What Languages Do You Speak?



Some people can speak a seemingly impossible number of tongues. How vị they manage it, asks David Robson, và what can we learn from them?
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Out on a sunny Berlin balcony, Tim Keeley and Daniel Krasa are firing words lượt thích bullets at each other. First German, then Hindi, Nepali, Polish, Croatian, Mandarin và Thai – they’ve barely spoken one language before the conversation seamlessly melds into another. Together, they pass through about đôi mươi different languages or so in total.

Back inside, I find small groups exchanging tongue twisters. Others are gathering in threes, preparing for a rapid-fire trò chơi that involves interpreting two different languages simultaneously. It looks lượt thích the perfect recipe for a headache, but they are nonchalant. “It’s quite a common situation for us,” a woman called Alisa tells me.

It can be difficult enough khổng lồ learn one foreign tongue. Yet I’m here in Berlin for the Polyglot Gathering, a meeting of 350 or so people who speak multiple languages – some as diverse as Manx, Klingon and Saami, the language of reindeer herders in Scandinavia. Indeed, a surprising proportion of them are “hyperglots”, like Keeley and Krasa, who can speak at least 10 languages. One of the most proficient linguists I meet here, Richard Simcott, leads a team of polyglots at a company called eModeration – and he uses about 30 languages himself.

With a modest knowledge of Italian & some rudimentary Danish, I feel somewhat out of place among the hyperglots. But they say you should learn from the best, so I am here khổng lồ try lớn discover their secrets.


Most of us struggle with the simplest phrases - but it needn't be that way (Credit: Thinkstock)

When you consider the challenges for the brain, it’s no wonder most of us find learning a language so demanding. We have many different memory systems, and mastering a different tongue requires all of them. There’s procedural memory – the fine programming of muscles to perfect an accent – và declarative memory, which is the ability lớn remember facts (at least 10,000 new words if you want to come close khổng lồ native fluency, not lớn mention the grammar). What’s more, unless you want lớn sound like a stuttering robot, those words & structures have khổng lồ make it to the tip of your tongue within a split second, meaning they have khổng lồ be programmed in both “explicit” and “implicit” memory.

That tough mental workout comes with big payoffs, however; it is arguably the best brain training you can try. Numerous studies have shown that being multilingual can improve attention và memory, và that this can provide a “cognitive reserve” that delays the onset of dementia. Looking at the experiences of immigrants, Ellen Bialystok at York University in Canada has found that speaking two languages delayed dementia diagnosis by five years. Those who knew three languages, however, were diagnosed 6.4 years later than monolinguals, while for those fluent in four or more languages, enjoyed an extra nine years of healthy cognition.


If you want to lớn stay sharp in old age, learning a language could be the best neural workout (Credit: Getty Images)

Those lasting benefits are a stark contrast lớn the failure of most commercial “brain training” games you can download – which generally fail lớn offer long-term improvements in memory or attention.

Until recently, however, many neuroscientists had suggested that most of us are too old lớn reach native-like fluency in a fresh language; according lớn the “critical period hypothesis”, there is a narrow window during childhood in which we can pick up the nuances of a new language. Yet Bialystok’s research suggests this may have been exaggerated; rather than a steep precipice, she has found that there is a very slight decline in our abilities as we age.

Certainly, many of the hyperglots I meet in Berlin have mastered languages later in life. Keeley grew up in Florida, where he was exposed lớn native Spanish speakers at school. As a child, he used khổng lồ tune into foreign radio stations – despite not being able lớn understand a word. “It was like music lớn me,” he says. But it was only as an adult that he started travelling the world – first khổng lồ Colombia, where he also studied French, German & Portuguese at college. He then moved on khổng lồ Switzerland & Eastern Europe before heading to lớn Japan. He now speaks at least đôi mươi languages fluently, almost all of which were learnt as an adult. “The critical period hypothesis is a bunch of crap,” he says.


The question is, how vì chưng hyperglots master so many new tongues – and could the rest of us try lớn emulate them? True, they may just be more motivated than most. Many, like Keeley, are globe-trotters who have moved from country khổng lồ country, picking up languages as they go. It’s sometimes a case of sink or swim.

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Yet even with the best intentions, many of us struggle to speak another language convincingly. Keeley, who is currently writing a book on the “social, psychological and affective factors in becoming multilingual”, is sceptical that it’s simply a question of raw intelligence. “I don’t think it’s a major factor, although it does make it faster khổng lồ have the analytical ability,” he says.

Cultural chameleons

Instead, he thinks we need khổng lồ look past the intellect, into the depths of our personality. Keeley’s theory is that learning a new language causes you to lớn re-invent your sense of self – & the best linguists are particularly good at taking on new identities. “You become a chameleon,” he says.

Psychologists have long known that the words we speak are entwined with our identity. It’s a cliche that French makes you more romantic, or Italian makes you more passionate, but each language becomes associated with cultural norms that can affect how you behave – it could be as simple as whether you value outspoken confidence or quiet reflection, for instance. Importantly, various studies have found that multilingual people often adopt different behaviours according lớn the language they are speaking.


Different languages can also evoke different memories of your life – as the writer Vladimir Nabokov discovered when working on his autobiography. The native Russian speaker wrote it first in his second language, English, with agonising difficulty, finding that “my memory was attuned to lớn one key – the musically reticent Russian, but it was forced into another key, English”. Once it was finally published, he decided to translate the memoirs back into the language of his childhood, but as the Russian words flowed, he found his memories started lớn unfurl with new details & perspectives. “His Russian version differed so much he felt the need to lớn retranslate khổng lồ English,” says Aneta Pavlenko at Temple University in Philadelphia, whose book, The Bilingual Mind, explores many of these effects. It was almost as if his English & Russian selves had subtly different pasts.

Resisting the process of reinvention may prevent you from learning another language so well, says Keeley, who is a professor of cross-cultural management at Kyushu Sangyo University in Japan. He recently ran a survey of Chinese speakers learning Japanese khổng lồ examine their “ego permeability” – with questions such as “I find it easy to lớn put myself in other’s shoes & imagine how they feel” or “I can vị impressions of other people”, và whether you can change your opinions khổng lồ suit the people you are near. As he suspected, the people who score highly on these traits had much greater fluency in their new language.

How come? It’s well known that if you identify with someone, you are more likely to mimic them – a process that would effortlessly improve language learning. But the adopted identity, & the associated memories, may also stop you from confusing the language with your mother tongue – by building neural barriers between the languages. “There must be some type of home in your mind for each language & culture & the related experiences, in order for the languages to stay active và not get all mixed together,” Keeley says. “It is not just the amount of time spent learning và using the languages. The chất lượng of the time, in terms of emotional salience, is critical.” Indeed, that might explain why Keeley could switch so effortlessly between those 20-odd languages.

Of all the polyglots, Michael Levi Harris may demonstrate these principles the best. An actor by training, Harris also has an advanced knowledge of 10 languages, and an intermediate understanding of 12 more. Occasionally, his passion has landed him in some difficulty. He once saw an online ad for a Maltese meet-up. Going along, he hoped to lớn find a group of people from Malta, only to walk into a room full of middle-aged women và their trắng lap dogs – an experience he recently relayed in a short film The Hyperglot. You can see a trailer below.

When I meet him in a cafe near the Guildhall School of Music và Drama in London, he effortlessly slips into a rather posh, “received pronunciation” English accent, despite being a native New Yorker. As he does so, his whole posture changes as he melds into the new persona. “I’m not really trying to lớn consciously change my character or my persona. It just happens, but I know that I am suddenly different.”

Importantly, Harris thinks that anyone can learn khổng lồ adopt a new cultural skin in this way – & he has a few tips for how to begin, based on his experiences of acting. The important thing, he says, is khổng lồ try to imitate without even considering the spelling of the words. “Everyone can listen & repeat,” he says. You may find yourself over-exaggerating, in the same way that an actor may be a little over-the-top in their performance to lớn start with – but that’s a crucial part of the process, he says. “In acting first, you go really big, & then the director says OK, now tone it down. & you vì the same with a language.” He also suggests looking carefully at things like facial expressions – since they can be crucial to producing the sounds. Speaking with slightly pouted lips instantly makes you sound a little bit more French, for instance.

Finally, he says you should try khổng lồ overcome the embarrassment associated with producing "strange" noises – such as the guttural sounds in Arabic, for instance. “You have to lớn realise it’s not foreign khổng lồ us – when you are disgusted, you already say ‘eugh’. & if you acknowledge & give your subconscious permission to do it in speech, you can make the sound.” That may sound a little silly, but the point is that all this should help you lớn get over your natural inhibitions. “It’s all to vì chưng with owning the language, which is what actors have to vị to make the audience believe that these words are yours. When you own words you can speak more confidently, which is how people will engage with you.”

Even so, most agree that you shouldn’t be too ambitious, particularly when starting out. “If there’s a single factor that stops people learning languages efficiently, it’s that we feel we have to be native-like – it’s an unreachable standard that looms over us,” says Temple University’s Pavlenko. “The ease of expression is what matters to lớn me a lot – finding a better way khổng lồ express myself, colloquially.”

Along these lines, you should also practice a little & often – perhaps just for 15-minute stints, four times a day. “I think the analogies with exercise are quite good,” says Alex Rawlings, who has developed a series of polyglot workshops with Richard Simcott to lớn teach their techniques. Even if you are too busy or tired to vị serious study, just practising a dialogue or listening lớn a foreign pop song can help, says Simcott.

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In the UK, australia and US, it is easy to believe that we don’t need to make that effort. Indeed, before I met the hyperglots, I had wondered if their obsession merited the hard work; perhaps, I thought, it was just about bragging rights. Yet all of the hyperglots I meet are genuinely enthusiastic about the amazing benefits that can only be achieved by this full immersion in different languages – including the chance to make friends & connections, even across difficult cultural barriers.

Harris, for instance, describes living in Dubai. “As a Jewish person living in the Middle East, I faced challenges. But it turns out that one of my best friends was from Lebanon,” he says. “And when I moved away, he said ‘when we first met I didn’t think I could be friends with you và now you’re leaving, I’m distraught’. It’s one of the most precious things lớn me.”

As Judith Meyer, who organised the gathering in Berlin, tells me, she saw Ukrainians & Russians, Israelis and Palestinians all conversing at the gathering. “Learning another language really does mở cửa up whole new worlds.”