A few weeks ago I talked to one of our users (Michael McCavish) about language learning. When I heard he speaks 7 languages, I asked whether he would be interested to write a guest post for us and he delivered! Here is Michael’s take on language learning:
I have never really thought of my ability to speak 7 languages as in any way extraordinary. I know there are many polyglots who can speak many more. I am the founder of Michael’s English School in Osaka, Japan. Many of my students ask me the secret of learning foreign languages and this has helped to formulate my ideas on the subject. I am happy to share my thoughts on language learning and hope that they may be helpful to others who might be considering learning another language or two.
Nature versus Nurture
“You are lucky you are just good at languages.” “I am no good at languages.” “My memory sucks!” These are the sort of comments that I hear day in, day out.
If you think you are bad at languages, let me put your mind at ease: you aren’t! The first thing that you need to do is change your internal dialogue. Get rid of that nasty little voice in your head that tells you that you are bad at something. It quite simply isn’t true. The first thing to do is make yourself aware that you have an astounding piece of equipment, namely your brain. Remind yourself that your brain contains between 100 and 500 trillion synaptic connections, that it is dealing with possibly millions of pieces of information every second, and that YOUR brain differs very little from Einstein’s brain or the brain of Sir John Bowring, once Governor of Hong Kong, a polyglot who could speak 100 languages and was said to “know” 200!!!
So now that you are in a positive state of mind about your equipment, you can now do what I do when I decide to tackle a new language.
The first question I ask myself is, “Why do I want to learn this language?” One of the most important things about learning anything is desire. As a young boy at school, I had no interest in French. I distinctly remember getting 8% in a French exam. It was not until my parents bought a place in the South of France, where there were a lot of very beautiful French women, that my interest in French rocketed… along with my abilities!
Sure, if you have children, start them young, but you can learn a language at any age
Now, I would say that it is true that a stimulating early childhood, possibly one in which your parents are of different nationalities, will cause neurological pathways to form which help you to learn languages. In my case my father was British and my mother Dutch, so by the age of four, I was already bilingual. I believe firmly, however, that these neurological pathways can also easily be formed in later life simply through application.
Many polyglots are the result of circumstance. As educators will tell you, circumstance usually leads to a need and a desire to learn how to equip yourself to deal with whatever environment you find yourself in.
In my case, my parents spoke English and Dutch, we had a house in France, I had some very close German friends, I worked for some years in Portugal before moving to Japan, and my wife is Belarussian. Voila! Simple!
During the course of learning these languages and teaching languages, I have developed tricks, which help me. Yes, I use mnemonics, yes, I use loci, or a memory palace. Mine has 104 rooms with two wings, equivalent to two decks of playing cards. But these are just useful for vocab building. In brief, just as described by Anthony Metivier, I basically take a new word that I want to learn. I convert it into something that it may sound like or make a note that it is similar to a word that I know in another language, frequently making a ridiculous connection, and then I place it in a room in my mental memory palace. There is so much info out there on mnemonics and memory palaces that I will not go into it.
Modern Tools and Antosch and Lin’s website
As a teacher and a learner I am always looking to upgrade my techniques. In a modern age, we may use modern techniques. Books are good but they do not help with pronunciation. As I said before, we have an incredible piece of equipment in the brain. It is very important to bombard the brain with thousands of spoken sentences. The brain will automatically scramble everything up and later be able to use a bit from this sentence and a bit from that sentence, as it requires. Repetition is very important. I break down what I want to learn into chunks. It is very important to take a rest from studying approximately every 25 minutes. I believe this helps the brain to really absorb the material.
I was incredibly happy when I found the Antosch and Lin site. It was exactly what I was looking for. I use the pronunciation function. I record chunks on my iPhone and then replay those chunks frequently. Sometimes I choose chunks from the site that are theme-related. Sometimes I chose chunks that are level-related. I also use the site these days to refresh languages that I already know.
I think it was Nietzche who said something along the lines that “Life is about creating good habits and avoiding bad habits.” I wholeheartedly agree!
The walk from my house in Japan to the dojo where I practice Aikido takes about 25 minutes. So every day, I listen to 25 minutes of pre recorded sentences from the Antosch and Lin website. This has really helped me to tackle Russian. THEN I try to recall it. Far better to recall a small chunk of info than to wade through a lot of information, which you cannot recall 20 minutes later!!!
Further to the idea of forming good habits with regard to language learning:
  1. Personally, I do not smoke or drink alcohol. I sincerely believe that both damage the brain. It is akin to keeping your amazing equipment in good working order.
  2. Exercise is very important. A good walk outside is sufficient. Oxygen is vital.
  3. Declutter your life and set clear goals. I am fond of Zen and I always liked the idea that Einstein had several sets of the same clothing so as not to clutter his mind with what he felt were trivialities. You will not find me dressed in anything other than blues and whites. (I have to admit though that trivia can be fun. I also find that music after learning helps memory somehow!)
 Parents should help their children to form good habits
I am thankful for my parents. My father was an educator. He taught me that learning was fun. He introduced me to various ideas; he often told me, “we are what we eat”, “a healthy body is a healthy mind”, “by night a man, by day a man”, etc. It was he who first gave me the desire to learn, who first introduced me to the power of the brain and who taught me simple mnemonics to remember school tasks. To this day, I still remember him teaching me, “Three old Angels, Sitting On High, Chatting About Heaven” as a way of remembering tangent is opposite over adjacent, sine is opposite over hypotenuse, cosine is adjacent over hypotenuse. With these foundations, it was easy to start to use mnemonics for language learning.
My mother was Dutch. Not only was she keen that I should know her language but she was also a linguistic role model for me as she was also fluent in English, German and French.
  1. Yes, forming early neurological pathways helps but we can form them at any time.
  2. Be positive. Believe you can learn.
  3. Find out how many total immersion hours are suggested to become fluent in your chosen language and just get on with it!
  4. Foster a desire to learn.
  5. Use mnemonics and any other memory aiding techniques that you can find out about.
  6. Repetition is good along with periods of rest every 25 minutes. Use music to relax. Recall is vital.
  7. Use modern technology like the Antosch and Lin website to do repetitive pronunciation practice. This gives your brain vital speech patterns to mimic.
In conclusion I always tell my students: Watch movies, listen to songs, speak, read and ENJOY!