Trilingual in Three Years — Part One: How to Learn Language like a Baby

In 2012 I was monolingual, and then I learned Dutch really fast and really well. Now I’m working on language numero tres, and my progress is already way ahead of schedule. I’m not taking overpriced courses or installing the next miracle language learning software; I’m just lucky enough to have learned how people naturally learn language, and a couple of years ago I discovered how to translate that into quick and effective language learning.

Last week I started a new trilingual daily routine of Spanish, Dutch, and English in preparation for my upcoming move to Colombia, and over the course of the next three blog posts, I’ll share my approach to my goal of becoming trilingual in three years. This first post is about the bigger scientific picture: the work your brain is built to do behind the scenes, and how you can kick it into motion. It’s the stuff it took me a few college semesters of linguistics courses to get down, but I’m boiling it down for you here in a couple thousand words and some pretty pictures.

a Spanish muurgedicht in Leiden

A Spanish poem on the wall in Leiden, where I learned Dutch

Babies are smarter than you.2

Babies are useless little humans that are awful at nearly everything. But one thing they can do better than most of us is learn languages.

It used to be thought that children learned language through a clumsy guess-and-check process by which they mindlessly immitate parents’ speech utterances until they received enough positive feedback to learn when they were doing the right thing. While this simplistic analysis does seem to fit with the general bumbling futility of babies, it turns out there’s actually a lot more going on in their mushy little brains.

IPA vowel chart

A chart of all vowels found in human language, of which your monolingual adult brain only recognizes around 15-20. More on this in part 3 of this series. (image from http://bit.ly/1FGIKlm)

The generally accepted explanation nowadays is that babies are born with universal grammar, an innate ability to make sense of natural languages by organizing them into patterns and rules. This is what’s going on in children’s brains during language learning: rather than blurting out random sounds they’ve heard somewhere along the way, they’re experimenting with and testing rules until they get them down. Babbling two-year-olds are actually little scientists, isolating all the possible variables until they conclusively establish that, yes, if I wanna make that sentence negative then I must use don’t instead of no. And kids will universally try out “no I want water”, “I no want water”, and then finally “I don’t want water”, in that same order, until they get it right.

That explains learning the logical structure of a language, but what I find even more important is cracking the most basic part of language: sounds. Fancy brain-scanny machines show that infants of one year old or younger are capable of hearing and differentiating between all the hundreds of different consonant and vowel sounds possibly produced in human language, but by about one year old, that sensitivity begins to reduce to the 40 or so sounds (or ‘phonemes‘) that their native language includes.

This means that everything that’s not one of those phonemes either sounds like nonsense or its closest equivalent in your language. That’s why, to English speakers, the Dutch words saai /sai/ and zij /sεi/3 not only rhyme but sound more or less exactly like English ‘sigh’ /saɪ/, and why we have trouble producing some of the nasal vowels in French or tonal sounds in Mandarin. These sounds don’t exist in the native English speaker’s phonemic inventory, and the adult brain isn’t used to picking up new sounds and being able to assign them any uniqueness or meaning anymore.

However, fear not — your brain can be whipped back into shape! You’ve just got to think like a big smart baby.

Language learning strategy: child’s play

There are two types of learning that enable babies to learn language (and its sounds) so quickly and efficiently: statistical and social.4 My next post will be all about social learning, so for the remainder of this one, we’ll take the theory of statistical learning and put it into practice.

Statistical learning basically means opening up your skull and pouring tons and tons of linguistic information over your brain, and then leaving your brain to make sense of it all by assembling it into patterns. It’s how you learned your mother tongue, and the only difference now is that it’s not gonna come automatically anymore and your brain isn’t going to be as receptive to it as it would be if you were still in diapers.
language learning success kid
The learner of English as a second language will normally pick up the difference between mass nouns and count nouns without being taught. Most ESL speakers who’ve spent time speaking with natives will never say things like “I had a fun today” or “what a nice weather!” Sure, these are mistakes that learners could feasibly make (I’ve heard them both), but most will not, because of the way their brain is gathering statistics on the language use they hear. After weeks or months or years of speaking and listening to English, the learner will have thousands of examples of “I had fun today” stored up in their mental repository, but only a couple erroneous instances of “I had a fun”, probably spoken by another non-native. Eventually, the thousands of examples of fun without the article behind it become the clear winner over a fun, and while the learner may still sometimes use the improper form (especially if funs are countable in their language) they have almost certainly learned this rule.

Here’s the point: to engage in this child-like statistical learning, the first, most important, and most time-consuming step is flooding your brain with data. That means listening to the spoken language, reading the written language, and engaging in conversations. Once you understand this statistical learning, you understand how those clever little stumbling poop machines are so great at picking up languages, and now you can use your fully-developed grown-up brain to do it even more efficiently. As I said above, infantile linguistic genius is achieved where statistical learning meets social learning, and this is just the first half, so stay tuned for the next post to learn all the most secretest secrets.

You should divide up your statistical language learning endeavors into the four skills of language: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Listening

I would argue that this one is #1 priority. Oral skills (talking and listening) work differently and are, most would agree, more important than literate skills (writing and reading). I would argue that strong passive skills (listening and reading) are prerequisite to engaging in meaningful social interactions. When I first arrived in the Netherlands, I had memorized phrases like “where is the bathroom?” and “may I please have an order of fries with mayonnaise?”, but I had no capacity to understand what people said back to me (“For here or to go?” “Sorry, we’re out of mayo.”) In a country with high English proficiency like the Netherlands, this meant that people immediately spoke English to me, but in any language it means that you’re no better than a parrot or recording device: memorizing and repeating is not the same as ‘speaking’. Furthermore, by passively listening, you’re gathering data (vocabulary, pronunciation, sentence structures, etc.) to use for your active output. Here are a few ways to acquaint your ear and mind with your target language:

¿qué hora es?

Part of my current Spanish routine includes dramatic telenovelas. While this isn’t on my view list at the moment, here’s a screenshot from ¿Qué Hora Es?, “the Mexican soap opera for people who only had three weeks of Spanish in the fourth grade.”

  • Watch television. Watch television. FUCKING WATCH TELEVISION. This is the most complete data set you can give your statistics-hungry brain: you not only get sound but you also see how facial muscles move, as well as gestures, expressions, references to surroundings (pointing), everything you get in real-life talking. Start small and go big. Use captions as training wheels if you need to. Do what you need but just turn on the TV.
  • Eavesdrop. I vote this one second most effective (it would be first if not for the social weirdness of it). Observing the language being used in its natural settings is organic, authentic. Sit on a park bench somewhere and people-watch, or just tune in to your housemates’ or colleagues’ conversations.
  • Radio. This one’s more for intermediate learners. Radio folks seem to talk faster and make lots of cultural references, and you’re lacking all the paralinguistic cues (facial expressions, gestures, etc.) to help you figure it out.
  • Music. This one’s a bit hit-or-miss — it seems to work well for some and not so well for others. Basically, it stimulates a different part of your brain than most other language activities, which can help you learn more holistically and permanently.
  • Watch television. Do you understand yet that this is important? Quit reading this blog and turn on the damn TV.

Speaking

Lots of people who are in the know would place this at the top of the list (notably Benny the Irish Polyglot, who preaches his ‘speak from day one’ approach). I’m not necessarily disagreeing with this, perhaps just nuancing it a bit: speaking is important, but passive and active skills (in this case listening and speaking) form more of a loop than two sides of a coin. Listening builds up your raw data set for speech, and speaking applies that data. You’ll never learn it properly if you don’t put it to use. And why would you want to? The point of learning a language is to talk, so here’s some ways to loosen your lips a bit:

    couchsurfing language exchange meetups

    A quick search for Couchsurfing events in Bogotá, Colombia shows that there are at least five language exchange events coming up in the next week

  • Conversationexchange.com. To learn to talk, you need to talk, and conversationexchange.com is a great tool to get a jump on that before you arrive in-country. You make a simple profile, list your language abilities, and pair up with someone who can offer the language you’re learning and wants to learn one you already speak. You’ll exchange Skype info (or sometimes just email) and then bam, free language coach. Just remember it’s about exchange: you’re also their free language coach.
  • Real-life language exchanges. Couchsurfing is the best way to go: many cities have regularly occurring language exchange groups, and if not, you can easily search for speakers of a specific language. It’s generally the kind of community that’s super open to this sort of approach, so don’t be freaked out about knocking on strangers’ digital doors. Or, if you live in a big cosmopolitan area, you might have luck with sites like the creatively-named Language Exchange Meetup.
  • Make friends. This one is maybe kind of ‘duh’, but it’s not as simple as it seems. This is the subject of the following blog post in this series, so stay tuned for more.

Reading

Again here I’ll prioritize the passive skill over the active. Literate skills are separate from spoken skills, but they’re not totally unrelated either: you can learn vocabulary in your target language by reading (although you’ll learn it much faster through conversation), and for some people seeing the written form of the word will help reinforce your understanding of its spoken form (I’m definitely one of those people). Reading is a literate skill that’s almost unavoidable; while you can get by in most languages (other than your first) without doing much writing, you’ll still be confronted with text to be deciphered almost nonstop anywhere in this modern world.

Harry Potter en el español

Señor Potter is often a favorite of language learners. It’s fairly simple language, and even if you’re embarassed to admit it, you enjoy the story.

  • Books. Remember the 20th century? If you’re a beginner, figure out what your target language’s equivalent to Dr. Seuss is and start from there. Later, the bestsellers of the day are your best friend — the classics may sound nice, but your goal is more to get your eye and brain acquainted with how the tongue sounds, to make connections between words you read in print and their spoken equivalents you hear in daily life.
  • Your favorite English books in translation. This one’s about vocabulary-building. Are there books you’ve read three or four times as a child or young adult, or stories that you’re otherwise very familiar with? This is different and more productive than just reading children’s books, because you’ll learn vocabulary faster, since you already understand it. Words that you otherwise would have had to look up are suddenly made obvious in the context of a story you already know.
  • Wikipedia and Wikitravel. Wikipedia and Wikitravel both offer thousands of articles in most languages. You can easily choose a topic you’re already quite familiar with and read about it in a foreign language, learning tons of new vocab in the familiar context. Even better, Wikitravel articles often have a lot of extra information in the local-language version that you might miss in English.
  • Get pretentious. Once your reading skills get pretty good, you can constantly set the bar higher and learn more vocabulary by reading higher-level and more challenging material. Look for online news sources that educated people are reading (think comparable to The Atlantic, The Economist, Slate, etc.) and explore that mode of writing and reading.

Writing

This one, at least for me, always seems to be the hardest skill to consistently exercise. This might be partly because of what I said in the Reading section above, that you essentially don’t really need writing very often in a second language. But the modern world also both gives us the occassion to write now and then and offers a few practical ways of developing our written skills in a second language, mostly because social media blah blah the Internet.

  • Facebook chat. This is probably where 90%+ of my foreign language writing takes place, and it’s another reason that my next post will emphasize forming social relationships in your target language. It’s much less anxiety-inducing to chat in a strange language from behind the keyboard, and it’s much less likely to leave you feeling ashamed or embarrassed when someone corrects you from afar. You can also find pen-pals on conversationexchange.com and Couchsurfing.
  • Lang-8. Lang-8 is an online community sort of like conversationexchange.com, but it’s focused exclusively on writing. On your Lang-8 page, you write something and post it to the website, and then natives will read and offer corrections or improvements. You earn points by correcting other users’ writings in your own language, so it’s another I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine system where everybody wins.
  • Just write some stupid crap. Your writing doesn’t actually have to have a purpose. While I was learning Dutch, I started writing grocery lists, to-do lists, and notes to self all in Dutch. Many people keep a diary. I’ve also experimented with just writing little pieces – travel articles, thoughts of the day, whatever – just to write them and have the feeling of writing, without really intending to do much with them.

Making sense of statistics

While years and years ago your superbaby brain could sort out linguistic patterns and rules faster than a speeding bullet, your aging adult noggin needs a pair of glasses and some hearing aids to do the job properly. As an adult language learner, you’ll most likely need to know what kind of pattern you’re looking for before you can find it.

my trilingual routine

My ‘daily language exercises’ chart, which satisfies my neurotic need for organizing even though I only loosely stick to this. It includes some ‘artificial’ exercises, mostly little grammar lessons, as a necessary (small) part of the routine. I do all my language stuff in Dutch, to reinforce that language and keep it strong.

Returning to the above example of count nouns and mass nouns, most ESL learners will indeed figure out this rule on their own at some point, but it doesn’t hurt to already be aware of the rule when you start encountering it. One of my favorite tools for learning about the patterns I’m looking for in Spanish is StudySpanish.com, which offers concise grammar and usage lessons that help me construct a framework for interpreting the things I’m hearing and reading in that language. And it doesn’t always have to be grammar: even simple things like jotting down and reviewing vocabulary words or making a mental note of the different ways you hear an <r> pronounced before or after a vowel are enough to give the language learning centers in your brain the nudge needed to wake them up and set them to work.

But even if you get back up to bullet speed with your statistical language learning, it’ll never be successful without its complement: social learning. Even for our chubby infantile brothers and sisters, it takes a certain kind of human interaction to put theory to practice and make use of all that data stored up our your heads. The next post is all about that process and how you can do it even as an adult, how I used it to learn Dutch so fast, and how I’m doing it again with Spanish.

Have you learned a second language as an adult? Got any tips or tools for soaking your brain in a new language? Share your insights, stories, or questions in a comment here or a tweet to @JakobGibbons.

And then check out the second and third posts in this series, on social language learning and talking like a native.

1I actually did, after almost three months, take a two-week course. It was Dutch 2 (I tested out of the first level), and it was several hours every morning, all in Dutch. That doesn’t have a logical place in the narrative of this post (hence the footnote), but I thought I’d mention it here just to say that, if you have the time and money, taking a course is probably not gonna hurt your learning the language.
2This is the thick of the science stuff in this post, so I’ll keep it brief and practical. If you’re interested in learning more about child language acquisition/first language acquisition, well, there’s an enormity of print and web info on it. The Wikipedia page on language acquisition (and some of the links at the end) is a good starting point, as is R. L. Trask’s Language: The Basics. My personal favorite (and the favorite of most anglophone linguists) is David Crystal; he’s published a good bit on child language (as well as everything else under the linguo-spectrum), and keeps a lovely generalist blog, DCBlog, full of linguistic wittiness accessible to all audiences.
3For the potential lurking hardcore phonology trolls out there, voicing of sibilants (and stops and most fricatives) is not phonemic in Dutch. I choose to transcribe the sibilant in ‘zij’ as unvoiced here to make my point, even though in most phonotactic positions it would more likely be voiced.
4Most of the research this post is based on is pretty well-established, at least over the last decade or so, but this bit is perhaps a bit new-ish. It’s summed up really well in this paper, but it might be a bit hard for non-specialists to grasp. Essentially, it’s based on the concept of neuroplasticity and various principles of neurolinguistics.

11 comments

  1. newell1943 · December 4, 2014

    The scientific introduction is very useful and helpful. I gained competence (if not “fluency”) in Spanish at the age of 65, finding it easier than German while in my teens and early twenties. As for reading, I find (and have taught) reading out loud is an effective way to link sight and sound. My Spanish comprehension is faster this way than simply sight reading. And in writing, I learned that writing dialogue or short stories and essays in Spanish sharpened my ability to think quickly and correctly in Spanish. Dialogue is a great way to implant often needed phrases in the subconscious. I write a blog (Adventures in Midlife Spanish) about simple, every-day activities people can do to improve their language skills, as well as share aspects of Mexican culture. In short, I think we are walking on parallel roads.

    • Jakob Gibbons · December 4, 2014

      Hey Newell, thanks for the read! I also have recently become a big fan of reading out loud, especially when I don’t have anyone around to speak with — it seems to keep the feel of the language current on my tongue, and I can hear myself and try to work on my pronunciation as I go. It’s kind of a way to stimulate your reading and speaking skills at the same time, plus no fancy technology necessary!

      I took a look at your blog last night and this morning and I really like some of the things you say on the “do I really want to do Spanish immersion?” page. Today I’m finishing up my second post in this series and it’s about ‘social learning’, and I found at least one quote from your blog I’d like to use, so will certainly be linking to you!

  2. newell1943 · December 4, 2014

    Useful information for the beginning language learner.

  3. newell1943 · December 4, 2014

    Thanks Jake. I’m happy my comments are useful. I recently used many of the “Try This:” suggestions on my blog as a teacher of English to adults in Tlacochahuaya, Oaxaca, Mexico. What worked for me learning Spanish worked for them. I’m eager to see your next post. My posts shift between language and culture because they are one – like man and woman – and can’t long exist without the others.

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  9. An · December 4

    Thank you for sharing this amazing article. Quick question! Will watching my favorite foreign-language TV shows/dramas with English captions help me develop my language skills? Or am I supposed to turn off the captions and just watch the episodes, even if I don’t understand a word?

    • Jakob Gibbons · 16 Days Ago

      Hi An, thanks for the kind words!

      Captions are always tricky to me because people want to be super black-and-white about how and whether you can use them, but I don’t think there are really any hard and fast rules. The problem with captions is that they can lull your brain to sleep as the path of least resistance, and when you reach the point that you’re just reading and no longer attentively listening, it’s not very productive for language learning.

      So I think it depends on your level, but you should always think of captions as training wheels. Do your very best to avoid subtitles in English (or your native language) at all costs, but if turning on subtitles in the target language helps your ears focus on an interpret the words then go for it. So if you don’t understand a word then captions are a must, but as soon as you feel like you can sorta kinda understand without them, you should push yourself in that direction.

      I hope this is helpful! :-)