Being multilingual

When there’s a will there’s a way to become a multilingual

If you really want to become a multilingual, you will succeed. You probably know about the girl (Mabou Loiseau) who speaks 7 languages. This case did provoke all sorts of reactions from linguists, parents etc. who were questioning the way this child is acquiring all those languages and if this is “healthy” for her or not. I don’t think that I’m entitled to judge if this child is happy or not, but she surely is enthusiastic about learning the languages, otherwise she would refuse to do so. Like lovinglanguage said in a comment to my former post “How many languages are too many for a child?” : “children will [always!] question the utility of the language immediately”. In fact, teaching children “a bunch of languages is great, but recognizing that they will resist is a dose of reality”. I totally agree with this and can confirm by my own experience, that if a child doesn’t see the utility of a language, he will stop talking it. Therefore the “necessity of the languages [need to be] brutally clear” at any time.

I found this video about the twenty year old Alex Rawlings, explaining how and why he learned 11 languages. – I hope you’ll get inspired too!


19 replies »

  1. Ute-Can I reblog this video on my own blog? It’s just great. What a gift he has, and I know precisely what he means (you probably do, too) that each language has its own personality. I always have the feeling that I’m wearing different shoes when I speak different languages. Boots, clogs, sandals, heels…Danke vielmals!–M.

  2. Of course, Melissa! Yes, I feel the same every time I switch languages. A real chamaeleon, right? Gern geschehn 😉 Es freut mich, dass dir das Video auch so zusagt – U.

  3. Dear Ute, this topic highly interests me, to tell the truth. So I’ve followed the links from the given videos and I have to say I’ve discovered a very strong pattern among those talents and a few things that are not stressed enough. Let me explain.

    The outstanding factors, as far as I can see, are the following: those people are young, or started various languages at early ages; they have a very outgoing nature, they just go out and talk to and make friends with whoever they are interested in; they have a very high rate of interest in other people; they mostly live in places where a lot of mingling among various nationalities is possible (New York); as an alternative, they use technology to access people from far away – the computer age may be the most important factor in providing them with possibilities, the TV has only a minor role in it, not being interactive; they have a lot of time on their hands – talking regularly to people from 15-20 cultures necessitates time; they only use course books or grammar books to get the basics, they do far more communication later, which is key to improving pronunciation; they cleverly utilize the overlaps among related languages.

    There may be a couple of other factors I’ve missed but I’m sure there’re a few things they haven’t talked about properly. One guy in particular mentioned several times that he came in contact with several languages while studying at various universities. This means not only time, but a very high level of financial background very few other people may be able to match. As an alternative, they have had a very fortunate constellation in their background, like multicultural parents who had job opportunities in various countries, thereby forcing their children into a compelling situation repeatedly. Also quite rare. Perhaps these are some of the reasons why these people are from English-speaking backgrounds, as no Russians, Iranians, Chinese, or Africans have shown up.

    Besides the outstanding drive and interest and special circumstances, these guys never talked about the most amazing factor: their outstanding memory. This is more available for young people, still, very few would have this factor with the same kind of drive. This is what really makes them outstanding, and I’m afraid to say, the exception to the rule: most people can only speak their mother tongues. A very fortunate constellation of factors must, absolutely must! be there to allow these people to develop into full potential. I started learning Russian at age 10 with all other kids, but never had the opportunity to talk to one before 24. I started to learn English at 14, but never had the opportunity to talk to English-speaking person before university. Also, our exposure to TV and other helping material, especially listening material, was next to zero. The other languages I speak for better or worse, I started around the age of 50. A bit late.

    I’m afraid I can’t provide documentation to what I want to say last, but not least. To my mind, the technological advances of the last 20 years have played an enormous role that can’t have been substituted with anything earlier. That’s why I have to say that one person I’ve heard of stands out among and above all those people that can be seen on youtube now, and this person was a Hungarian interpreter, Lomb Kató (ó), who spoke and interpreted in 17 languages and read another 11 more – in the 1940?s-1970?s. Her methods related mostly to reading, but how she did it, still bogs my mind. But of course I don’t want to take away anything form the 17-year-old New Yorker who now speaks 23 languages, because he has mastered not only many, but also so various languages with such good pronunciation.

    I really envy these people. I’d be interested if there are any similar guys who started over 40 years of age. Even with the technology and means available, that would be a huge feat.

    • Thank you very much for your very interesting reply! It’s indeed fascinating how people in the pre-computer/internet aera did manage to learn, talk and become fluent in so many languages! I’ll add a link to Lomb Kató’s entry in Wikipedia to my post. I would be very interested in knowing more people from 30-40 years ago, who did become proficient in many languages. And I would be interested in the methods they used. You are so right: nowadays, learning languages is much easier than when we started. But maybe the expectations are also higher? About the pronunciation or (almost) absence of accents: it’s amazing how this twenty year old did manage to pronounce all these very different sounds. I’m fascinated especially by his faculty of separating Afrikaans and Dutch, as they are very close… But this is another aspect.
      What intrigues me is also to find out if there is a pattern about people who becomes proficient in so many languages: age, nationality (?), where they live(d), what kind of experience they made in these languages (school, University, Job etc.), how they managed to keep all those languages “alive” almost simultaneously etc. and obviously: the time. You mentioned it already and I think it’s one of the most important aspects: how can you have enough time (while working, having family, travelling etc.) to talk all those languages. What kind of job does permit such an intense use of different languages? Are there jobs that make this easier than others (I’m thinking about the United Nations, but not everyone gets to work for them ;-)). What all those persons have in common is the passion for languages and I guess it’s their main (or only?) hobby. – We should try to start a scientific study about this, what do you think?

      • Hi, Ute, yes, this may be worth some study, good luck if you have the time and resources 😉 with your kids and all. One remark to what you’ve said: I think most of these people haven’t got work, family, jobs either – a good situation for hobbies. That’s also reflected in the fact that perhaps all of them are young. That doesn’t take the value of their enthusiasm and abilities away of course. Great thing they’ve achieved what they have all the same.

      • Well, I have already a few projects in the pipeline, so this may have to wait 😉 But what you say about the age is right: they are all relatively young and have time for this kind of hobbies. Nevertheless, it would be very interesting to know if all those who are proficient in many languages did acquire them at a young age. I’m far from being one of them – I only speak 6 languages and am experiencing ups and downs in some of them due to less opportunities to speak them on a regular basis – but I learned my last one when I was almost 40. And I may say that the daily input and challenge did help me a lot, not only to be enthusiastic and reach my goals, but also to build up a great vocabulary in relatively short time. I’m learning other languages now and realize that a full immersion would be much better… – Anyway, I really appreciate your comments. Thank you very much!

      • You see, a relatively strong pattern is already emerging. We’re not not going to acquire 20 languages starting from 2-5 around 40, despite the technological help, are we? Family, if we have one, a job, if we have one … if not, we’re already dead, so, how? A full immersion is only possible if you are in a position of full independence to move on to another place and not too old to get another job at a new place to keep you up. Anyway, good luck to you.

  4. Yes, you’re right. The pattern is quite clear. Well, let’s say that we still can learn languages, maybe not become as proficient as we would like to, but anyway, it’s something that can keep our mind young and flexible 😉 Thanks!

    • Hi Zakari, may I ask which languages you speak? I’m asking because learning very different languages at an early stage helps to learn other (imparented) languages later 😉 I still regret that I didn’t learn languages like Arabic or Chinese earlier…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *