Babbel was fortunate enough to be a sponsor of the most recent Polyglot Conference in Thessaloniki, Greece. As language-learning geeks, we felt very much at home in a crowd of experts and amateurs from all over the world with one thing in common: a simple love for languages.
During the two-day event, we had the chance to interview members of this language-learning elite on a variety of topics. What did we learn? There’s no right or wrong way to become a polyglot. We distilled their words of wisdom into five bite-sized videos, which you can view below.
What makes someone a polyglot?
By definition, a polyglot is a person who speaks six or more languages fluently. But how does one reach that level? According to experts like Alexander Arguelles and Anthony Lauder, becoming a polyglot requires a commitment to a new kind of lifestyle that makes learning a daily priority. An interest in languages might start as a hobby, but with time and discipline it can blossom into something more. For a polyglot-in-training, the learning process itself is exciting and rewarding. As Lauder says in the video below: “It’s made me very reflective about myself. I notice what’s going on in my own brain. And if I hadn’t learned languages, I think this ability wouldn’t have developed in the same way.”
What Michael, Lydia and most polyglots have in common is that they don’t fret over finding the perfect language learning method — they don’t wait to be taught anything but constantly find opportunities to learn and develop their own methods.
No one at the conference disagreed that there are countless reasons to learn languages, all of which are valid. But when it came to the best way to learn, there was a clear divide: interactive vs traditional methods. You might assume that we’d immediately jump on the “interactive” bandwagon, but both learning methods have their merits. Two conference attendees from opposite sides of the debate give their opinions here:
Interactive learning materials like apps have the benefit of integrating speaking, listening, writing and reading: this mixture of passive and active learning can get you using the language in a realistic way, even if you have no native speakers to practice with.
Traditional methods like books, audio courses and tutors can help you reach the same result, although they tend to be more expensive. If your final goal is visiting the country and speaking to the locals in their own language, either method can get you fluent — better yet, try a mixture of methods. Supplement app-based learning with a traditional method that also appeals to you. When it comes to language learning, more is always better.
According to Gaston Dorren, author of Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe, the key feature of bilingualism is having access to more than one way of thinking (not just speaking). The more ways of thinking (i.e. languages) you expose yourself to, the more likely you are to experience the same epiphany that Dorren describes in the video below: new ways of thinking aren’t only different from our “native” mindset (obviously) but are sometimes even better. Bilinguals don’t only switch between two systems for expressing the same thoughts, they switch between mindsets, experiences, emotions… even personalities!
The brains of bilinguals
So how does speaking more than one language affect one’s brain? In the video below, Ghil’ad Zuckermann — Professor of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide — offers some insights on how bilinguals process information differently than monolinguals:
Amazingly, babies who are exposed to multiple languages show signs of higher cognitive skills in the area of pattern recognition — even before they can talk! But there’s good news for the rest of us because learning additional languages later in life makes us smarter — or at least more rational and responsible. Studies have shown that people make more considered, rational business decisions when operating in a foreign tongue — whereas they are more susceptible to acting impulsively and emotionally when working out the same kinds of problems in their native language.
In Zuckermann’s words, “If you learn a foreign language, you’ll be more clever and more responsible.”