I know three languages very well, and some more languages not as well, maybe enough to read a newspaper. My grandmother claimed to know 12 languages, and I can vouch that at least five of them she knew as well as I know English. This is by no means a unique skillset. Maybe due to my hobbies and occupations, or maybe due to the nature of the place where I was born, I have many multilingual friends. Being multilingual has several distinct advantages and disadvantages. The multilingual learning routine is a subject I review approximately once a year, each time taking a different perspective. I think you will not be disappointed. For more reading I selected posts here, here, here, here, and here.
The origins of multilinguals
Why are so many of us multilinguals? Simply put, we are children of immigrants in a global environment. For many of us, the mother tongue of our parents is very important, it carries the emotional motives of our childhood, it is the language we usually choose for poetry and it is the most intimate language we use. Then there is the language of the country we live in. It is very important for everyday activities, for communication with colleagues, political issues, and social life. Next, everybody knows English. We use English for international communication, entertainment, professional education and scientific work, technical literature, the most cutting edge materials and so on. Finally, many people choose to master some more languages, to communicate with minorities in their countries, master international trade, or enjoy ladies and culture associated with particular languages.
There is nothing new in being multilingual: from Greek traders and Roman rulers to English explorers and Babylonian whores, knowing many languages was very beneficial for cultural diversity and financial success. When the borders open and empires expand, the cultures mingle. The fall of the iron curtain and the rise of the internet in 1990s started one of the biggest waves of cultural integration in human history. Hence we see multilinguals everywhere, and not just in Switzerland, Singapore, Canada and a handful of other places.
Suppose you are multilingual and want to speedread. What is the best strategy? I will start with my personal story.
When I just started to learn speedreading and Anna was significantly less experienced, Anna’s materials were in Russian. The books I usually read are in English. The books Anna reads are in Hebrew. There was a massive clash of three languages. The memorization seemed to work OK, and I got 90% retention very quickly in all three languages, but my reading speed was very slow. In fact, I could not raise it to 250wpm, the minimal speed required to start suppressing vocalization, and I was unable to memorize 20 words in 60 seconds. I think I spent 20 hours with Anna without gaining a significant progress, at which point I told Anna that her methodology is not working and we should stop wasting our time.
I was still reading a lot, and the next batch of books I wanted to read were fiction books in Russian. I did not need to have a perfect retention in fiction books, and I did not really need professional books at that time. So for the next month, I was watching how Anna teaches her more successful students and reading only the fiction books in Russian in ever increasing speed. At some point, I asked Anna to evaluate my progress. I reached 400wpm at 90% retention.
We continued training in Russian till I got to 1000wpm at 80% retention. Only then I switched to professional literature in English – which I was reading extremely slowly for the speeds I got in Russian. It took me two months to master speedreading in English and another four months to learn speedreading Hebrew, maybe becoause for Hebrew I ended up reading some of my wife’s books, which was quite boring.
So when a multilingual person asks me how to speedread I give the following recommendations:
- Retention is more important than reading speed. Focus on our retention first.
- Do not read books in the languages that you are less than fluent. You should be able to think in the language you read.
- Try focusing on speedreading in one language and then expand to others.
- Avoid boring books with heavy terminology and little informational value. This last advice is for everybody.
Should I learn a new language?
Learning a new language has always been one of the most common requests among our students. The methodologies we provide are definitely suitable for learning languages. We also cooperate with Anthony Metivier and Gabriel Wyner for people who are serious about languages. If you are learning a new language and want to access the materials of these masters, contact firstname.lastname@example.org for the best deal at the moment.
I will share my personal perspective on the subject. Learning languages is incredibly cool, but a very low return on investment. While it is great to travel strange countries and speak with locals in remote places, this is hardly worth months of disciplined learning. And you need to use the language all the time, otherwise you will forget it and need to relearn.
Relearning languages you do not use is a common experience for people who know more than three languages. Not so long ago I had this unpleasant experience with Ukranian, which was supposed to be at mother tongue level since I learned it from very young age till adolescence. I never used it for 25 years, which is a considerable time span. Two years ago I was approached by my classmates from long ago, who sent me an article about one of my friends in Ukrainian, and I was unable to understand that article. After a couple of days, passive understanding of the language returned, yet I am still unable to use it actively since I do not really have a reason to for it.
How long does it take to learn a language? You can definitely learn a lot in one month, much more in half a year if you spend many hours learning. The estimate below is very sketchy.
- Basic level. Need to know and use ~300 words and 200 phrases. Suppose it takes 60 sec to learn a word or a phase for the first time, and then need to review each for at least 6 times 10 sec each. This means about 40 hours spent just on vocabulary. Then there is a need in some sort of immersion in the language: reading, listening, trying to speak for at least 40 more hours. Overall 80 hours would be sufficient to have some communication with the locals. This is equivalent to 50% job occupation for one month or a day in a week for three months.
- Intermediate level. Need to know and use ~3000 words and phrases, which takes ~100 hours. Also need to know some grammar, which can easily take another 50 hours. And the immersion needs to be larger, e.g. 150 hours of immersion. This means 300 hours of work on top of the basic class. It is equivalent to 50% job occupation for four months or a day in a week for a year.
- Fluency. Hard to define, harder to reach. Typically as we live and surround ourselves by a new culture, we get fluent. It is OK to assume that the effort to reach fluency is x3 or x4 larger than the effort to reach the intermediate level. Say an equivalent of 50% job for a year and a half.
By comparing with an alternative use of your time, we get that mastering a new language cost you an equivalent of an annual salary in your time. This is much longer than it takes to master a new programming language and possibly as long as it takes to acquire a new professional expertise.
So what could be sufficiently good reasons for learning a new language that is not English?
- Basic level of understanding is all you need. Then, learning languages is easy and affordable.
- You have married to the language: actual marriage, a business partner you depend on, a student or teaching position, migration visa etc.
- Time is not a real limitation for you: you are either a student, or retired, or have sufficient passive income to stop worrying about time.
- You really enjoy learning a particular language and its culture.
In which language should I teach my child?
At home my parents speak in Russian, I speak with Anna in Hebrew, and a huge amount of our communication with partners and students is in English. So we had a question how to teach our children. To make think worse, my elder child had language problems from an early age, and we took him to speech therapists who also spoke all three languages.
First, we decided that most our friends speak with their children in Russian, and the Russian language is too much of a heritage not to pass it to our children. Unfortunately even Anna could not keep up a conversation with me in Russian for more than five sentences. And with kids, even our parents switched to Hebrew after a couple of minutes. We completely lacked the linguistic discipline. So when the boys got 5 and 4 years old, we sent them to Russian language lessons as a private extracurricular activity. The boys tried very hard for six months, and then the teacher said they simply do not progress as fast as the group. So we let the kids speak Hebrew and started to talk Russian when we did not want our kids to understand. When they were 8 and 7 years old respectively, they started to show that they understand our dirty secrets and started to use Russian phrases when they did not want their friends to understand.
Those of our friends who spoke with their children in Russian needed to invest significantly more time in the linguistic education of their children during the elementary school, however, in the high school these children also learned English and got fluent in all three languages. Our boys are still young, fluent only in Hebrew, and occasionally switch to some other languages based on the particular martial arts they learn. Our third child, a daughter, is now four years old and we speak Russian when we do not want her to understand…
A language is a great gift for a child, especially for a gifted child. Teaching your child a language requires a lot of time and energy, invested not only by the child and the teachers but also by the parents. I was a single child, and my grandmother had a lot of time to spare. If you have a single child, you can aim as high as 5 languages, however, if you have three kids and no time for anything, foreign languages should not be as high on your priority list.
Complementary patterns with languages
Languages are deeply rooted in particular cultures and a particular set of personal memories. We do not use all languages in all situations unless we are specifically trained to do so. Some languages follow us from childhood, while others appear in some work-related scenarios, or after traveling to some distant location.
Our languages and memories are integrated in two interesting ways. On the one hand, language used during particular events becomes a stable property or ‘tag’ of autobiographical memories – when we recall events in the language in which they took place they come to memory faster and in more detail, as seen in Nabokov’s Other shores. This does not mean, of course, that memories encoded in one language are inaccessible in another – we can translate our memories, as Nabokov did, yet something may be ‘lost in translation’.
Some cool facts about multilinguals
- Multiligual brains are bigger, especially when acquiring a new language.
- We have dreams in several languages. Occasionally we have dreams in languages we cannot use consciously.
- We can relearn very fast a language we almost forgot, by raising memories from the relevant period of our lives.
- A language learned after the age of 10 is typically learned with an accent.
- Effective translation between any two languages is a significantly harder skill than fluent speaking and thinking in each of the languages.
- Language proficiency is context-based. It is very rare to have people equally proficient in several languages used for the same purpose.
- When translating memory visualizations into a language, quite often we may get chaotic words from the language we did not intend to.
- Speaking different languages we use different behavioral, cultural and semantic patterns, e.g. we are slightly different people.