4 Of The Greatest Language Learners Try To Learn A Language In One Hour
The One Hour Language Challenge is over and the results are truly astonishing! Check out the teaser video below to get a taste of what went on, and then scroll down for the longer version of the challenge and the live coverage; you're bound to pick up a few language learning tricks along the way.
Good morning, and welcome to Babbel’s live blog, coming at you from Berlin, Germany, the site of the long-anticipated One Hour Language Challenge.
Let’s get straight to it and introduce you to the contenders: Luca Lampariello, Alex Rawlings, and the twins Matthew and Michael Youlden. All four speak over ten languages fluently. Luca is originally from Italy and works as a professional language coach. Alex, Matthew and Michael are all from the UK. Michael works as a multilingual teacher; Matthew is a Language Ambassador for Babbel and is currently doing his PhD in linguistics; and Alex works in exports, co-organizes the Polyglot Conference, and was selected as Britain’s most multilingual student in 2012 while studying languages at Oxford University.
So what’s the challenge?
Our four polyglots will attempt to learn as much Romanian as possible within one hour, with the ultimate aim of being able to perform a monologue and hold a simple conversation at the end of the hour.
How are they going to learn a language in one hour?!
Each polyglot will be paired with a native Romanian speaker. They’ll be supplied with five starter sentences:
- "What does [Romanian language word] mean in English?"
- "How do you say [word in other language] in Romanian?"
- "Can you repeat that, please?"
- "Could you speak more slowly, please?"
- "How do you spell that?"
And they’ll be forbidden from using any language other than Romanian to communicate. They will then endeavor to build up their vocabulary and knowledge of grammar through conversation, just as if they’d been plonked in the middle of Romania without Google Translate or even a phrasebook.
Romanian is a Romance language spoken by about 28 million people (24 million of which are native speakers). It bares similarities to other Romance languages, particularly Italian, as it shares roots in Vulgar Latin, digressing from Western Romance languages during the 5th-8th centuries.
It’s difficult to choose a language when the participants cover around thirty of the most commonly spoken languages in the world. We had a few parameters: it should be a new language to the learners, but it should bear some resemblance to the languages they speak so as to give them a fighting chance of making real, discernible progress within an hour. Learning Romanian once you speak other Romance languages is certainly less difficult than taking on Arabic or Farsi (two of the only widely spoken languages the foursome don’t speak…). Romanian uses the familiar Latin alphabet and shares many lexical components and grammatical structures with Italian and Spanish, but it’s far from easy. It’s the only Romance language to have maintained cases from Latin — the nominative-accusative, genitive-dative and vocative — the pronunciation carries a distinct Slavic scythe, and it sports complicated irregular verbs and conjugations which have to be sorted and memorized.
Who’s going to make the most progress?
An Italian speaker arguably holds an advantage over three native English speakers, although the three English speakers will have benefitted from having learned Italian as a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth…) language. Furthermore, both Matthew and Michael have a little more experience with such language challenges, having attempted to learn Turkish, Maltese and Plattdeutsch — each in just one week. That would make Alex the underdog then, right? Perhaps, but Romanian is also influenced by Greek, Alex’s second mother tongue, and he also speaks a number of Slavic languages, so he’s well prepared for the pronunciation and case usage. He’s also a recent graduate from one of England’s finest educational institutions, Oxford University, which means there’s a high chance he’s actually a spy and extremely good under pressure.
Twenty minutes to go…
- – 00:20:00 So the lasers are prepared, Oddjob’s chillin’ in the corner, and the man with the golden gun is ready to fire the starting pistol. We film a short intro where each of them reels off the languages they speak. It takes longer than expected. Alex says the challenge is, "probably the craziest language learning thing I’ve ever done," while Michael’s hoping knowledge of Romance languages, "will help push me through," and Matthew is similarly aware that, "we have to look for similarities and patterns between languages we already know."
– 00:10:00 Next up we’re going to select the polyglots’ partners in Romanian. Cristina, Adriana, Sylvian and Thea are to be the teachers. None of them has ever carried out any formal studies in language tuition or pedagogy, so the onus is on the polyglots to extract all the pertinent vocabulary and grammar. Both Cristina and Adriana have lived in Berlin for some time and are accomplished language learners themselves — aside from her native Romanian, Cristina speaks English (with a perceptible American lilt), Italian, Spanish and German. Sylvian is a recent arrival to Berlin, and Thea is bilingual, having been raised in German and Romanian. She’s also doubling up as our host for the day, laying down the law of the challenge.
- – 00:05:00 It turns out it’s hard to keep a polyglot from learning a language. No sooner have the polyglots met their Romanian counterparts, they’re sneakily trying to gain an upper hand by casually coaxing them into conversation about the similarities between the word for chair in Italian (sedia, apparently) and in Romanian (scaun, of course). Best get started before they’re conversational…
The One Hour Language Challenge Begins!
+ 00:00:00 The rules are reiterated and the pairs retire to corners of the room to start stumbling over the first few words. The initial excitement has taken a turn toward trepidation. They exchange uncertain glances, flitting between one another and the clock.
- + 00:05:00 Alex has launched into a fractured dialogue with Cristina. He’s picking up words all over the place but doubts he’ll be able to weave them into a monologue. They grab a few sheets of paper and a pen and start focusing on what he really needs: the modals, the most used verbs and their conjugations, a little bit of past tense and some choice nouns.
"We’re getting there slowly. I’ve never done this kind of thing before!" – Alex Rawlings
- + 00:10:00 One would have thought that the twins would share a similar approach — much of their studies have been joint efforts, after all. They even invented a language together! However, Michael has taken to writing down almost everything — frantically recording and documenting the entire Romanian language as if the papers were an external brain onto which everything must be inscribed and encoded. Matthew, on the other hand, has abstained from any apparatus except for his mind and body, which he appears to use in equal measure: gesticulating to discern agreement and affirmation, and repeating key words until he’s captured the case and the pronunciation.
- + 00:15:00 Luca appears to have made a great start. Rumors abound that he had once studied Romanian, but he rapidly quashes them — yes, maybe he studied it a little bit once, but that was many years and beers ago. Either way, his native Italian and loquacious approach to everything seem to be buoying him along.
+ 00:20:00 We’ve agreed we’re going to briefly interrupt each of the pairs for a short interview. When I politely enquire whether Michael would mind affording us a minute or two, he looks startled, as if we’ve just awoken him from a deep, Transylvanian slumber. Having returned to the English-speaking world he’s feeling pretty jolly about the whole experience. He switches to Romanian to tell us he’s going straight to a bookshop this afternoon to buy a Romanian grammar book. His life has changed. He’s moving to Bucharest, holidaying on the Black Sea and feasting on mămăligă.
- + 00:25:00 Next up is Luca. He’s steaming along. Due to the myriad similarities to Italian, he understands a lot of what is said to him, and is the prototypical sponge. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from an expert language coach. Even in a language he’s only been learning for a matter of minutes, he’s a vocal advocate for the edifying pursuit of language learning: "You can do anything if you want it," he proclaims confidently in Romanian. “That’s our slogan," hums Thea in evident delight.
"The first thing people will say is that it’s impossible, speaking a language doesn’t mean speaking it perfectly. You can do a lot in one hour!" – Luca Lampariello
- + 00:30:00 Alex explains that he quickly realized his approach was flawed and that he’d had to change tack, defining his aim and establishing a method to achieve this aim. Since deciding to focus on the monologue — telling his backstory and describing his feelings about the day — he’s made significant progress.
"Someone told me it was like a Russian person moved to Italy. I feel like Portugal got lost and now it’s on the Black Sea." – Alex Rawlings
+ 00:35:00 Matthew is last up and immediately embarks on an effusive monologue about what a wonderful teacher Sylvian is. Somewhat ironically, Matthew confuses his adverbs and his adjectives and glowingly endorses Sylvian as a very well teacher. After more than three years, we’ve finally recorded evidence of his fallibility: to err is human, to forgive divine.
+ 00:55:00 Time is almost up, but I really want to let them continue. It feels like I’m draining the bathwater from a young Archimedes’ tub before he can enjoy his eureka moment.
- + 01:00:00 I drop my voice an octave or two and expel an authoritative, bellowed command to cease and desist. No notice is taken. Mutiny! I call in the enforcers and eject the polyglots from their seats forcibly, leaving shards of Romanian vocabulary scattered across the floor. “Look," I explain, “take your place at the table and by all means, while each of you is doing your monologue, indulge in a few additional minutes of conversation."
Let the monologues begin!
“Alex, would you care to follow us?" The monologue, for us observers, is the big test: What can they produce when the support of a conversation partner is removed?
Emoji is the fastest growing language in the UK. I’m pretty fluent, and sometimes feel more comfortable expressing myself in my second language. My current emotional state is something like this: 😱 👍 😎 🙊
Alex has set the bar high, but Matthew’s next and he’s all Fosbury and no flop. His eyes dance as he recounts the day in Technicolor Romanian. Legend.
In rolls Luca. I feel like he’s a few hours’ study away from passing as a Romanian. I adore how he moulds his mouth to the sweet consonants of the Romanian language, how he falters momentarily and then gains gumption as if sparking up an old engine, and how he gleans such joy from the performance.
Everyone’s on a high. We weren’t sure whether it was going to evolve into a competitive or a collaborative challenge. The atmosphere is one of convivial fervor. Michael’s manner is more cautious than Luca’s, but he shares the joy: “I’m very happy with what we’ve achieved!"
I’ll tell my grandchildren about this day. They’ll look at me quizzically and ask why the polyglots didn’t just plug in Google Ear and be done with it. I’ll rant on at them with muddled memories about the antiquated concept of self-improvement, of the principles of the enlightenment, and of language learning not as an end in and of itself but as a quest for understanding that transcends the dull linearity of functional communication… and then their Pokemon sidekicks will banish me for unsatisfactorily augmenting their reality.