Lýdia Machová, PhD is a polyglot, language mentor, interpreter, TED speaker, the former head organizer of the Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava, and the founder of Language Mentoring, a site that shows people how to learn any language by themselves. Her 2018 TED Talk, The Secrets of Learning a New Language, has been watched nearly 4.5 million times, and has brought the language learning secrets of polyglots to a much wider audience than ever before. In the interview, we discuss: 1) Why Lýdia passed the reins to other organizers for the 2019 Polyglot Gathering. 2) How Lýdia got interested in languages and why the traditional classroom approach didn’t work. 3) How non-traditional methods like reading Harry Potter and watching Friends helped her acquire languages quickly and more enjoyably. 4) How Lýdia defines “comfortable fluency” and what language level she aims for in each new language. 5) Why you should think in terms of hours not years when learning a language. 6) Why success in language learning depends on interest and finding effective methods, not being “good at languages.” 7) Lýdia’s thoughts on the “Critical Period Hypothesis” and why you can learn a language at any age. 8) Why there will never be a “good” time to start speaking so you might as well start practicing as early as possible. 9) How you can use simple language to speak around words you don’t yet know. 10) Why speaking a foreign language is about applying the words you know, not translating word for word from your mother tongue. 11) The four core principles of effective language learning: ① having fun, ② choosing effective methods, ③ taking a systemic, habit-based approach, and ④ maximizing contact with the language. 12) How to use David James’ “Goldlist Method” to learn vocabulary quickly and easily. 13) Why language apps such as Duolingo can be a useful adjunct to other language activities, but why apps alone are not enough to learn to speak a language. 14) The critical difference between “passive recognition” and “active production.” 15) Why Lýdia always elicits specific language learning goals from her clients first and then adjusts her recommendations to fit them. 16) Lýdia’s thoughts on the “I don’t have time” excuse. 17) Why you should focus your time on a small number of core apps or resources. 18) How to fully leverage a single resource with multiple methods.19) Lýdia’s words of encouragement for new language learners. 20) Why you don’t have to be a “polyglot” to attend events like Polyglot Gathering, Polyglot Conference, LangFest, etc.
We get better at what we practice most. Sounds obvious, yes? Yet far too many language learners wonder why they aren’t getting better at listening and speaking despite all the hours they’ve spent reading, memorizing vocabulary, and studying grammar rule. See the faulty logic here? Trying to get better at speaking by memorizing words and rules is like trying to get better at martial arts by watching kung fu movies. Not exactly a recipe for success.
Once upon a time, you had to two choices if you wanted to get fluent in a language: ① Take language classes, or ② Move abroad. I did both and had a (mostly) great time doing so. But while I think classes can be great for those who can afford the time and tuition and that living abroad can be a profoundly transformative experience, neither undertakings are a requirement for learning a language. Today, anyone with an internet connection, a little creativity, and sufficient discipline can reach a high level of fluency anywhere in the world if they design the proper environment. Read the article to see exactly how.
To do lists seem like a good idea in theory, but they have a major disadvantage: there are infinite potential to do items. Instead, Tim Ferriss, best-selling author of The 4-Hour Workweek (and a speaker of 6 languages), recommends “not to do lists” instead since they define a limited number of unhelpful behaviors to avoid. This idea applies perfectly to language learning, where most learners waste a lot of time on ineffective methods and bad materials. Read on to see my list of NOT to do items for successful language learners.
Donovan Nagel is an Applied Linguistics graduate hailing from rural Queensland, Australia (the amazing soundscape you hear in the background of our interview) and the man behind the language learning site and community, The Mezzofanti Guild, and the Arabic learning site, Talk in Arabic. Donovan named the site after one of his heroes, Cardinal Giuseppe Gasparo Mezzofanti (1774 – 1849), a hyperpolyglot who Donovan felt a strong connection to given their mutual background in theology, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, and the fact that they both focus on learning via contact with real people.
Just as corporations can waste lots of money storing unneeded inventory, the human brain can waste lots of precious energy on unneeded information. The Toyota Motor Company is famous for its “lean manufacturing” approach, a big part of which is what’s termed “Just-In-Time” manufacturing (ジャストインタイム). Instead of sinking excessive costs into surplus parts, Toyota does everything it can to ensure that there are just enough parts (not too many, not too few) at just the right time (not too early, not too late) needed for the next phase of production. While our goal here is to learn a language, not build a Prius, we can apply the same basic approach to foreign language acquisition.