Becoming a Polyglot

Planning Ahead to Learn Dozens of Languages

The Tower of Babel (1563-1565) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Image: The Tower of Babel (1563-1565) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Are you thinking of learning many languages? Do you want to be a polyglot, fluent in dozens of tongues? Planning ahead, what would be an ideal approach to learning dozens of new languages efficiently?

Learning Similar Languages First

In order to learn many languages, it makes sense to learn them in order of similarity. Many languages share a common grammar with neighboring languages, and at least a portion of their vocabularies. Learning languages in order of similarity greatly increases the fun factor and reduces stress.

For example, native English speakers might consider learning Swedish first. Like English, Swedish is a member of the Germanic family of languages. To some extent, both share a similar grammar and have many similar words. Once you’ve accustomed your ear to hear Swedish sounds, native English speakers may find Swedish relatively easy to learn.

If you are a native English speaker looking to learn your first second language, I highly recommend Scots. This one of three official languages of Scotland is extremely similar to English. Learning Scots is so easy it will certainly boost your confidence to continue along the path of becoming a polyglot.

(Native Dutch speakers looking to learn their first second language should definitely try Afrikaans first, since it is the most similar language to Dutch.1)

Example Language Tracks

To find out about languages similar to ones you already know, the Automated Similarity Judgement Program has put together a tree of all languages spoken on Earth, ordered by similarity. Visit the website here:

Using the aforementioned database, I’ve put together several tracks with languages in order of similarity for native English speakers. The common vocabularies of each previously learned language make it a lot easier for you to learn the next.

  • Germanic track: Learn Icelandic –> Norwegian (Nynorsk) –> Swedish –> Danish –> Dutch (–> Afrikaans) –> German –> Luxembourgish
  • Romanic track: Learn French –> Spanish –> Portuguese –> Italian –> Romanian

Once you get addicted to learning languages, you might want to jump into new families of languages less related to ones you already know. For example:

  • Slavic track: Learn Russian –> Ukrainian –> Polish –> Slovak –> Czech –> Macedonian –> Bulgarian –> Slovenian –> Croatian
  • Semitic track: Learn Hebrew –> Moroccan Arabic –> Egyptian Arabic
  • Sinic track: Learn Mandarin Chinese –> Shanghainese (the Shanghai dialect) –> Cantonese

Mastering Fluency

One major disappointment of most language courses is that even the best don’t help you achieve fluency. Although good courses are a prerequisite, fluency is not achieved by doing a course, but only by immersing yourself in the language’s written and spoken culture for hundreds of hours.

Personally, I use the well-known Duolingo system as a starting point. Completing Duolingo won’t teach you fluency, but it will teach you pronunciation, proper grammar, hundreds of helpful phrases and a vocabulary of over 3,000 frequently used words. That is extremely useful, but it’s not enough.

After completing Duolingo, a student should be able to read children’s books or basic newspaper articles. In order to master fluency, students will have to expose themselves to at least dozens of books and/or hundreds of hours of talk radio, music, television and people.

Building Vocabulary the Right Way

I do not recommend learning lists of words by rote. You can try it, but you will find out that you’ll forget them easily and won’t be able to use them in sentences. Since words can have so many different meanings and nuances, I recommend reading full paragraphs of text and looking up words in a dictionary as you go along.

Speaking and writing, in fact, come as a result of passive reading and listening a lot. Your brain is wired for learning languages that way. Since you can’t make mistakes, you won’t lose your motivation.

Besides, as babies, we used to listen to our moms and dads speak for years before uttering our first full sentences. As adults, we still learn languages best that way. So avoid disappointment and don’t expect to learn any language by merely absorbing thousands of words!

1 Petrus Van Eeden, Afrikaans Hoort by Nederlands: Ons Afrikaanse Taalverdriet (Tervuren, 1995).

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Becoming a Polyglot by Mathijs Koenraadt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.