People ask me questions all the time, and their number one question is: “How do you learn so many languages?”
There’s no simple answer.
Just like learning to walk, learning a language is never easy. It’s a struggle. Plain and simple. But it is damn rewarding.
The truth is, it depends on which language you’re talking about. Each one has a different story answering the “why, how, and what” questions.
It’s easy to assume that someone is just more naturally gifted than you and faster at everything. What you don’t know about, is how many times a certain person failed.
Why I failed to learn Dutch.
Maybe you look back at your life with languages, and can tell me how you took French for all four years of high school but don’t remember a thing. Your Spanish teacher sucked and couldn’t teach for her life, or the class was too distracting. I get you.
Truth is, you’re not alone. Despite the languages under my belt, I’ve failed at three languages already. THREE. You woulda thought that I’d learn from my mistakes. Nope.
I failed at Brazilian Portuguese, and Mandarin awhile back. But most recently, I failed at Dutch. Surprise!
1. Inadequate Motivation Is a Killer
As you know whenever one learns a language, the reason why is a major determiner as to how you will succeed. Maybe you want to impress a girlfriend’s parents or want to travel somewhere.
I think these are great ideas but to get the job done, you need to back yourself up a bit more.
If you look at what I speak already, you’d think I had everything going for me. I speak Spanish and French which means I should know about 50% of Portuguese vocabulary, at least. Same goes with Dutch and German.
Being a guitarist and having heard “Girl from Ipanema” one million times in my life, I decided I really liked the sound of Brazilian Portuguese. I set out trying to learn Portuguese simply because I liked the sound. But for some reason, it wasn’t good enough.
I tried learning Mandarin because it gave me eight college credits, and I wanted to have a conversation with my grandfather (he’s already in his 90’s now…) in his native language.
Even that wasn’t good enough.
Same thing with Dutch. Switching to Dutch from German isn’t that crazy and a lot of German words just need to be “dutchified.” I have Dutch cousins and I really LOVE the Netherlands, so much so that I visited probably around 4-5 times in 2016.
Granted, I got my Portuguese and Dutch to an A2 level. Was that good enough?
Why is that? Because these nice ideas were just a casual desire without a plan.
It’s all about People
More importantly, I realized that my biggest motivation for anything in life is people. Loving out Loud is what I do. By trying to learn a language in isolation, I got drained. I had no one to practice with, and no one to share the joys of their culture with me. At least, on call.
Sure having an online teacher is great, but it’s not the same as having a friend you care about next to you.
2. Good Learning Materials are Important
I don’t know about you, but studying was never my thing.
Going on Wikipedia and reading about the Vikings when you’re supposed to write a paper on the growth of raspberries in Morocco was always easier, but sitting down with an actual book? Forget it.
I couldn’t study to get good grades in school for my life! That’s not to say I did bad, but studying was something else.
Each of us needs to find our best study method and materials to supplement that.
I grew up listening to language podcasts and they’re the main reason my French is the level it is today, but what podcasts can’t give you is structure.
Structure is KING.
When you do things on a whim without a plan, it always gives you the ability to opt-out or “fix things up” because work was stressful today.
Maybe one of the reasons you don’t get anywhere is because you give yourself too many breaks. I know how that feels.
When learning Dutch, I had an Assimil book that I bought eight years or so prior believing that one day I would spend some time with the language. I was right!
The problem with this book was that it was out of date. The dialogues were dry and corny, and the vocabulary would make me seem like a grandpa when talking with my cousins. As a result I never fully committed to studying every day for 30 minutes.
Yet another horrible excuse, but it ultimately led to my downfall. I wouldn’t mind if you put #firstworldproblems as my #1 language killer.
Whenever I tried to go on my own path I was losing humility. I always thought I could do things on my own strength and that if I was made out to do something, it would come naturally.
We all learn otherwise.
When You Fail Non-stop, Try New Techniques!
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Unknown but falsely attributed to Einstein
Maybe things just aren’t looking up for you, and you’re not sure where to go next. Something I advocate to everyone is studying other people in different fields.
We have various learning techniques that we use on a regular basis. It’s not smart to try and improve by repeating something from beginning to end over and over.
You have to find where mistakes are and fix them!
In addition to that, you can watch my talk at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin where I give a general overview of ideas you can use today!
3. Lack of Commitment
Now we get to the biggest monster on the language road.
Every year we make new year’s resolutions and things, but do they ever really go through?
Yeah, I’m talking about commitment and motivation. You need to answer your why before you can justify your how and what. Simon Sinek illustrates this perfectly in his TEDTalk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.”
If you want to learn how to develop your motivational skills, I’ve got two resources for you.
Last year I led a group to an Indonesian restaurant and sat with four VIPs at my table (only one of which I knew.) A few months later, I was invited onto the Actual Fluency Podcast to talk about language learning and Indonesian.
Kris Broholm struggled with depression for a good amount of his life and with that came a constant battle when wanting to do anything at all. Depression is not fun, and it’s REAL.
Kris didn’t think that this was the end of his story, and decided to keep going and eventually produce a course answering the motivation question.
Let me know what you think! I’m not an affiliate, but I do believe in sharing good content and supporting friends.
Speaking of motivation, would your problems be solved if you had friends there to help at the ready?
Brian Kwong decided to learn German one day in order to impress his ex-father-in-law but realized he needed a challenge and a punishment. He gave himself three months to do it and worked his butt off practicing and studying German non-stop. His punishment was cleaning the toilet every day for a week (don’t quote me on this one.)
That’s how the #add1challenge was born.
Since then hundreds of people have accepted the call. Like, ordinary people.
These are people with and without language experience who decided enough is enough. They dived in head first and desired community to help guide and encourage them throughout the process.
The reason it works, and why people come back is because community is important. People cheering you on help you remember that you’re not alone. It’s how I learned German and is how I will complete my next goal of learning Italian.
In case you were wondering, the reason I’m learning Italian is to get a scholarship for a music festival this summer. The bottom video explains everything. Let’s hope it works!
The #add1challenge is a powerful motivator if ever I saw one.
What are you waiting for?
Is there something you’ve been wanting to do this year that you’ve been putting off?
Maybe it’s asking that girl out, fixing your relationship with your parents, or learning a language. What’s stopping you?
Go figure out what you need to do and do it. Not sure how to go about it? Shoot me a message and maybe I can help you out with something!
Conversation is rest for the soul.
Let’s get started.