In this week’s new movie Limitless, clumsy loser Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) pops a smart pill that in 30 seconds turns him into a suave mental giant with a “four-digit I.Q.” He wins back his ex-girlfriend, impresses her by ordering their restaurant meals in fluent Italian and Chinese, and engages in other intellectual displays ranging from instant martial arts expertise to Warren Buffet-style money management that makes him a multi-millionaire in a matter of days. It's a mental zero to hero story.
But the fact is, you actually don’t need a pill or even genius to become a polyglot, a speaker of many languages (say, five or more). Just a strong desire and regular time devoted to studying each of your target languages several times a week in incidental moments that might be wasted, anyway, on pop music or just standing in line. Here are ten steps to becoming a linguistic Eddie Morra, without worrying about losing the pills, as he did in the movie:
1. Win the mental game, or you’ll lose before you begin. The idea of polyglottery being utterly impossible for “ordinary” people keeps talented individuals from setting this lofty but achievable goal. Mogul Henry Ford who introduced the automobile assembly line, once said, "If you think you can, or if you think you can't, either way, you're right." Remember: The third language is far, far easier than the second if you stick to the same language family (see Step 2), and the fourth much, much easier than the third. This is because all the related languages will share the bulk of their vocabulary and grammar with easily manageable differences.
2. Pick the right languages. All tongues are not created equal. If you speak English as your mother language, it will be much, much easier to learn other languages in the “Germanic” family, such as Dutch, German or Norwegian. In fact, Dutch and most of the Scandinavian languages (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish) are particularly easy, because their vocabularies and pronunciation are so similar to English and their grammars are simple.
3. Choose your language learning material wisely. There are, alas, some poorly conceived products that you might spend a lifetime on without learning much. Among the best, however, are the Pimsleur courses, Learn in Your Car and Living Language. Pimsleur is exceptional for thorough teaching that forces you to interact with the CD and completely master the material. Learn in Your Car is strong for building vocabulary and speaking ability. Living Language, I find, is useful for developing comprehension.
4. Use your car intensively. Maximize commuting time and short trips by listening to your language CDs. Keep in your car four or five separate portable CD players dedicated to each of your target languages. Many people will find that all the dead time spent alone in the car will suffice for the language listening time they need to devote to a polyglottery project.
5. Start reading primers and children’s books and move up gradually through graded readers, as you did in English. When you get to a fifth or sixth grade level, use a dictionary and begin reading original materials in the target languages that you would ordinarily want to read in English, anyway. If you’re a fan of science fiction novels or romances, then get those works in the target languages and use a dictionary to look up words. I’m currently reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in Spanish, Philip Jose Farmer’s Lavalite World in French, George Orwell’s Animal Farm in Dutch, and Michael Grant’s Caesar in German. Regular reading rapidly builds vocabulary, which will begin showing up in your spoken sentences.
6. Check Meetup.com for language clubs in your city and attend the weekly meetings in your target languages. These clubs often meet over supper, and generally they only have one rule: No English!
7. Find native speakers in your target languages who want to improve their English. You and they can meet in person regularly to spend, say, 30 minutes over lunch talking English, and the remaining 30 speaking your desired language.
8. Use Web sites that bring together language learners. Select a few individuals, then make use of the Web-based Skype service to set up free international internet calls for further practice with these native speakers. If you like, get a Web cam to turn the call into a video conference.
9. Make a game of expressing everyday sentences in all of your target languages. If you’re thinking at the grocery store: “Man, this cashier is slow” – then ask yourself how that would be said in your various target languages. My daughters and I have a game called Super Language Club that we occasionally enjoy over cups of coffee at Starbucks. One of us makes up a sentence, and we each take turns translating that sentence into the half dozen languages we are interested in.
10. Practice your language skills at every random opportunity. If you run into a native speaker on the bus, at the supermarket or in the office, trot out some sentences. Be bold like English-learning Europeans who take full advantage of their encounters with English-speaking tourists.
To sum up, read and listen a lot every day. The speaking will come naturally, as long as you discipline yourself not to be too shy to speak up when you have a chance with a native speaker.
Put these ten principles into practice, and you won't need a smart pill or four-digit I.Q. to get to six languages. But watch out: language learning is exhilarating and addictive. You may be tempted to eventually aim for “hyper-polyglottery.”