Matthew Youlden speaks nine languages fluently and understands over a dozen more. He’s constantly switching from language to language like a chameleon changing colors. If he didn’t tell you, you probably wouldn’t know he was British, because he always sounds different. As it turns out, Matthew has some great tips for anyone struggling to learn a new language. If you currently think that you could never become bilingual, get ready to take some notes. Here are Matthew’s best language-learning tips, along with additional insights from a life of multilingual mastery.
The 10 Best Language-Learning Tips
1. Know Your Motivation
This first of Matthew’s language-learning tips might sound obvious, but if you don’t have a good reason to learn a language, you are less likely to stay motivated in the long-run. Wanting to impress English-speakers with your French isn’t the best reason — wanting to get to know a French person in their own language is a more noble one. But no matter your motivation, once you’ve decided on a language, it’s crucial to commit.
Matthew says this means sitting down and thinking, “OK, I want to learn this and I’m therefore going to do as much as I can in this language, with this language and for this language.”
2. Find A Partner
Matthew learned several languages together with his twin brother, Michael. They tackled their first foreign language, Greek, when they were only eight years old! Matthew and Michael, or the Super Polyglot Bros. as we like to call to them, gained their superpowers from a good old sibling rivalry.
“We were very motivated, and we still are,” Matthew said. “We push each other to really go for it. So if he realizes that I’m doing more than he is, he’ll get a bit jealous and then try and outdo me (maybe because he’s my twin) — and the other way round.”
Even if you can’t get a sibling to join you on your language adventure, finding some kind of partner will push both of you to try just a little bit harder.
“I think it’s a really great way of actually going about it. You have someone with whom you can speak, and that’s the idea behind learning a new language.”
3. Talk To Yourself
If the previous suggestion on our list of language-learning tips isn’t doable because you have no one else to speak to, there’s nothing wrong with talking to yourself in a foreign language.
“It might sound really weird, but actually speaking to yourself in a language is a great way to practice if you’re not able to use it all the time.”
If you don’t know how to go about learning a new language, this can keep new words and phrases fresh in your mind. It also helps build up your confidence for the next time you speak with someone else.
4. Keep It Relevant
If you make conversation a goal from the beginning, you’re less likely to get lost in textbooks. Talking to people is one of the best ways to learn a language because it keeps the learning process relevant to you.
“You’re learning a language to be able to use it. You’re not going to speak it only to yourself. The creative side is really being able to put the language that you’re learning into a more useful, general, everyday setting — be that through writing songs, generally wanting to speak to people or using it when you go abroad.”
5. Have Fun With It
Using your new language in any way is a creative act. The Super Polyglot Bros. practiced Greek by writing and recording songs. Think of some fun ways to practice your new language: make a radio play with a friend, draw a comic strip, write a poem or simply talk to whomever you can. If you can’t find a way to have fun with a new language, chances are you aren’t following step four!
6. Act Like A Child
With this language-learning tip, we don’t mean throwing tantrums, but rather trying to learn the way kids do. The direct link between age and the ability to learn is tenuous, with some studies dispelling the myth that children are inherently better learners than adults. The key to learning as quickly as a child may be simply to take on certain childlike attitudes: a lack of self-consciousness, a desire to play in the language and a willingness to make mistakes. Plus, it helps to come in with fewer preconceived notions about what a language is and can be.
Humans learn by making mistakes. As kids, we are expected to make mistakes, but as adults, mistakes are taboo. Think how an adult is more likely to say “I can’t” rather than “I haven’t learned that yet.” To be seen failing (or merely struggling) is a social taboo that doesn’t burden children as much. When it comes to learning a language, admitting that you don’t know everything is the key to growth and freedom. Let go of your grown-up inhibitions!
7. Leave Your Comfort Zone
Willingness to make mistakes means being ready to put yourself in potentially embarrassing situations. This can be scary, but it’s the only way to develop and improve. No matter how much you learn, you won’t ever speak a language without putting yourself out there: talk to strangers in the language, ask for directions, order food, try to tell a joke. The more often you do this, the bigger your comfort zone becomes and the more at ease you’ll be in new situations.
“At the beginning, you’re going to encounter difficulties: maybe the pronunciation, maybe the grammar, the syntax or you don’t really get the sayings,” Matthew said. “But I think the most important thing is to always develop this feel. Every native speaker has a feel for their own language, and that’s basically what makes a native speaker — whether you can make the language your own.”
Out of all our language-learning tips, this one might be the most straightforward. But really, it can’t be emphasized enough: You need to learn to listen before you can learn to speak. Every language sounds strange the first time you hear it. The more you expose yourself to it, though, the more familiar it becomes, making it easier to speak and comprehend.
“We’re able to pronounce anything, it’s just we’re not used to doing it. For example, the rolled r doesn’t exist in my form of English,” Matthew said. “When I was learning Spanish, there were words with the hard R in them, like perro and reunión. For me, the best way to go about mastering that is actually to hear it constantly, to listen to it and to kind of visualize or imagine how that is supposed to be pronounced, because for every sound there is a specific part of the mouth or throat that we use in order to achieve that sound.”
9. Watch Others Talk
Different languages make different demands on your tongue, lips and throat. Pronunciation is just as much physical as it is mental.
“One way — it might sound a bit strange — is to really look at someone while they’re saying words that use that sound, and then to try to imitate that sound as much as possible,” Matthew said. “Believe me, it might be difficult at the beginning, but you will master it. It’s something that is actually quite easily done; you just need to practice.”
If you can’t watch and imitate a native-speaker in person, watching foreign-language films and TV is a good learning substitute.
10. Dive In
So you’ve made the pledge. How to proceed? Is there a proper way to go about language learning? Matthew recommends the 360° maximalist approach: no matter which learning tools you use, it’s crucial to immerse yourself and practice your new language every single day.
“I tend to want to absorb as much as possible right from the start,” Matthew said. “So if I learn something, I really, really go for it and try to use it throughout the day. As the week progresses I try to think in it, try to write in it, try to speak to myself even in that language. For me, it’s about actually putting what you’re learning into practice — be that writing an email, speaking to yourself, listening to music, listening to the radio. Surrounding yourself, submerging yourself in the new language culture is extremely important.”
We have one more language-learning tip before we go. Remember that the best possible outcome of speaking a language is communicating with others. Being able to have a simple conversation is a huge reward in itself. Reaching milestones like that early on will make it easier to stay motivated and keep practicing. And don’t worry about your current speaking ability! If you begin any interaction with, “I’m learning and I’d like to practice…” most people will be patient, encouraging and happy to oblige.