The word "polyglot" comes from the ancient greek words, "polu" (meaning many) and "glotta" (meaning tongues) and is used to describe people who can speak 5 to 6 languages at a very high level. In order to flex their languages muscles, polyglots around the world organise meet-ups, where they compare notes on language learning and listen to seminars given by researchers who are dedicated to develop new methods of language acquisition. All the while, chatting along in six different languages...
Many of us have decided at some point, "Right. This is it. I'm learning 'X'." And off you went down to the bookstore, asked the hopefully helpful bookseller there to direct you to the language learning section, and then picked out your, "Learn French 101: Complete guide with CD." With a surge of excitement on how quickly you're going to be able to munch down those croissants you ordered in their native language, you buy the book. Two hours later back at home, hopelessly lost, the passive aggressive French woman on the recording is mocking you, and the book gets put away for "another time."
Most of the time these language learning books are quite expensive, and require you to do a lot of the heavy lifting in regards to listening, doing the exercises and dedicating the time. Of course learning any language takes time and dedication, but there are several better ways to go about it...
About three years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn another language. Afrikaans wasn't interesting to me and being forced to learn something usually kills your love for it. But I couldn't decide on the language. I wanted something useful and spoken around the world in many different countries, yet I also wanted it to sound good. So, I went fishing. With www.duolingo.com as my fishing rod.
Duolingo is a website dedicated to learning languages over the internet and unlike many other language learning resources online, there's no catch. No 1 month trial, no subscription, it's 100% free. Duolingo works because of the love of language learning from native speakers of different tongues all around the world. Built into the website, is a course creator, where native speakers of a language can get together and build a comprehensive and robust course for their language, to then be shared over the website for all to access. The moderators at duolingo ensure that the contributors information is correct and if all is kosher, the course enters a "hatching" phase, where the final touches and bug testing of the course take place before learners can take the course.
I stumbled upon duolingo on a friend's phone, and from that moment I didn't look back. At that point, duolingo was a lot smaller than it is today. There were a handful of languages, such as Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Dutch. I tried all of them. I would spend a week doing Spanish, a week doing French and so on and so forth, until I'd had a taste of each language. It was then decision time. I chose Spanish. It was, and still is, the most taken course on the language platform currently with 123 million learners. The language is spoken in over 20 countries, and the flow and grace to the vocabulary and grammar had me hooked.
Now duolingo isn't a "magic achieve fluency in any language" tool. The beauty of learning a language over the internet is that you have tons of material at your fingertips. Duolingo is supposed to be used in-tandem with other online sources on your road to fluency. It teaches you important grammatical structures and a good vocabulary, through repetition. "Translate this word/sentence", "Type what you hear", "Say the following" (if you have a microphone).
While in the end, I had to put my Spanish studies on hold, all the online resources I used to learn the language were invaluable, and I had taught myself the equivalent of a year's school level Spanish in 6 months.
Another website, Memrise, is similar to Duolingo in some ways. Native or fluent speakers of a language can create courses for their language. Memrise however, had more than one course for each language, with different users creating different courses. Some courses prioritize grammar, others vocab. I mainly used Memrise as a good way to keep on track with vocab that I didn't encounter on Duolingo or in the evening classes I took near the end of my Spanish studies.
Another very effective language learning tool that I found on the internet was YouTube, not videos explaining grammatical structures, but rather short foreign language TV shows. I did some digging on YouTube and managed to find a 11 episode Spanish short series specifically made for beginners. The show wasn't childish or oversimplistic either, it was about a group of Spanish friends who let one of the rooms in their apartment in Madrid, to an American who had come to Spain to learn the language. The conversation was at a understandable pace and the vocabulary was easy to grasp. This sort of material is so important for learning a language where native speakers can be hard to find (Like Spanish in Cape Town...)
I am currently studying Mandarin Chinese at UCT and I use the Duolingo app on my phone to do 5-10mins of quick exercise whenever I can. The key to learning any language is to use as many resources as you can. Whether it be conversations with native speakers (in person or over the internet), online websites like Duolingo or Memrise, movies, or short TV series. Immersion can be a challenging obstacle when learning a foreign language, but the internet is your plane ticket.
Learning languages has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It gives you a great advantage in social situations and engages you in ways you haven't thought of. Learning any language gives you a deeper insight into the culture of it's speakers and their history, something you won't find anywhere else.
So for all of you who wish to learn something new, its not that hard! Start slowly and keep going! Learning a language is only as good as the effort you put in!
"Veel succes!", "bonne chance!", "Viel Glück!", "Удачи!", and "好运!"
Some useful links
Tae Kim's Japanese Grammar guide (entire pdf textbook free)
Interesting videos about polyglot Tim Doner
Fluent in 3 Months