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Polyglots and the Amazing Power of Language Hacking

May 31, 2016

"Polyglot" is not a word commonly used in day-to-day conversation yet it refers to a personal quality many of us wish to possess, the ability to speak several languages. Often when we encounter an individual with this skill set we’re amazed at the ease in which they navigate multiple languages. Most Americans have taken a foreign language class or two in high school or college, yet the majority of us lost any ability we gained years ago. So what gives some people apparent ease when it comes to language learning? A recent Ted Talk by Benny Warsaw clues us in to what he calls "language hacking."

Benny, a native of Ireland, shares his personal story of amazement and frustration when it came to language learning. After several failed attempts, Benny began changing tack at the age of 21, starting with the three most common misconceptions most adults have when attempting to learn another language. When it comes down to it, the barriers are just in our head. First, the idea that we don’t possess a special language "gene" or have any natural talent. It turns out that this concept is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than an actual neurological block. In Benny’s case, since he didn’t think he had the natural talent, he didn’t see the point in putting any real effort into learning a second language. So, because he didn’t put the work in, he didn’t learn the language. What he found was that when he worked harder he was able to catch up with those he thought had natural talent and in many cases was able to surpass them.

The second concept he worked with is probably the most common one of all, that he was too old to learn another language. Many of us think, wrongly, that the brain of a child has a superior ability to learn new languages and once childhood is over this skill is lost. This misconception is supported by typical "heredity vs. environment" beliefs, however a study from the University of Haifa in Israel found that under the right conditions, adults are actually better language learners than children.

The inability to travel to the country of choice has been a long-standing excuse for not learning a language, yet with the advent of the Internet and high-speed accessibility more prevalent than ever, this barrier is quickly removed. Free services such as Skype allow anyone to have conversations with native speakers as easily as visiting the local café. In many cases, these people also want to learn your language, so a "tit-for-tat" approach benefits both parties and works wonderfully.

Other new technologies are fantastic at helping reinforce new words and phrases with scheduled reminders to practice. There are several phone-based apps (free to download) which are built specifically with adult language learning in mind. Often reinforcement of the spoken word is far more useful than attempting to read, write, conjugate verbs and so on from the start.

While all these tips are very helpful, the most important key to learning another language as an adult is the motivation to do so. Studies have shown that those passionate about being able to hold conversations with native speakers learn far faster than those with financial or ego-driven reasons. To hear Benny’s full presentation, view the Ted Talk here.

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