How to learn any language easily | Matthew Youlden | TEDxClapham

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Translator: Hoa Pham Reviewer: Denise RQ

Learning a language can feel a bit like rocket science,

something out of this world and out of reach

for the vast majority of us.

This isn't a belief, however, just held by many English monolinguals on our island.

It's also shared by many of our linguistic cousins

further afield, say, in the United States or Australia.

Let's be honest:

when it comes to learning languages or speaking them,

we are the kind of people that likes to think

we're fluent in a multitude of diverse languages

such as Geordie, Kiwi, Cockney, or what about Canadian?

Don't get me wrong.

I'm very, very proud of my Mancunian heritage,

but I wouldn't suggest it's a separate language just yet.

After all, we don't need subtitles

when we are watching Coronation Street, now do we?

Although I can see you two saying, "I do."


Yet, despite this, if you were to cross the Channel,

or say, if you're feeling slightly more adventurous,

cross the Severn Estuary into Wales,

there you would find

that speaking another language or being bilingual is simply a reality.

Yet, there and further afield,

many are still convinced of the fact

this is a long, challenging, somewhat painful,

and dare I say, daunting task.

In this room of 100 people,

I'd guess that at least 15 other languages are spoken besides English.

In fact, the last census of 2011 revealed that a staggering 22% of Londoners -

that's 22%, one in four, almost -

speak another language at home apart from English.

I myself, even as a Mancunian, speak approximately 20 languages,

and of those, around half I speak fluently.

And the question I get asked by people the most is, "Why?"


Well, the answer, for me at least, is rather simple.

I'm convinced

learning languages, any language per Se, is actually easy.

And I want to show you how.

As a linguist, a polyglot, and a lecturer,

I know what it entails to learn and study a language.

And one of the biggest obstacles

we're faced [with] when learning are myths.

And I genuinely believe that we have to debunk them.

In order to remember these more effectively,

I came up with the nice and friendly sounding acronym D.I.E.


which funnily enough, if you write it out not pronounce, if you write it out,

it's one of the words for 'the' in German.

Myth number one: learning a language is simply too difficult.

I will never be able to speak another language

quite like the language I was born with.

Technically, you're not born with a language.

All of us here could have ended up, with say, Japanese as our first language.

We were simply surrounded or immersed in the language

generally from a very early age.

There are people, however, out there - many of them, in fact -

who started to learn a language, the second or maybe even the third,

much later on in life.

And guess what?

They're now completely fluent in this language or these other languages

even perhaps more so than in their so-called mother tongue.

Why is this?

Because there is no cutoff date

by which you have to have learned another language.

Think about how many people you know who say,

"Ugh! My kids are doing French in school. I really want them to become fluent.

But I can't, no way, it's impossible.

I should've simply paid more attention when I was at school."

Well, studies reveal

that whilst children generally are much faster

at picking up a new language than people older than them,

it's actually us - you can just breathe as a sign of relief -

It's us, the adults, who are more effective at learning them.

Why is this?

Because we have the experience of learning.

We know how to learn already.

Myth number two: languages are simply irrelevant.

I don't need to learn another language at all.

And as we hear, and unfortunately hear quite a lot -

I was going to do in a cockney accent, but I won't do it at all.

I'll spare myself the embarrassment of doing that -

languages ... everyone speaks English, anyway.

Well, besides the obvious benefits of speaking another language -

for example, financial benefits and mental benefits,

i.e., better pay, more job opportunities, keeping us mentally fit,

and actually helping to stave off neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's-

there are real hidden gems

we can discover when we speak another language.

How about getting an upgrade on your hotel room,

as was recently the case with my uncle before going to Turkey on holiday?

He asked me if I could send him over

a few phrases and greetings in the language

that he could try out in the hotel.

Turns up, caught over this suitcase,

throws out a few sentences in Turkish,

and bam!, he's given an upgrade on his hotel room straight away.


You might not always get an upgrade on your hotel room.

I can't promise you this.

However, I can promise that you maybe just maybe,

through another language, will meet the love of your life.

We all remember Jamie from Love Actually learning Portuguese for Aurélia.

And in fact,

almost one in ten Brits is married to someone

who was born overseas.

Furthermore, the Guardian reported on research

showing that people who are able to speak two languages or more

better adapt or are better equipped at dealing with problems,

that they're better at multitasking and prioritizing tasks.

This is definitely a much sought-after skill in our day and age

when all of us appeared to be glued to our phones.

I wonder how many people now who're watching this

will be glued to their phones,

and how many are actually going to bilingual?

Myth number three:

you have to be an expat and be in a place where the language is constantly spoken,

even to just get a grasp of the language.

There's no harm in simply packing up

and moving to a village in the middle of nowhere,

but it's not actually necessary.

Now the great unknown: my brother and I - I'll leave you to decide who's who;

he's actually my twin brother -

my brother and I whilst being based in Berlin, Germany,

decided to undertake the challenge of learning Turkish in just seven days.

We decided to undertake the challenge of learning Turkish in just seven days

in order to show what you can do by simply putting your mind to it.

I'm not saying

we all need to be going out there and learning a language in a week

nor that it's actually possible

to learn absolutely everything there is in such a short space of time.

I can assure you, it isn't.

Perfection isn't the goal here.

The goal, however, is to get as good as we possibly can

in a particular language, in the shortest time possible.

This means

to the dismay of school teachers all throughout the globe,

"Take shortcuts."

The best thing about these shortcuts

is we can apply them to any language that we would like to learn.

And furthermore, they're so simple, you might be left thinking at the end,

"Why didn't I think of that?"

So let's take a look at these shortcuts.

Number one: analyze the similarities, focus on similar elements.

As speakers of English,

we already know so much about other languages,

given the fact that our language itself, essentially, is a Germanic language

with the wealth of influences and vocabulary

from a multitude of different languages as diverse as Latin, Hebrew, or Hindi.

Doing this will help develop patterns in the language

and also will help us to guess the meaning and formation of words and things

that we don't yet know.

As you see in this slide, for example,

we can see how closely related English is to fellow other Germanic languages

and even to languages that are, in this case, Romance languages,

despite the fact that English is a Germanic language essentially.

Shortcut number two: keep it simple.

At first sight, you might think you're learning a language

that doesn't have that much in common with our own,

but by focusing on easy elements, we will be able to learn it much quickly

because every language has easy elements to it.

Some languages only have two or three tenses.

For example, you end up saying 'I had,' in this one form,

for 'I had,'I have had,' and 'I had had,'

and 'I am' also can be 'I will be' and 'I would be.'

In other cases, if we look at, for example, German,

we have a case of advanced vocabulary

that is derived from a few simple words or verbs.

In this case, we have the verb 'sprechen' which is 'to speak,'

which has now gone on and lent itself

to become 'besprechen' - to discuss, 'entsprechen' - to correspond,

'versprechen' and 'absprechen,' and so on, and so on.

Shortcut number three: keep it relevant.

Especially at the beginning of our process,

we need to make sure that it's relevant to us.

Not everyone is learning German

in order to discuss business with colleagues in Berlin.

Think about this.

As speakers of English,

we don't know every single word in the Oxford English Dictionary.

So why should we fret

about remembering every single word we encounter in the new language?

We simply have to make it relevant to our own specific situation right now.

When it comes to learning a language, perhaps the most crucial element is time.

And by time, I don't mean years upon years of endless learning

as some people still like to think.

How long does it take to learn a language?

How about if I were to tell you

that 30 minutes per day are a great and effective start?

Thirty minutes - these are minutes we all have.

Be ten in the morning, ten in the afternoon,

ten in the evening, or 30 minutes in simply one go

on the way to work, to university, to school,

out in the evening, meeting friends, whilst we are on the train or bus.

We all have all these minutes that we can commit to learn.

Furthermore, by learning for smaller periods and regular intervals,

we won't feel so overwhelmed by the language.

And even better,

learning for regular periods means that it's more effective,

because chances are

that if you're learning for once a week or once a fortnight,

by the time you next come to learn,

you'll already have forgotten what you initially learned.

The goal therefore is

to fit language learning into our daily routines

and not the other way around.

And by doing this,

there's no reason why after simply one month,

you can't get by in your new language.

These active forms of learning, we need to compliment them

with what I'd like to refer to as passive forms of learning.

Having breakfast: switch the radio on and listen to a station in the language,

become acquainted with the music of the language.

The music will not only help you get used to the sounds,

to the intonation, and to the rhythm

but the words you'll hear will also help you associate them;

because you know the songs,

and you'll be able to associate them with these songs,

thus expanding our vocabulary.

Had a hard day?

Treat yourself to a TV series or a film in the language,

and put subtitles on, in English,

and then, others can join and watch with you as well.

We all know how everyone seems to be going crazy about

this Scandinavian TV crime series at the moment -

some of which have been dubbed into English; keep it original.

By doing this,

this will get you off to a great start

to go on and to actually master your language.

There are three rules,

I like to refer to them as the golden rules of language learning,

that each and everyone of us should be doing

when going about learning a language.

The first rule is - wait for it -

the first rule is live the language,

speak it, read it, write it, dream in it,

sing it even; sing to yourself.

My brother and I when we started learning Greek,

we decided to write songs in the language.

Don't worry, I'm not about to embarrass my brother,

and I certainly won't be singing for you all this morning.

That said, in order to master the language,

you have to make it yours, own the language.

So why not put your phone or computer in the language you're learning?

Number two: make mistakes.

Yes, you heard me correctly.

Make as many as you want.


Because we learn by making mistakes.

It's actually the only way we can get things right.

As children, we're even expected to make them.

But as adults, we are apprehensive because they make us feel vulnerable.

Admitting from the beginning

we don't know absolutely everything there is to know about this new language

will not prevent us from learning it.

Furthermore, it will actually give us the freedom to go on and to master it.

So go forth and make as many mistakes as you like.

The last rule,

and this is the most important one, and this is essential:

make it fun.

Grammar rules aren't always fun.

I mean, I love grammar,

but I understand that not everyone is so enthusiastic about it;

not sure why, though.

But remember, whatever you can do in English,

you can do in any other language,

so make it fun.

And actually, by making it fun, by making the process entertaining,

you're helping yourself stay motivated.

And the more motivated you are, the better your chances are of succeeding.

So go out and let your creative juices flow.

The best thing as well

is why not try and get people, other people, involved?

Say, colleagues, friends, and turn it into a small, friendly competition.

Actually, studies show if you get a friendly competition going,

that your chances of succeeding are much better,

and they enhance your performance.

Languages are often perceived to be the great unknown.

We like to think of them as something unfamiliar,

and yet, we know so much about them

because all human languages have their own peculiar yet beautiful ways

of expressing ideas, concepts, and reality,

even if we're not aware of it at first.

By now delving into the unknown and realizing the familiar,

we will be able to master

one of the most fulfilling, rewarding, and efficient skills we possess as humans:

human communication.

And who could resist wanting to learn a language

with these linguistic pearls?

The first one would be, as you say in French,

(French) Ayez Les dents longues, (English) which is 'be ambitious.'

It literally means, however, 'have long teeth.'


Mine aren't that long.

I'd like to wish you all in Italian

(Italian) In bocca al lupo, (English) which is 'good luck,'

but literally means 'into the mouth of the wolf.'


And finally, as we say in Ukrainian,

(Ukrainian) Skilʹky mov ty znayesh - stilʹky raziv ty lyudyna,

(English) which means

"The more languages you know, the more people you are."

Enjoy learning a new language.