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Develop the ability to learn languages quickly

The ability to learn languages quickly increases the more languages you master.

The “cumulative enhancement model of language acquisition” theory affirms it. And the statement is backed by a study performed between the University of Tokyo and MIT.

Those who have been training their brains to learn languages and master several have an easier time learning other languages. As mentioned in the intro, scientists at the University of Tokyo, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have found that language skills add up. You can look for the theory known as the “cumulative improvement model of language acquisition” to dig deeper.

However, this theory leaves us with two main points.

First point derived from the theory: Copy what polyglots do!

First, to have the ability to learn languages quickly, we should look at what polyglots do. They have refined their strategy over time. And copying them will enable us to use our time more efficiently, thus learning quicker.

Here are four suggestions derived from observing polyglots:

1. Polyglots have a clear goal!

People who only speak one language tend to start several beginner courses simultaneously. At the end of a few weeks, they are discouraged. They have repeated the same first-lesson material more than needed. And have seen little to no improvement.

Polyglots would start by creating a plan suited to meet the desired goal. Here are two examples:

Polyglot needs to pass the university’s required foreign language course. He would focus on mastering the vocabulary and grammar in the textbook. And check the required readings too. Instead of spending his precious time on a general beginner course, he would learn half the words in the schoolbook in a few weeks.

Polyglot is planning a trip to a foreign country next August. He would focus on tourist situations most likely to happen (checking into a hotel, reading a menu, etc.). A strategy would be to brainstorm scenarios. And learn the vocabulary related to those possible interactions. That would be the perfect point to get started.

2. Polyglots do not skip days.

It is better to spend short periods daily than a long session only on Saturday.

A polyglot knows that regularly studying is crucial. It allows the brain time to absorb information overnight. On the other hand, cramming hours into one day once a week makes the student spend a lot of time on reviews instead of advancing through the material.

3. Polyglots do not hesitate to review what they are learning.

They keep touching the language throughout the day. It is hard to be focused when doing other activities. But quick review sessions are more than welcome. These could be re-listening to an audio course on the train. It is annoying to wait in line for half an hour. But flipping through some flashcards can be a wise way to use that time.

4. Polyglots are selective with their learning.

Selective learning and the goals that a person sets are inseparable. So we may think this point is covered by the previous. However, we should not leave it unfocused.

Depending on the goal, a polyglot would prioritize what to learn. For somebody that wants to develop writing skills in the target language, newspaper content would be ideal. Somebody needing speaking skills should focus on podcasts and radio programs.

Practice, practice, practice!

There is one more way to learn a language quickly, simply practicing.

The more you try learning languages, the faster it all comes. That is true because you get used to seeing links and patterns between languages. And even more, you get to know the way you learn. Knowing what worked for you is decisive in determining what strategy to implement. If it was helpful in the past, it could also be in the future.

The researchers at the University of Tokyo and MIT arrived at the same conclusion. The more languages you learn, the easier it becomes to reach fluency in a new one.

Second point derived from the theory: Start learning a language today!

That leads us to the second conclusion derived from the theory mentioned at the beginning of this post. The earlier we start learning languages, the better. We are not only learning a new language. We are building our ability to learn languages quickly. If you’re skeptical, let’s check the experience obtained by the researchers at the University of Tokyo and MIT.

The experts conducted their research by measuring the brain activity of bilingual and multilingual volunteers. The test was to identify words and sentences in Kazakh, a language unfamiliar to all participants. All the participants were native Japanese speakers with English as a second language. But most of the multilingual volunteers also knew Chinese, Korean, Russian, or German. Some of them were polyglots fluent in up to five languages.

The goal for participants was to discover the basics of the new language simply by listening. They listened to recordings of words and short sentences in Kazakh while watching a screen with symbols indicating whether the sentences were or were not grammatically correct. Meanwhile, brain activity recordings took place as the volunteers performed increasingly difficult listening tests.

The results agree with what has been presented so far in this post. Multilingual volunteers who were more fluent in their second or third language passed the Kazakh tests more quickly than their less fluent peers. They were also more confident. Because being fluent in multiple languages requires mastery of different sounds, sentence structures, and grammatical rules, the pattern of brain activity was similar to that of the bilingual volunteers. However, the activation was more sensitive and faster. 

When learning a second language, areas corresponding to the right side of the brain are activated and aid in comprehension efforts. However, the multilingual volunteers did not need this right-side activation during the initial level of the simple grammar test. But the bilingual volunteers did.

The scientists also found that the basal ganglia of the bilingual volunteers had lower levels of activation that increased as the test progressed. But when the next stage began, they would return to the lower level.

However, the multilingual volunteers started the first test with low activity. Then spiked and remained high throughout the different levels. The takeaway is that multilingual people can generalize and develop prior knowledge rather than approaching each new grammar rule as a concept digested from scratch.

Learning a third or fourth language is smoother than acquiring a second language. Bilinguals have only two points of reference, while multilingual can use their understanding derived from three or more languages to learn a new one.

Wrapping up

To have the ability to learn languages quickly, you need to become good at mastering languages. And that ability is not built overnight. Start learning a second language. Then a third, and a fourth. The sooner you start, the quicker you will master this ability.

You may have been expecting another type of answer on how to acquire this ability. Please share with us what you expected in the comment section below.

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  1. I find it very interesting that you say that the more languages you learn, the easier it becomes to acquire another one. I have been learning Italian. It is my third language. And I found I was doing better than others in the class that only had one language.
    Learning another language doesn’t only give you a way to communicate. It also exposes you to another culture!

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. And I am glad to see you are taking advantage of your previous language learning processes. All the best.

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