The Secret of Learning Languages

February 11, 2016 by 1 Comment

During a Polyglot Workshops Online session with participants, I got a really interesting comment: “I came to learn about the secret to learning languages”. This was not from someone who is new to languages, but rather someone who has learnt languages successfully for a number of years. This is someone, I consider to be an intelligent, proficient speaker of more than one language. Still the question remains, “what is the secret of learning languages?”. It’s something we’ve all thought about at some point and maybe we still are looking for that holiest of holy grails – the quick fix.


There must be a secret though, right? I mean, if there are people out there like me, learning more than 10 languages to a convincingly high level, then it must get easier and easier. There must be some trick that we use to get good at languages and quickly.

In this blog post, I would like to expose what that secret is. It is quite simple.

Before you roll your eyes at the thought of a polyglot tackling this topic, wait a second and read on. I am not going to go down the usual path with this one: Blogging about ritual learning, talking about how to use methods, how you study regularly and how to use your materials wisely (though these are important topics in and of themselves). I am actually going to share the secret with you. Before your eyes roll completely, I have to admit that I would be one of those eye rollers myself, reading something with this title and introduction. You have my full understanding. I am not into gimmicks!

No, what I want to do is to dispel a few myths about people who learn a number of languages and what goes on behind the scenes.

How quickly can you learn?

First of all, how on earth do you learn languages so quickly? This question comes up again and again from a number of people I meet at conferences, gatherings, workshops and just during the course of the day in my ordinary life and interactions with people I know.

Well, the answer to this is clear. It is really that hard work you put in. But it’s not just that. People who learn lots of languages get good at “faking it”. No, that doesn’t mean that they are fakes. It simply means that they can get by on far less more easily than someone going at their first language over a longer period of time. So, we see this idea of “Fluent in Three Months” and it suddenly looks like a reality for some people. I know Benny has had a lot of discussion to further explain that name and I understand why. He’s best to explain that though. My point here is slightly different.

The thing is that some people do appear to be “Fluent in Three Months” and it is possible to do that. I know, I did it with German. But to be fluent and to stand up to an exam scenario (written and oral), as I did in German after three months, takes a LOT of work. In fact, I was studying for 8 hours a day in the first month.  Then I studied a little less each day in the second and third months, whilst consolidating the information I was reading by practising the language constantly, every day with the host family I lived with. It was an era without Skype or good Internet connections, so I had little contact with anyone back home. Talk about immersion!

I am not special in this ability. I have come across other people (neither polyglots, nor people interested generally in multiple languages nor geniuses) who have done the same thing too. Just normal people. OK, so I might have done well compared to that group of people who do this kind of thing too because I have done it a number of times already. That experience does help. Similar words and grammar already learnt in other languages make life a lot easier to remember things. I went from Swedish and Old Icelandic to German, so I was never a true beginner in the language, starting from zero.

In reality though, we don’t all have this amount of time to dedicate to language study over a short amount of time to become “Fluent in Three Months”. And not everyone needs to do this either. I know some people find it challenging to get basic fluency in 3 years. Focus, hard work, motivation and clear goals are the keys to success. But what about this secret I was going to tell you about?

This is where the idea of a quick fix seems appealing. After all, “Korean in a Week” sounds more exciting than “Korean in 10 years”, even if the latter is more realistic. We all want what we haven’t got, but we want it yesterday. It’s an illness of our age with everything we need at our fingertips via the interwebs. We can access information more easily than ever before. The other thing we see is the good side of what people can do right away in their vlogs, blogs and other online interactions. This is where we see and imagine the impossible.

Our minds and imaginations are more powerful than what we perceive to be true. In the world of language learning, the truth really is that we perceive fluency and language dominance in others, where they actually show a very different skill. This is why we see huge arguments on YouTube videos, demonstrating people’s language skills.

To tie a shoe or not to tie a shoe – with what is the question!


I heard an argument once from someone, saying that not knowing the word for “shoelaces” meant you were not really fluent in the language. The retort to that was, “you can get around it with other words” and still be fluent. To my mind, there is truth in both of these statements, but neither are entirely full explanations of the situation.

For me “shoelaces” is a funny word to choose, but that matters little. The point is that it’s a very basic word in English for native speakers. We could look at other examples in other languages, where we’d struggle to find the translation back into our native tongues, and they could be basic words in those languages. That doesn’t mean we’ve lost fluency in our native tongue though.

The person who made the point about not knowing such words as “shoelaces” was onto a point that I recognise in myself and other polyglots I have met. We are simply good at fluency at any level in the language learning process. We can work easily within the confines of our grammatical and lexical knowledge at that particular moment in time. We may be able to mask a series of errors or gaps in knowledge with good pronunciation and a convincing use of fillers. We often have an ability to dominate and manoeuvre in the conversation to steer to our strengths, avoiding these linguistic gaps too.

All of this gives off an appearance of a better command of the language than we actually have. This is something that gets easier as we grow in experience doing it. Often it can appear that we have some magic secret to learn a language to such “great fluency” in a short
space of time.

In some way, it is true that we can speak quickly, but this is the trick to doing it: We learn to be fluent with what we’ve got.

On the flip side, I take on board the other argument too. The reality is that we ALL have to fill in the gaps to gain that really precise level of fluency on a very broad range of topics and to be able to say words like “shoelaces” without avoiding the topic. Simply put, it does go back to that tried and tested method of sitting down, learning and going out and practising and repeating what we learn again and again. Sometimes we do this in our native language, even in adulthood. Just it’s more obvious in foreign languages for us and others listening as it happens more often.

Next time I will share more of the secrets to learning languages with you. If you enjoyed this post, please do share it and “like” it. Look out for my guest blog post on italki, coming soon!

I explore a lot of topics about language learning at the Polyglot Workshops online and in person. If you want to join me for sessions on how to succeed in language learning for your own situation, get in touch.

If you sign up for italki and buy a coupon for language lessons through them, you can use the Promo Code below at checkout to get $5 OFF your order! So a $10 coupon costs you just $5! Use Promo Code: RICHARD

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This post was written by Richard

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