samedi 13 novembre 2010

"The Polyglot Project" review

Back in May, Claude “syzygycc” Cartaginese put out a video asking for submissions. He wanted to put together a book with entries from as many language learners as possible detailing how they learned their languages. Five months later, "The Polyglot Project" is finished and available as a free download. Claude managed to collect 43 inspirational submissions totaling 524 pages. The entries range from 2 pages in length to long sprawling entries from Mike “Glossika” Campbell (50 pages) and David “Huliganov” James (100 pages), with most entries just under 10 pages. The large font inflates the page counts slightly, although it does make reading the book on a computer screen more comfortable.

I was eager to read this book not because I’m particularly interested in other people’s lives (I generally don’t enjoy biographies) but because I wanted to find common threads running through the stories. We hear the same kinds of things day after day from the “big names” in the language blogging world, but I wanted to see if they were reflected in Real Life.  Reading about other people's lives did make one thing stand out though: how varied the language community is compared with (for example) the stereotypical Reddit user.

So, what trends did I notice? First, every article bubbles with enthusiasm for languages and learning. Certain words kept popping up: desire, fascination, obsession, passion, curiosity. A number of learners wrote that they had no interest in languages, or that they had tried studying languages in school but got nowhere, until some key event ignited their inner drive. Perhaps it was a song, a chance meeting, or a trip aboard. In almost every case, the curiosity awoke and something inside them said “I must learn this”. In fact, I don’t think anybody says “I’m talented at languages” ; the phrasing is always “I’m passionate about X”. It’s this drive, this passion, that keeps language learners going. Language learning isn’t easy and it is a lot of work. There is no silver bullet, as they say.

But if you have passion, the work doesn’t seem like work, or at least makes the hard work more enjoyable. It’s not work if it’s fun. I think it’s worth mentioning FluentCzech's "Become a Polyglot in Minutes not Years" video, since the “punchline” of that video (repeated in his entry in the project) ties in perfectly here.

If anything, I think language learning “talent” is simply “to be driven”. It’s to have the discipline to not give up, the motivation to keep pressing on through the frustration. It is the passion for the content, the culture, and the people that makes the hard work worthwhile. To quote Stu Jay Raj's submission: “I don’t like learning a language to express ‘myself’ in the language. I learn it so that I can learn about the people who use it”.

It’s also interesting to compare stories of learning without motivation. If you’re studying just enough to pass the course, the motivation trails off as soon as the test is written. But those who were driven by their passion didn’t confine their learning to school. The school-only learners consistently failed to reach fluency in their target language.

This ties in to something else that came up a couple times: You don’t need expensive courses to learn a language. In fact, most people who were buying expensive courses complained they didn’t work. People reached fluency with a couple of CDs, a book or two, a dictionary, and radio, forums, and websites available for free.

There are also a few stories from people who were exposed to many languages at a young age, and this exposure drew them to polyglottery. However, the common thread was not that people had servants who each spoke different languages to them, but rather that seeing and hearing these languages made them curious. Crediting an international childhood as “the reason” somebody speaks multiple languages hides the fact that it’s still hard work. The languages don’t necessarily come any easier, but early exposure sparks the interest that influences the rest of their lives. You can have that interest at any age, as evidenced by the stories of people who only started out learning languages in their 20s, 30s, or later!

How does one learn, then? The lessons I’ve taken away from this project are:
  • you must have content that is interesting and enjoyable to listen to
  • you must be passionate about your target culture
  • you must have constant exposure to the language
  • you must be happy being non-perfect
  • you must enjoy the journey
I also enjoyed reading the entries from some of the well-known bloggers. Many repeated ideas from their blogs or videos, although some expanded more on their personal history. Two entries that really stood out for me were Mike “Glossika” Campbell and Stu Jay Raj. Mike’s drive and Stu Jay’s excitement both come across very well on the page. These are two entries I will definitely reread. I also enjoyed Anthony “FluentCzech” Lauder’s entry, and I could hear his calming voice in my head as I read. His videos are a rational outpost of sanity in the sometimes aggressive, noisy land of online language forums and blogs. 

All in all, if you’re interested in language learning I recommend reading this. It makes a good supplement to Success with Foreign Languages: Seven who achieved it and what worked for them.

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