10 Things Polyglots Do Differently When Learning Languages

Polyglots are normal people like you who happen to have mastered 5 or more foreign languages… without possessing any kind of magical talent for languages or struggling in a language school. How is that possible?

I answered this question at the Polyglot Gathering 2017. If you’d like to discover the secrets that polyglots use to achieve success with languages and get super inspired, click below to watch the video. And if you want to read the summary with all the amazing tips, scroll down to the blog post.

The whole “magic” is in the way polyglots learn which is so different from the traditional system used in schools and language courses. This is something I’m really passionate about because I see so many people blaming themselves for not progressing with their language skills. As a result they get frustrated, lose hope and give up. Sounds familiar?

I truly believe that anyone can learn a language when using the right system. And the way polyglots learn languages clearly seems to work. I’m excited to share the things polyglots do differently so you get inspired and finally take your language to a whole new level. 

The curse of the “Timekeeper” & how can anyone learn languages the way polyglots do?

I have a name for people who really struggle with learning languages. I call them ‘timekeepers’. If you ask a ‘timekeeper’ whether they speak German, they will say something like “yes, I’ve had 8 years of German in school” or “I’ve attended a language course for 4 years”.

A timekeeper always tells you the time they’ve spent learning the language. But usually they can barely speak the language in real life. Sounds familiar? So something went wrong. Otherwise they would have achieved fluency after all those years. But now you know that the problem is not with the person.

Because, as you can see on the other hand, we have polyglots who manage to speak several languages fluently. And they’re the same ordinary people which means anyone can learn languages. 

How do polyglots learn languages?

Let me introduce you to a few well-known polyglots and their strategies so you can see the differences in their approach to learning languages and the methods they use.

Every polyglot has their own way of learning languages.
Every polyglot has their own way of learning languages.

» Benny Lewis – Speak from day 1 «

At first, Benny collects a few words and phrases from the language he wants to learn. Then he goes to the country where the language is used and starts speaking with people there, making thousands of mistakes in one day. He simply gathers more vocabulary as he practices over and over again. 

» Steve Kaufmann – Listen and read first «

Steve doesn’t go for speaking right away but instead he gets a lot of input first. He listens and reads massively before talking. 

» Lucas Bighetti – Language boost «

Lucas’ method is all about 500 most frequent words in the language that he learns with example sentences. Using those words and sentences he can express basic ideas and communicate with ease. Then he continues to learn different vocabulary. 

» Gabriel Wyner – Flashcards without translation «

Gabriel doesn’t use translation at all but instead he uses pictures of things or he uses a word missing in a sentence when he wants to practice grammar. 

» Robin McPherson – Dissection method «

Robin takes a short video (from Youtube for example) with subtitles and he dissects it into very small chunks. Then he puts the phrases into Memrise and keeps learning them over and over. 

» David James – The Goldlist method «

David writes lists of vocabulary and rewrites them every two weeks in order to distill the words he has stored in his long-term memory and repeats the ones he hasn’t yet. (If you’re interested in this fascinating method, you can read more about the Goldlist method on our blog.)

This is to show you that every polyglot has a different system, however, they all get to the same result – fluency in a language. But what are the common threads between the ways polyglots learn? And what do polyglots do differently from the majority of people that allows them to achieve amazing results? Let’s have a look.

10 Things polyglots do differently when learning a language

Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right.
Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right. (Henry Ford)

1. Polyglots don’t have a special talent

None of the polyglots I mentioned previously were able to speak a foreign language until they were adults. So it’s not that they were born with a special gene that you may lack. Because if they had a special talent, wouldn’t they have been the best students in their language class back in school?

2. Every polyglot has their own method

There is no single best method to succeed in language learning. As you read earlier, every one of the polyglots uses their own way of learning and they all achieve amazing results.

3. Polyglots learn languages mostly by themselves

I believe this is the key difference between the way polyglots learn and the way students are used to learning (in school or on a language course). The majority of people sign up for lessons and expect to be spoon-fed the information because they paid the teacher to teach them. So they come to the lesson and wait to be taught. Polyglots’ learning, however, is mostly self-directed.

Laguages cannot be taught, they can only be learned.
Laguages cannot be taught, they can only be learned. (Luca Lampariello)

4. Polyglots create their own language materials

They don’t have just one book they follow to learn Spanish and another book to practice their French. They gather their own resources and materials – they make their own flashcards, collect books, texts, recordings, YouTube videos etc.

5. Polyglots learn one language at a time

The famous polyglot Anthony Lauder demonstrates this perfectly by this example: “How can you learn 10 languages in two steps?” And his answer is: “Step 1: speak 9 languages. Step 2: – add 1.” It doesn’t mean you can’t practice multiple languages. But you still need to concentrate predominantly on the one language you’re currently trying to master. 

6. Polyglots spend way more time listening and speaking

Most classes in schools or language courses focus on reading, learning vocabulary, and grammar which keeps students in their comfort zone. But nothing in your language learning will help you progress faster than speaking. Even when you make lots of mistakes at the beginning.

7. Polyglots are not afraid to make mistakes

A regular student feels terrified when they’re about to say something in a foreign language. They’re simply afraid they will get it wrong. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Polyglots on the other hand put themselves out there and make many mistakes. And remain relaxed about it.

8. Polyglots have mastered the art of simplification

This is the key to speaking at the beginning when you don’t know that many words. Simply use the words you know without being afraid of making a mistake. And if you apply this to any speaking lesson you can improve really quickly.

Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint
Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint

9. Polyglots learn in small chunks

Remember, half an hour every day is much better than 8 hours on Sunday. We all have a life so fitting little bits of learning into your existing schedule is way more realistic and enjoyable than trying to squeeze in a long learning session at once. 

10. Polyglots enjoy learning languages

A lot of people think that language learning is not their hobby therefore they won’t speak a foreign language. But what if you combined your hobby with language learning? Let’s say you enjoy traveling or a healthy lifestyle. Why not watch videos or listen to podcasts about your favorite topics in a foreign language? It’s a win-win situation. Plus, this way, learning becomes fun and enjoyable.

Find ways to enjoy the process of language learning
Success in language learning depends on you finding ways to enjoy the process.

The key to learning languages?

I believe that these 10 things that polyglots do differently are crucial to learning languages. And if anyone (whether they are talented or not) copies these strategies, they will definitely succeed.

So let me ask you – have you been trying to learn a language for many years without having great results? If your answer is yes, then it’s time for a change. I hope you feel inspired to try a whole new way of learning and I can’t wait to hear about your experience.

T. Robbins: If you always do what you've done, you'll always get what you always got.
If you always do what you’ve done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. (Tony Robbins)

HAND ON HEART, WHAT’S THE LEVEL OF YOUR FOREIGN LANGUAGE?

If you’ve spent a lot of years/energy/money to learn a language and still can’t use it with confidence and ease in real life… you’re probably thinking that you simply don’t have “talent for languages''. There’s no other explanation, right?!

Well, there actually is a reason why you haven’t seen the desired results after so many attempts to learn a language! Do you want to know what it is? Register for my FREE WEBINAR and find out:

  • How someone without a “talent for languages” went from hating the process of learning to absolutely loving it!
  • How ANYONE can successfully learn a language at home.
  • Why a “talent for languages” is NOT necessary to succeed at learning them.
  • What the biggest mistakes are that people make when trying to learn a language.
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Lýdia Machová

Language mentor
I have learned 9 languages by myself, and I usually add a new one every two years. As a language mentor I've helped thousands of people to learn languages by themselves, in ways different from traditional classroom methods, and with much better and faster results. I'm a TED and TEDx speaker and a former organizer of the Polyglot Gathering, one of the biggest world events for polyglots.
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