any prior experience with other languages.
Someone who already has several languages under his or her belt may be able to take on a couple of new languages simultaneously, but if you have not successfully learned any new languages as an adult already, it’s best to focus on just one language at a time. Despite my own experience learning languages, I never try to learn two new languages at once. There is too much of a risk of mixing them up. Grammar rules and vocabulary have a nasty habit of bleeding into each other when you’re first trying to get used to them.
While it may seem logical enough to try to learn two languages at the same time for a given period, say French and Spanish, you’re actually working against your best language learning interests. You’re almost always better off focusing your entire attention on one language and then, once you’re comfortable with it, turning your full attention to a second language.
This doesn’t mean you have to master one language before moving on to the next one. But you should at least wait until you’re fluent in one before taking on another. You should be confident using a language, at a B2 level or above. When I reach this stage in a language, for instance, I find it’s then really hard to forget the language, even if I don’t practice it for several months or a year.
When I have reached no more than level B1, though, because I am not yet truly comfortable in that language and because it doesn’t feel like it’s a part of me, it is much more likely to slip away, such that you go down an entire level in a very short time and even forget the basics. Of course, you can still get rusty with lack of practice at a B2 level and above, but within a very short time you can get back to where you used to be.
How Many Languages Can a Person Learn?
The obvious question is, what’s the limit? And, since we’re on the topic, how many languages do I speak? Whether that number is six, eight, twelve, or fifteen will depend on when you ask me the question and the nature of what “speak” means to you.
The American polyglot Tim Doner agrees with this, and while media mentions of him may list him as speaking twenty languages, he and all other polyglots much prefer to avoid sound bites that work well in newspaper articles; he prefers to give answers that define the levels he may have in each language or list how many he has a mastery level in or how many he can “get by” in, and so on. Generally, a true polyglot is quick to avoid giving simple answers.
For most people, though, such a high number is not necessary or possible, not because they don’t have the inherent talent, but because they don’t live the kind of travel lifestyle that I do or have the passion for languages other polyglots do, where languages are such a huge part of their daily lives. Learning languages indeed starts to become a full-time job!
But never listen to anyone (including me!) who tells you what your limitations are; I can only speak for my own limitations and suggest that these may apply to other people, as I have done in this book. I have met people busier than I am but more passionate for languages, and they overtake my number of languages at a fluent level or higher. Some would dismiss them as geniuses, but to me it’s more a question of passion. In talking to them in person I can feel this passion and appreciate that they are mere mortals, with their own challenges in language learning, but I could see the passion they have as they use and talk about languages. This decides how many languages they can ultimately speak.
I do, however, feel that becoming a polyglot is well within the realm of possibility for mere mortals (of which I count myself!) who can’t set aside a vast number of hours each week for learning or maintenance (which was the case for me during the first years of my travels, because I worked full-time in non-language-learning jobs). How many languages you ultimately reach will depend on you, your dedication to and passion for each language, and the time you are willing and able to set aside.
At first, when people hear that I attempt to take on a new language in just three months, they presume this must mean I learn four languages a year. They also think that I should know forty languages because I’ve been learning foreign languages while traveling for a decade.
There have actually been a lot of languages that I have taken on but decided not to maintain. As a result, my fluency level dropped dramatically. I can still reactivate them and go through the learning stages again, and do so much faster because the language is in there somewhere. But realistically, if you speak to me in that language, I can’t engage in the kind of conversation I had when I was focused on that language. Sadly, this has been the case for half of the languages I have taken on.
The reason for this is that when you start to learn as many languages as I have, you reach a limit in the number of hours you can put into them. You have to make some tough decisions. In my case, if I wasn’t absolutely inspired to keep living through that language for the rest of my life, I let it go. Some languages, however, have had a much deeper effect on me. I continue to return to and study these languages.
It’s always due to pull factors rather than push factors. Irish is important to me as an Irish person. Because Brazil is my favorite country, I’ll always speak Portuguese. Spanish represents such an important part of my life, so I’ll always try to maintain the language.
No matter how many languages I learn, however, there is a saturation point. I may eventually reach a certain number of languages I maintain and then stick to that number, even if I decide to learn a new language temporarily for travel purposes. There comes a point when you have to accept that taking on a new language would hurt maintaining your current ones too much. You only have a certain finite amount of time and should use it wisely.
Hyperpolyglot: Richard Simcott
Richard Simcott, a well-known British “hyperpolyglot”—a polyglot who speaks six or more languages—has uploaded videos online of himself using sixteen languages in various levels. I met up with Richard to ask him how he learns languages and what polyglots do differently from people learning a single language.
As expected, he agreed with me that there really is no simple answer to this question. He recalled another polyglot we both respect very much, Professor Arguelles, who shares his incredibly intensive approach of getting up early in the morning to write structured and precisely timed reviews of books in many languages. This works excellently for him, as he is passionate about reading languages, but it simply would not work for Richard or me. For the two of us, such a structured approach would destroy our motivation, because we like more spontaneous and random exposures to languages, particularly in spoken contexts.
Richard sees himself as practical. He surrounds himself with the languages he wants to work on by speaking them and consuming media. He says there is no secret or magic formula. The only way to reach fluency, he maintains, is through practice—granted, a lot of practice, but this type of pure exposure and time with a language and intentional, focused work toward improvement are key to learning a new language.
When I asked him how many languages he feels someone can practically hope to learn, he said it really depends on how dedicated that person is. “Languages,” he said, “are an essential part of my life and work. This has allowed me to put the time into allowing each one to evolve.” While we all imagine a typical impressive polyglot to know a dizzying number of languages, all at a perfect mastery level with no accent, the reality is that polyglots—myself and Richard included—tend to have some languages they are still working to bring up to fluency and a smaller manageable number at the higher levels. Richard says that he has rarely met someone with eight or more languages at a fluent level (as I described fluency earlier). He’s also never met someone who has learned a language as an adult who could pass as a native speaker all of the time, even though the person definitely could some of the time. He also doesn’t see why someone would want to learn such a huge number of languages, realistically speaking. More numbers may sound “cool,” but we never need more than just a few languages in our professional and personal lives.
It’s only really those who end up dedicating their work to language learning who reach such high numbers. And more important, those must be willing to dedicate a large portion of their lives to handling such a large number.
In the end, having met many people from the polyglot community, I can see that the number itself becomes less important than the sheer ability to communicate and express yourself in a language you are passionate about.
Not Mixing Up Languages
Now that we’ve established the ideas behind multilingualism, I can share some techniques that have helped me keep track of all the different languages in my head without mixing them up. These are equally applicable whether you have your eye on a large handful of languages or on only two or three.
As I mentioned before, I pick just one language to learn at a time and stick to that until I am very confident in it. When I apply certain techniques to blend in and appreciate the local culture more, I find this seeps into my language skills. Plus, I use body language and a sense of a “personality” with the language to help me keep it separate in my mind. This is more of a psychological tool than a language learning one, but as I learn a language, I make sure I am trying my best to use it as a native would.
For example, in French you have to speak a little in the front of your mouth. This requires you to purse your lips a little to get a more authentic sound. I would learn all my vocabulary this way, sounding it out and trying to do it à la française.
Castilian Spanish, on the other hand, tends to be spoken further back in the mouth. This means that a French word like voiture simply can’t come out of my mouth when I am speaking Spanish, because I have learned this word in a French way and it just feels weird to say it another way, even when adding a more Spanish -o or -a to it. Not only does it not synchronize with the position of my mouth, but the word also doesn’t line up with my body language or even the way I think.
This mental association helps us naturally compartmentalize languages in our minds, the same way we use certain formal words in work situations and slang ones with our friends. We are in a different mindset in both cases.
Saying a Portuguese word like falar with Brazilian body language while trying to think like a Brazilian and speak a similar language like Spanish is just not going to happen. Saying anything but hablar for “to speak,” in Spanish, will sound like an aggressive intrusion to me. Practice and reinforcement mean that the language becomes a part of you, and things like this just sound right—or wrong, as the case may be.
Hearing a word and using it regularly is the best way to make sure you use each language confidently. With time, you will successfully compartmentalize each new language in your mind.
Like Richard, I also have been in environments that have required me to make a switch in a language, such as at international events with people from all around the world. At first, I have stumbled into some weird Franglais, Spanglish, Portuñol, Denglish, Espaliano, or some other odd mixture of languages, but I can quickly correct myself and remember not to do it again. You simply learn and become good at switching between the languages.
While practice is the key ingredient, and ultimately the rules for learning your nth language are the same as learning your first one, there are certain other tricks of the trade that you can start applying. One of them is that you tend to pick up a side language I like to call grammarese.
As I said in chapter 7, starting to learn a language through grammar-heavy materials is something I wholeheartedly recommend against for beginning language learners. But once you reach a certain stage, grammar drills and rules can help you improve your skills effectively.
An interesting thing happens after you have gone through grammar rules once or twice; you start to pick up on all the specialized terminology most people are not aware of. I remember when I was training to become an English teacher to help me extend my time in Spain, and I had to relearn the definitions of article, conjugation, adjective, adverb, declension, case, pronoun, determiner, possessive, participle, subjunctive, preposition, and so many other things.
I have come across these terms so many times in so many books by this stage, I feel like I’ve picked up an extra language, as I can discuss the grammatical features of a language, even though such a thing didn’t interest me in the slightest when I first got into all of this.
This is another reason you can learn multiple languages more easily—you don’t have to go through learning an oblique language of terminology every time because you have already learned it. This is why I would suggest, when you do get to that B1+ level in your first foreign language, tidying up what you have with some grammar studies. While it may slow you down a little, it’s worth the time to truly understand and learn the terminology and presentation of tables, because when you come across a similar explanation in your next language, you will be able to flick through these pages much faster as a result.
When I came to the “notoriously grammatically complex” language of Hungarian, I have to say I didn’t find it even the slightest bit intimidating. To me, it seemed perfectly logical and consistent. As I read through heavy grammatical explanations, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I might even argue against linguistically minded people and tell them that Hungarian’s supposed dative and other cases are actually nothing more than agglutinative postposition suffixes that follow very simple vowel harmony rules, and the definite articles don’t even have any gender or case declension!
That last sentence would have been nothing but pure gobbledygook to me a few years ago (and may indeed be to many of you reading this), but it now comes naturally. The point is that you start to appreciate a language on a meta-level of how the pieces fit together in this grammatical and linguistic way. You also start to see how language families blend together and evolve apart, and to predict logically how and why a rule should work even before you ever come across it written down, based on your previous experience with other languages.
Learning One Language via Another
The final thing worth mentioning when you have a few languages under your belt is laddering, or learning one language via another.
While there is indeed plenty of excellent material to learn various languages through English, I have found that learning through another language I already speak well allows me to learn the new language a little quicker sometimes. Usually I do this through French because I quite like Assimil’s language courses, which present languages in an interesting way, and my French is very good.
Learning through other foreign language speakers is another great way to learn a new language through another language. When I first arrived in Italy, for instance, I stayed with an Italian friend, Daniele, whom I had met in Spain. He explained several of my mistakes in Italian through Spanish, which really helped me begin to compartmentalize both of these languages as well as appreciate their differences, much more so than I would have by getting the explanations in English.
In fact, when dealing with similar languages, a book explaining how one language works through the other can more effectively point out to you the differences between them. If you then start over with a book explaining the language in English, you will learn many similar rules and vocabulary lists for the similar languages. It’s less efficient than learning through a book designed specifically to point out the differences between the two languages.
As such, when I started learning Dutch and kept mixing it up with German, I found that I was able to work much more effectively as soon as I got a book about the Dutch language written in German.
When I come across new vocabulary and learn it through the translation of a language I speak well, I start to associate the meaning of a word in my new language with the concept of what that word means, rather than a translation through English (or French). This helps me remember it more quickly.
One of the greatest advantages of all, though, is that for about the same amount of work, you learn a new language while effectively maintaining one of your current languages! I always say we should use our languages for what we are passionate about, and if you are passionate about language learning, it only makes sense to use one of your well-established languages for that very purpose.
Live a New Life for Every Language
You live a new life for every new language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once.
As you have seen in this chapter, I highly recommend you focus on just one language at a time. You may have a goal to take on multiple specific languages, but take your time and make sure you know one very well before you go on to the next one, and you’ll be on the road to multilingualism.
Some of the people I mentioned in this chapter and elsewhere in the book have written or made videos extensively about their own learning approaches. In many particular cases they agree with me, and in some cases they branch off and offer alternative advice. This is a good thing! There is no one true way to learn one or many languages, so I would encourage you to investigate other polyglots’ language learning advice and see what jives best with you and your goals.
For a list of interesting polyglots and hyperpolyglots, videos of them, and links to their work, and to discover more about their learning approaches and their advice for picking up languages, check out the follow-up to this chapter online at fi3m.com/ch–9.
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