Do you think you could learn a language in an hour?
Ha! Yeah, right!
We know, we know! We’d expect you to be skeptical. It’s ridiculous to think you can learn a language in 60 minutes. You would’t even get through the As in a bilingual dictionary in that amount of time! Best-case scenario: in an hour, most of us could probably stuff a few words and ready-made phrases into our short-term memory (with a high likelihood of forgetting it all by the following day). Accomplishing anything more than that in one hour? Impossible. Unless…
We posed the one-hour language challenge to four polyglots who are experts on how to study languages. To keep the challenge from becoming completely impossible, we gave them a bit of a break: to learn Romanian in one hour. Why Romanian? Because it’s a Romance language and shares many similarities with the languages that the polyglots already know: French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese (and for some of them, Catalan and Occitan). And to make sure their hour of learning was as effective as possible, all of them were assigned a personal Romanian tutor to help coach them on their way to success.
Although each polyglot has a different technique for picking up and retaining a new language, all four language learning methods offer valuable insights to anyone, from casual learners to hard-core language nerds:
Alex Rawlings — UK
“I’m a bit nervous. This is probably the craziest language-learning thing I’ve ever done, but learning languages has always been about fun. I expect that, after this, I’ll be prepared to have a simple chat over a coffee in Romanian. Is that reasonable?”
1. Method: Learn The Verbs First
With only an hour until he had to start demonstrating his grasp of Romanian, Alex knew he had to start talking quickly. He chose to focus first on commonly used verbs and how to conjugate them. Once he had some verbs down, he could start collecting nouns from his tutor and plugging them in to make more interesting and relevant sentences.
Luca Lampariello — Italy
“Every time I have a conversation with native speakers, it really motivates me. Human contact is really important when learning a language.”
2. Method: Start Speaking Right Away
Speaking doesn’t mean speaking perfectly. Speaking even a little bit is a huge confidence boost. When you can say something in a new language and people actually understand you it’s very motivating. Yes, you’ll make mistakes, but you’ll also learn faster than if you try to get it all perfect in your head first.
Michael Youlden — UK
“We all speak a variety of Romance languages which I think will help us get into Romanian quickly.”
3. Method: Write Everything Down
Language learning is about recall; there’s no use learning something if you don’t remember it. Speaking new words aloud is very important, but so is writing them down — after all, words exist as sounds and in written form. Taking notes is a proven way to lodge new vocabulary and grammar into your memory. Writing supports memorizing which supports speaking… it’s a cycle. Plus, you have an easy reference when you want to review what you’ve learned.
Matthew Youlden — UK
“I’m going to look for the patterns and similarities with languages I already know. We won’t be able to speak fluently after an hour of study, but we should be able to get by with some basic vocabulary and phrases.”
4. Method: Look For Cognates
Cognates are words in different languages that look and sound similar and have the same meaning, due to a common origin. Almost every language combination contains cognates (even if two languages aren’t seemingly related), but languages from the same language family have many more. Whichever language you are learning, identify the familiar words and then use them to anchor the new words that aren’t so familiar. To use English as an example, because it’s a sort of Germanic-Romance hybrid, English already has many words that cognate with German, Dutch and Swedish on one hand, and on the other hand it also has lots of words that cognate with French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and, of course, Romanian!