Posts Tagged ‘Multiple Languages’

Methods in Learning Multiple Languages

November 6, 2013


I recently received an email from a student named Will who asked about methods in learning multiple languages.  Will observed:

Perhaps a bit more background before I continue: through personal experience (learning French and then Spanish) I’ve come to the conclusion that third and subsequent languages are very often learned in an entirely different way than second languages, and I couldn’t help but notice the lack of high-quality educational material geared specifically towards students who are already bilingual.  This has led me to take a very serious interest in third language acquisition, in particular the development of better teaching methodologies and educational resources for third- and subsequent-language learners.


His email got me thinking about my experience in learning multiple languages and if there is an actual “method” that should be incorporated.  I know from my own experience, as a fairly proficient speaker of Spanish and Portuguese, it is impossible to not draw from that knowledge when studying Italian, Catalan, and French.  There is no way to avoid the mental comparisons among the various romance languages.  However, in my study of  Japanese and Chinese, how much do I draw from my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese?  Are their strategies in my learning of Chinese, for example, from which I draw on my experience in learning some German?  And if so, is there a “methodology” to this?

What I can say is that my experience in learning multiple languages has helped me not worry about things that are beyond my current level.  That is to say, for example, although I use the subjunctive in Spanish and Portuguese, my overall proficiency in Italian is still not at the level where I worry too much about the subjunctive in Italian.  I am confident that as my proficiency increases in Italian, at some point I’ll be incorporating more and more of these higher level concepts.  Until then, I can put those items on the shelf.  Second example, I know that agreement is important in German, but until my proficiency is higher, I know that I will continue to make mistakes in case and gender.  I do my best, but I don’t sweat it too much for now.  Third example, I know that tones are important in Chinese, but I also recognize that mistakes are going to continue for a while, so I keep on plugging away, doing my best, but not sweating it too much at this time.  This is actually a very important part of language learning.  Without the experience of multiple languages, it would be more difficult to assess what is absolutely essential now and what can be put on the “advanced-level shelf” for later.  I often see university students of Spanish who struggle with clitic placement in Spanish, and my thought is, “Don’t worry, it will come later, when the rest of your proficiency catches up to this grammar point.”

Second, a learner who already speaks multiple languages knows that foreign language communication is actually possible.  In my own case, I have had the experience of communicating with people in other languages.  I have traveled where I needed to go, interacted with people I wanted to meet, eaten foods that I wanted to try, and experienced places where I wanted to visit.  Those who are monolingual have never really experienced living, interacting, and communicating with people in another language.  In their case, the learning of a second language is undertaken without the knowledge of what it is like to really talk to others in a foreign language.  It is a different mindset to take on a task when you can envision the final outcome.  This is the case of learners who already speak multiple languages.

And finally, learners of multiple languages end up creating their own methodology, rather than passively waiting for a teacher or a program to lead the way.  In my own case, when I want to take on a new language, first, I find a textbook to serve as my foundation resource.  Second, I listen to recordings, podcasts, and tons of samples of that language.  Third, I find a tutor to practice with, giving me one-on-one time for questions and conversations.

So I thank Will for giving me this chance to think about the “methodology” of learning multiple languages.  And I wish him well on his new acquisition of Portuguese.

The photo:  I was recently with a group of Korean executives who told me that they think that I look like Harrison Ford.  So, we took this picture of my imitation of Indiana Jones.  Pretty cool, isn’t it?  Maybe I should study Korean!


How many languages do you speak?

July 15, 2008

I get this question a lot.  “Dr. Kelm, how many languages do you speak?”  It is a really hard question to answer because somehow quality and quantity are hard for people to separate.  I don’t want to exaggerate or give a false impression and I certainly don’t want someone to say, “Liar!  I talked to him!  He’s lousy at Spanish!”  So, my basic long answer (which nobody wants to hear) is “Well, my Portuguese and Spanish are my best foreign languages and I feel pretty comfortable with them.  Then my Italian and German are pretty good, enough to get by and I could use them pretty well when I was there traveling.  Catalan seemed harder, but last time I was there I was finally getting the hang of it.  I’ve also studied some Japanese, but I’m pretty rusty right now (but I had a great time speaking Japanese in Japan).  Now I’m studying Chinese and I’m really loving it.”  You see what I mean.  Nobody wants to hear the long answer.

Maybe it is because people (especially North Americans) think of a foreign language as an ‘all-or-nothing’ kind of deal.  If you say you speak German, people think you should be able to talk just like a German on every subject and in every situation. Well, I’m here to stay that it ain’t so!

I find it refreshing sometimes to talk to Europeans who speak “all those languages.”  Recently I was talking to a person from France, who of course also speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian.  The thing is that his Italian was, well, as jumbled up as my Italian.  But it was cool, because there was no hangup with this notion that we have to have perfect Italian to claim that we “speak” Italian.

My general impression is that people would enjoy foreign languages more if they didn’t have the added pressure of feeling like they are supposed to be equivalent to native speakers.  You will notice that our educational system promotes this viewpoint too.  We generally teach foreign languages as if learners are somehow going to be total experts some day. (Why else would we spend weeks teaching third semester college students about all of the adjective clauses that trigger the subjunctive in Spanish?) My general impression, however, is that the majority of our learners do not need to speak like undercover spies. They would be just as happy having a great time talking about sushi with Japanese friends in Japanese.

So three cheers for those who can enjoy using foreign languages to interact with people around the world, even if they are not “near-native” speakers.  That, by the way, is why I put the picture of me at Tian Tan in Beijing.  I was hanging out in the park where I enjoyed listening to the old men as some played their instruments while others sang along.  Finally I got the courage to talk to them in my limited Chinese.  We ended up having a great time and I had a fantastic experience.  So, how many languages do I speak?  I’m over the hang up.  I speak eight.