When you are learning your first foreign language, everything feels bizarre. Somewhere in your mind, it seems nuts that you might know that language confidently one day.
You start to look around at multilingual people, you watch a few YouTube videos, read a few blog articles. There's clearly people out there who are learning languages. They seem to know more than just one or two - some people know more than 10 languages!
Like most polyglots, people often ask me how many languages I speak. But recently, I was asked one question that made me think more deeply about why and how learning more languages works for me:
Does it get easier when you are learning more languages?
The short answer is "yes". It definitely does.
Here are the things that are helpful, relevant, and different when you are learning your 7th language.
1) You Know What Language Learning Strategy Works For You
When I first started learning languages, there was one source of information that told me how to learn languages: my teacher. No one told me about the Goldlist method and Anki and even the International Phonetic Alphabet.
Sounds like I had all the chances to mess up, right? But my language isolation bubble had a silver lining: I had the freedom to develop a learning strategy that works for me. I simply discarded the things that waste my time, and perfected those that I need. I amused my mum with vocab sheets taped to the bathroom mirror. I tried, tested, and grew my own masterplan, learning to trust my instincts.
If you follow language learning blogs, you know that there are many methods out there. Bloggers like Benny Lewis advocate speaking very early in the process, others like Gabe Wyner talk about pronunciation above all things. What you discover over the course of many language learning years is that you are always doing it right. The doubt of whether you are using "the best method" simply goes away.
The big secret to learning any language is this: Just don't stop.
2) You Become Confident About Your Language Learning Skill
When people learn a language in school, they often experience languages in a box. They're are on the curriculum, so they're taught inside a classroom and rarely used outside of one. The idea that there are whole communities in the world actually living their lives in different words seems kinda nice...but what's it got to do with you?
Even at exam times, you're tested on theory and abstract skill. The exam papers are about correct grammar and vocabulary. That's undoubtedly important, but it misses out on the greatest part of learning a language: realizing that you can make an amazing connection, right now.
When you start out with your first language or even your first 2 or 3, there is that lurking question inside:
"Am I really able to do this?"
But as you stick with the process, here is what changes: It stops being a classroom exercise. No one who is learning a 5th or 6th has got there without finding a spark that brings their language out of the box. The spark is different for all of us, but once you've got it you know that "good performance" isn't the point. It's all about connection and trusting the process.
I no longer ask myself if I can do this. I know that, given time and dedication, I can learn any language to a very high level. And the reason I know this is because I know that it doesn't matter - I will always be doing this for myself, too. That's what the spark did for me.
3) You Realize There Are Always More Languages to Learn
No matter if you have learnt one language, or seven, or 20: There will always be more languages to learn. Being a prolific language learner is a lifetime commitment, a little like a lifestyle change. I have now realised that I am never going to learn all the languages that are on my list, because that list is forever going to grow.
Our planet and the human race are so wonderfully diverse. We are blessed with thousands of languages, communication systems and scripts. Once you dive into learning one or two of those languages, you enter this amazing world of human communication. And by language number 7, you'll have caught the communication bug.
Even the most multilingual people in the world know fewer than 100 languages. They're certainly not done. I stilll have to work hard to learn a new language, and I still feel like I know nothing. Achieve fluency in many languages - it will open your mind to what you don't know!
4) You Know Being a Polyglot Ain't Special
Learning foreign languages is an unusual hobby, and in monolingual cultures like most of the UK, it's even more of a rarity. At the same time, most people have touched a bit of a foreign language - enough to know that it can make your brain hurt. So the conclusion people draw becomes that it takes a special language gift (perhaps a different brain?).
I believe that learning many foreign languages is a wonderful and incredible achievement. The work, commitment, focus, and dedication of prolific language learners are incredible.
But know that there is no language gene, or polyglot brain. Someone who knows many languages is just as capable as you are. When you are on language number 5 or number 10, you're more efficient, knowing more about your own favourite methods. But it's still hard work.
So here's my bottom line: You should learn a language because it will show you incredible things about your own capabilities. There's nothing to it, really. Nothing you've not got already, anyway.
Which Good Lessons Can You Add?
I'd love to hear your stories in the comments below. And of course, stay encouraged and keep going. You can totally do this.
For more information about coaching and access to lots of free toolkits and worksheets, check out my book The Vocab Cookbook and hop onto the Fluent Language Newsletter today - can't wait to say hello to you on there!