Carlie: It’s the Expat Focus Podcast. Hey there. I’m your host Carlie, an Australian expat living in France, and I’m really excited about today’s guest, because we’re talking languages. Have you successfully learnt a second language to fluency? Maybe a third? Maybe you grew up with more than one language and have found it relatively easy to pick up others. Or maybe you’re like me and you struggle to remember all those grammar rules and are still looking for that learning method that’s really going to make everything click and make sense for you.
Well, Sarah Cole knows a thing or two about learning languages. She the Publishing Director for Languages at John Murray Learning, which you may have heard of – they publish the Teach Yourself series and also the Michel Thomas courses. Sarah, thanks so much for chatting today.
Sarah: Yeah, my pleasure.
Carlie: So how many languages do you yourself speak?
Sarah: I speak only two languages fluently – I speak French and English, obviously – but I know a lot about a lot of different languages. We publish over 60 languages in the Teach Yourself series, and I have a hand in editing and contributing to just about all of them.
Carlie: So how do you edit and contribute to all of these different language resources?
Sarah: Yeah, that’s a very good question. My background is in learning, language learning and language acquisition. So it’s also about methodology – creating courses, really, that make sense. So while I don’t understand all the language in the book, it has to make sense still to somebody who’s coming at it not knowing anything. So you have a sort of language instinct, and my background is in best practice around language learning, and I kind of apply that. I have a familiarity with languages, I have an idea of what should be taught in what order, what kinds of questions, what kinds of learning aims there should be, and making sure that those aims are then actually taught and practiced throughout the course.
Carlie: So Sarah, what should be taught in what order when you’re learning a language then?
Sarah: It really is dependent on what you want to learn a language for. A lot of people are happy just learning to speak a language, and therefore, things like writing and reading are less important – in which case you could just pick up a conversation course that would focus on phrases and expressions and things like that. If you’re a bit more serious, then you might want to start out with a course that teaches you all the four skills, grammar, and vocabulary.
In terms of the order – there is the basics of every language that you need to know in terms of greetings and going shopping and the typical scenarios that you come across. But then, there are other methods which actually are based on learning different structures – like the Michel Thomas method. So it’s really dependent on what you want to accomplish and what makes sense to you.
Carlie: I’m really curious about the Michel Thomas method. I think it was probably one of the first methods I was introduced to, to try to learn French, which [laughs] is very much a work in progress. What makes Michel Thomas’ method so special?
Sarah: I am really passionate about the Michel Thomas method, and it’s interesting because I came to it being very much a sceptic about “Oh, you can learn a language in so many hours and you don’t have to write anything or memorize or do homework.” And I’m like, “That’s not the way that I learned how to learn languages.”
I do think it is the most effective way to start learning a language, without a doubt. And it’s what I tell people, ultimately, to start with. And the reason is because it works with building blocks. So Michel Thomas, or one of the Michel Thomas Method teachers, teaches you one word. Then that word is built upon with another word, and then another word. And each time you’re reusing the language that you’ve already been taught. So you’re constantly recycling, repeating, and then you’re building it up in a very logical manner.
And it’s funny, because nowadays we have algorithms which do this – they spit out the language in the order that they think that you should know it. And basically, before there were algorithms, there was this man, Michel Thomas, who spent 50 years trying to figure out how to break down a language so that when it’s put inside your head, you remember it. And that’s essentially what he did – he was really passionate about the untapped potential of the human brain, and what he wanted to figure out was how we remember the things that come into our minds. Every day, we have so much data and information.
And what he discovered was that in order to remember these things, it was really dependent on how the language went in in the first place. So that’s what he did – he managed to break down a huge system of words and language into a tiny little part, and then built it up. And I think what also works about it is that you’re speaking right away. And a lot of times, it’s one of the last things we do, because we study, and we do all the grammar, and we do all the exercises. But you start speaking right away, so you’re really motivated, and ultimately, success in language learning comes down to motivation. And if you feel like, “Hey! I’m ten minutes in, and I can actually make a sentence all by myself,” then you’re more likely to keep on going, I think.
Carlie: What in your opinion, Sarah, is the toughest language to learn?
Sarah: I think it’s really dependent on what your mother tongue is. I know that’s kind of a way out of answering the question.
Sarah: [But basically], if you speak Spanish, then Italian is likely to be very, very easy, but Mandarin will be more tricky. I think it’s also dependent on if you want to just speak it or if you want to write it. Because you can learn Arabic or Mandarin potentially just as easy as another language, but if you want to write it, that’s where you’re going to have a stumbling block.
For me, learning a language that has a different writing system and one that doesn’t have many cognates – so one that doesn’t have many words that are similar to those in your first language – I think are going to be a lot more challenging for anybody.
So if you want to learn a language and you don’t have a particular need to learn any one language, then yeah, definitely pick up a language that has a lot of similar words as your first language.
But I think any language is achievable if you have the right materials, a level of motivation or need, and perhaps a good teacher.
Carlie: [chuckles] Means I definitely shouldn’t be having much of a problem with French then, if you go by similarities with your mother tongue …
Sarah: Yeah, that’s very true. There’s a lot of vocabulary there that’s the same – every word that ends in -tion in French is exactly the same in English, just with a different accent. But French is actually not that easy, for example, compared to Spanish – I think – because it’s not a phonetic language. And then, in terms of the pronunciation, it’s very up and down, and up and down, and up and down. There’s not much intonation they put into it. So it’s hard to get the rhythm of French, I think.
Carlie: So Sarah, you mentioned before that Michel Thomas basically lay the foundation for what a lot of algorithms are doing today. How has the way we have learnt languages changed over the years? And are these algorithm systems, these apps and things that we’re using now, are they drawing from what Michel Thomas founded or have methods really altered?
Sarah: I think methods have changed. Just in terms of how we learn and teach language – it used to be all grammar translation kind of method, so taking your first language and translating it into the second language. And then it’s moved into a much more communicative approach, and using the target language to teach. So that’s changed, but also, I think technology has had the biggest impact. I think it’s democratized language learning, meaning everybody can learn it – DuoLingo apps are fantastic, and they’re totally free. There are so many online courses.
So I think it’s just making it possible to learn a language more easily. And also, there are great platforms now, such as italki and mYngle, that can put you in touch with tutors, native speaker tutors from around the world, where you can do language exchanges or you can just pay for their time.
So you don’t really need to travel nowadays to meet foreigners as much, though I think it’s made it, hopefully, easier to learn languages, and there are things like algorithms and things like that that… I don’t know if anybody has really perfected it, but we’re definitely using it to teach and mostly assess language learning.
Carlie: What are the common mistakes that people make when they’re trying to learn a language – particularly, like myself as an adult, this is really my first time trying to get anywhere substantial with a language. What do people commonly do wrong?
Sarah: I think people give up too soon, and I think people worry too much about being a perfectionist. That’s something Benny Lewis focuses on. We did a series with him called ‘Language Hacking’, which is all about not being perfect. And I think that’s very antithetical to what people want to do. So think of it this way: in most academic subjects, things start out really easy, like math – one plus one equals two – and then you get into much more complicated math, like statistics, and so you move up.
Whereas language learning is really difficult at the start – almost impossible. Everything is new, everything is complicated. And as you learn, it gets easier. So I think that’s where people give up too soon. And I do think that people, like I said, focus too much on speaking it perfectly. So they want to sit down and study, study, study, and they lock themselves away, and they’re not speaking, they’re not using language for its intended purpose. And so again, that’s what Michel Thomas is so good at – you’re just speaking right away, and therefore, you can talk to people, you can get feedback on the things you’re doing right and wrong and just start enjoying it.
But I don’t think – in terms of how you approach language learning, there’s almost no wrong way. Some people are more comfortable doing things than others, and some people just want to study grammar and verb charts, and they’re really into that and it works for them. So I just think the big thing is to keep at it and don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
Carlie: How about watching television? A lot of people have told me to be watching television in another language, and I’ve heard mixed reviews about whether you should be adding subtitles in your native language or keeping that in the language you’re trying to learn as well.
Sarah: I think it can be really effective. I also think it can be highly demotivating if you’re not quite at that level. I just remember trying to read articles way above my level and thinking, “I will never learn French. I am so far off. I know nothing. It’s impossible.” So trying to get all this high-level input when you’re not ready isn’t always a good thing. But I do think using subtitles is a great idea. There’s no such thing as cheating in a foreign language…[laughter]
Sarah: You can do that, and then you start making the relationship between how people say things in one language compared to your own and all that, and it’s really good. And I also think that you can’t subtract the cultural aspect of a language. And if you can speak French really well but you’ve never heard of any French TV show or movie, then what kind of common references do you have with the people that you’re going to be meeting?
So I think it can be good, but don’t be discouraged if you actually don’t understand a lot of it. It does eventually click, and it’s good input.
Carlie: Sarah, what are some other ways to keep language learning fun, especially, as you said, when you’re at that beginning stage and the mountain is so high and you just don’t feel like you’re ever going to get anywhere?
Sarah: It’s true. Sometimes it feels like a chore. And even I suffer with that a little bit. I think you need to find material that’s entertaining in and of itself. So go on YouTube. There are amazing people teaching languages and doing hilarious things. You’re entertained at the same time, and it doesn’t feel like learning.
Chinese with Mike, if you’re interested in learning Chinese, has a great YouTube channel. It’s like watching a standup comedian teach Chinese. So you forget that you’re studying. And I think also just incorporating language learning into the things you’re already interested in – so if you’re into fashion… one of the things I do is I get Stylist magazine, the French edition, and it’s free and I get it sent to my phone, and it really helps me keep up my French, but I’m also just reading about fashion things. So it doesn’t feel like I’m necessarily studying.
Same thing if you’re into food – read French language blogs, all these things that can complement it and remind you that you’re learning language for a reason, and that’s because you’re interested in the culture or speaking with the people or something like that.
I think also, not stressing yourself out, limiting it to ten minutes a day or on your commute or something like that, and not over-burdening yourself with it.
Carlie: What about when you’re trying to learn a language and your partner is fluent in that language?
Sarah: Well, does your partner also speak English?
Carlie: Yes, fluently – which is why we don’t speak French at home. [laughs]
Sarah: Well, that’s the problem. I think my French got quite good quite quickly because I had a partner who didn’t speak any English. It was brilliant! It forced me to say and try to speak everything.
I have to say, it’s a very hard thing to do. You might think that it’s really easy, you can set aside time… I also think that when you know somebody in a language, it’s sometimes hard to switch, because your personality does change a little bit as well. So if you’ve gotten to know each other in English – this is just like a personal thing – then it’s easy to continue that relationship in English.
I think you do need to be really disciplined about it. But I definitely wouldn’t rely on your partner, because I think it puts pressure on him…
Carlie: I say to my partner all the time that he’s got this secret double life in French that I have no idea about, and he could be a completely different personality and I wouldn’t know.[laughter]
Carlie: Which is probably not too far off the truth. [laughs]
Sarah: But I think once you get to a different level where you feel more confident, you might be more able to switch. I’ve had relationships with people switch when my level of French got better and overtook their level of English. It’s really fascinating, actually. You have to accept a level of ambiguity when you’re learning a language, and be okay that you don’t understand everything, but just being able to pick out those words and get the context is okay. And I think also, just not being afraid to speak very broken French or whatever language you’re learning.
It is hard, because you’re an intelligent, well educated person, but then you have the level of a five-year-old when you speak the language, and people perceive you as…
Carlie: A little bit dumb. [laughs]
Sarah: A little bit dumb! And it’s really difficult. But you have to get over it and just do it. And then start speaking English really fast and put them in your shoes and it’ll be okay.
Carlie: Should you expect to be able to reach fluency in another language if you’re starting to learn it as an adult?
Sarah: Without a doubt. That is such a horrible myth, that you have to learn it as a child. I’ve seen great success of people starting late into adulthood, even really late, and becoming near native.
I think, also, this whole idea of fluency and perfection – we’re not perfect in our own language. I recently bought a house. I cannot talk to builders or carpenters. I have no idea what their vocabulary is or what they’re talking about. Or plumbing. I just don’t have the vocabulary for it. So we’re never going to be perfect in our own language or a second language.
But I didn’t really start speaking French till I was about 22, and three, four years later, I would be speaking to French people, and they wouldn’t know that I was not French.
Carlie: That’s an amazing compliment.
Sarah: [chuckles] It was like a drug. I would feel so high after somebody said that. And then of course if I spoke about ten minutes longer, then all of a sudden they’d be like, “Ah, okay.”
Sarah: “I can hear it,” or whatever.
But yeah, there’s no cap on when you can start learning a language. I have stories of polyglots, where they learn eight languages and they only start when they’re in their twenties.
Carlie: So John Murray Learning is also now putting out language hacking. Can you tell me a little bit more about that series?
Sarah: That’s something we just published at the end of September 2016. The author is Benny Lewis, who runs I think the biggest language blog in the world, called ‘Fluent in Three Months’. I reached out to him because I thought he was taking such a different approach to language learning, and that is this idea of taking shortcuts. We all have these life hacks that are really popular, and so what about language hacks?
And that’s what he’s tried to do in these books, is apply the 80-20 principle, of getting 80 percent of the results with 20 percent of the work. So you don’t need to learn everything right away. What he’s focused on is what you absolutely need to know to start speaking from the start, to quickly acquire a language, to multiply what you know with these little hacks, to use memory techniques and all these things that show you how to learn a language, instead of just give you and teach the language.
So it’s very empowering, and they’re beginner courses, and they’re just absolutely brilliant. They include an online language community. It allows people, if they want to, to go online and share these language missions. So there’s a speaking mission at the end of each unit. And that way, you really are speaking, and people can feedback – you can learn from their mistakes and get motivated by what other people are doing from around the world who are all learning these same languages as you.
Carlie: He sounds a bit like a modern-day Michel Thomas.
Sarah: You know, he is a little bit. And the fact that – I didn’t make the connection originally, but the whole speaking and… he’s really just an ambassador for language learning. There are people who just say, “No, you have to do it perfectly, and you have to learn all the rules, and you can’t take these shortcuts.”
But realistically, we just need to motivate people to learn languages, because it’s so important, and I think he’s doing a good job of that.
Carlie: It’s really nice to know that there’s no real formula for language learning that is the right one, and that so many methods can actually work, depending on how you like to learn. Thanks so much for your time today. It’s been so fascinating to chat with you about languages.
Sarah: Oh, I really enjoyed it. I obviously love talking about languages and language learning. So thank you.
Carlie: Well, that’s it for today. If you’d like to discuss this episode, ask questions, please head over to expatfocus.com and follow the links to forums or Facebook groups. Also, remember to check out our previous episodes – they’re at expatfocus.com/podcast, also on iTunes. And I’ll catch you next time.