Discovering San Francisco In 7 Languages: Adventures Of A Polyglot

Babbel’s resident polyglot Matthew Youlden recently traveled to San Francisco to present a course on language learning for Creative Live. Here’s his travel diary.

Recently, San Francisco-based Creative Live asked if I’d like to create an online language learning class for their website: two full days of teaching, presented in front of a live studio audience and simultaneously beamed across the internet to viewers in over 190 different countries. Which language will I be teaching? All of them.

Simple, right? And all just a short hop across the pond from my home in Berlin.

So, fueled by a mixture of nerves and excitement, I jumped on a plane. Or rather I tried — a canceled flight and a subsequent missed connection left me with several hours to kill at London Heathrow. As any self-respecting expatriate would do in the face of such trying circumstances, I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with a taste of home: pre-packaged supermarket sandwiches.

21 long hours later, I touched down in the New World. Stepping out of the plane, I already had the feeling that my experience would be well worth the wait. There’s definitely something about that Bay air!

My first day in the Golden City was spent getting to know the Creative Live team and acquainting myself with the studio. Among the new faces was my host Lily, who would be introducing me to the online audience. Creative Live’s video producer Erin, with whom I’d already spent many hours on Skype, felt like a long-lost relative at this point. I was ready and raring to go — just as well, since the classes were to begin the next day.

I arrived at the studio just before 8am for a last minute briefing, ready to begin broadcasting at 9. The thought of speaking live in front of thousands of viewers was a little daunting, I’ll admit, but I was confident that all my hours of preparation would pay off.

The first day was all about the very basics of learning a language — everything from time management to mental preparation and learning techniques. With some help from my guinea pigs in the studio audience, I set about convincing my viewers that anyone can learn any language far more quickly and easily than they might have thought. A few doubtful faces convinced me early on that I had my work cut out for me.

Within two hours, however, my students were translating texts from Dutch and German with ease and understanding a basic conversation in Hebrew. Because we all know at least one language already, I explained, we can use specific techniques to build on our existing knowledge and make logical connections with new languages. By the end of the day, everyone had a good grasp of these techniques and were ready to try them out for themselves with a short homework assignment. I felt a little guilty for giving my students more work at the end of a long day, but practicing new skills is important for retaining them — they’ll thank me one day!


The next day was another early start, with my studio audience returning to tackle the unfairly maligned topics of grammar and syntax. That meant my challenge was to counter decades of dull classroom memories and teach my students to become BFFs with any grammar. One by one, I countered the myths and one by one, their faces lit up. My students finished the morning session eager to go out into the world and put their newfound knowledge to practical use.

That marked the end of my first set of lessons — those that focused on coming to grips with any language fast. I’d be joined later in the day by a new group of students who wanted to know more about raising bilingual children, but first I had some time to reflect: After countless hours of brainstorming, discussion and experimentation back in Berlin, my plans had come together nicely. I was so proud to see how my students’ motivation and confidence had grown throughout the sessions. I was now convinced that they were each ready to tackle their chosen languages and to succeed in learning them.

The afternoon session addressed a very different subject, but one that was equally close to my heart: raising bilingual children. I myself was raised with more than one language, and a lot of my academic research has centered on bilingualism in childhood. It seemed especially fitting that I was delivering this class in San Francisco of all places — one of the most linguistically diverse cities in the US. Over the course of the afternoon, I took my students through the basics of bilingual parenting — from ensuring children have all the input they need in each language, to defining roles and avoiding common pitfalls. Finally, the teaching portion of my visit was finally over.

After a relaxing Thursday evening with a glass or two of excellent California wine, we headed out in search of locals who might share their thoughts on language learning. Just roaming the streets and getting to know the residents of this fantastic city was a great learning experience for me — I got to see some places I otherwise wouldn’t have, and thanks to some friendly SF residents, even found time to learn a few phrases in two new languages.

Despite the fun I was having, it was soon time to say a sad じゃあね (Japanese for “bye!”) to San Francisco and head for the Big Apple for more language-related fun (keep your eyes on the Babbel magazine for all the details).

If you’re interested in seeing how to learn a language for yourself in a quick and easy way, make sure you check out my classes at Creative Live.

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