As my parents had brought traveling from a young age to countries like France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland, I always felt a great desire to be able to speak in the local languages when I was traveling.
However, I apparently completely sucked at languages. In fact, at school my worst grades were in languages (English, Irish and French) and even after officially studying French at university for 2 years, I was effectively English-speaking only at the age of 21.
I really wanted to speak with people in the countries across Europe where I traveled but I just couldn’t seem to be able to learn any languages. In French, my accent was so far off that the French couldn’t understand me. Grammar confused me and I didn’t seem to be able to remember even the most basic words.
Eventually in my third year at university I went on a language exchange program (Erasmus) to spend one year in immersed in the French language. Surely this would be the solution to my language learning problems?
Living in France with little or no French was a traumatic experience. I spent most of the first months effectively mute, relying on my Irish and British classmates to interpret for me so that I could understand even the most basic of conversations. I felt lost, isolated and ashamed that I could not understand or communicate with those around me.
I stuck at it and after a year of living in France, I managed to get to a level where I could hold basic conversations in French. I had reached survival level.
And then a chance encounter occurred. I was sitting on a terrace in Cannes in the south of France. At the table beside me was a guy sitting with a girl sipping a cocktail. He ordered another round from the waiter and then turned to me and spoke in slightly accented English: “So you are British?”.
The guy was German and explained that earlier in the day he had arrived from Spain where he had spoken in Spanish and that evening he was heading to Italy (where he would speak in Italian) with his girlfriend. He proudly told me that he was a ‘polyglot’. In other words, a person who spoke many languages.
I was intrigued. How had he learnt so many languages? Did he spend his days studying them? “Well” he replied “I am used to traveling a lot and I learn them myself as a passion because I love being able to speak with the various nationalities that I meet along my travels.”
“But how do you learn them yourself? Don’t you sit in lots of language classes?” I blurted out amazed that I had met someone so proficient in so many languages. “Sometimes I have a private tutor for the basics but in general I’m motivated and curious so I look up things I don’t understand and am constantly reading material that I’m interested in the different languages. It’s not that difficult if you know how.”
I was in awe as he bid me farewell. How could it be that I had spent so many years struggling through language classes in school and university and here was someone where the various languages rolled off his tongue without learning them in the classroom?
Enthused with new found inspiration for French, I set about trying to learn it outside the classroom. I would start to use flashcards, force myself to talk with native speakers (even if it was really uncomfortable for me) and began reading a sports newspaper in French, L’Equipe, which I was really interested in for 30 minutes per day.
I finally started to make progress. My French moved up a level and I quickly got a summer job in Nice as a waiter, speaking with the customers in French.
Once back home in Ireland, I went to the local bookshop to look for language learning books. I now wanted to have a go at Italian as I had visited and fallen in love with Italy on a trip there during the summer.
I stumbled upon an audio course with an intriguing slogan “no books, no writing, just confidence in hours”. The course was from another polyglot, Michel Thomas.
Even though this method seemed unusual, I decided to take a chance on it. What did I have to lose? Not much really – just $50, 8 hours and the ridicule of some family members for speaking out loud in Italian while listening to the audio course.
I was amazed by the quick progress I made. A month later, I met an Italian girl in a bar. I asked her out for a coffee the next day. We spoke only in Italian. It was exhausting but I made it through a 20-minute conversation. She then became my girlfriend for the next 2 years. 🙂
I started to use more online resources like tutors via Skype that were much more affordable than traditional in situ teachers. I delved deep into the mechanics of how languages work and most importantly, I learned how to speak them all while having fun in the language.
In sum, through trial-and-error I developed my own principles. I finally conquered languages. Now I speak over 10 of them, including French, Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Russian. I’ve gone to study and work in a dozen countries, traveled to over 80 and met hundreds if not thousands of amazing people through my passion for mastering language learning.
I’ve spoken as an expert at leading polyglot conferences, become close friends with some of the greatest language learners in the world and served as president of the International Polyglot Society. If someone like me, a 21-year old monolingual can achieve all this then you can also master how to learn languages.
Now I want to help you overcome your obstacles on your path to fluency in whatever language you are learning.
You can also go deeper into how to learn language with a look at the premium version of the course ‘Language Up Your Life’ right here!
PS The family members who mocked me for using the Michel Thomas course later asked for the name of the course that had taught me Italian so quickly. 🙂
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