Full Text of 5 Techniques to Speak Any Language by Sid Efromovich at TEDxUpperEastSide conference.
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Sid Efromovich – Speaker & Coach
I speak seven languages. As soon as people find out about that, what I’m most often asked — other than for my phone number — is: “How did you do it? How did you go about learning all these different languages?”
Well, today I’m going to share with you some answers. So my phone number is 212…I’m just kidding. See, I was raised as a polyglot. And by the time I turned 18, I could speak already four different languages. And then for the subsequent three years, I learned three additional languages.
It’s about those 3 years that I want to talk about. Because my language acquisition process was very different from that of my peers, in that it was never of these stressful, strenuous, difficult, seemingly impossible tasks, but rather something enjoyable, fun, exciting. I loved it, every single moment of it. And I want to share with you why, what was it that made it so special.
See, I did have a head start, in that I did have these four languages that I spoke ahead of time. But there were also these 5 techniques, 5 skills if you will, that I use that made the language learning process so much easier. And it’s about those 5 techniques that I want to talk about.
So let’s dig right in. And for the first one, the first thing that we’ve got to do is to take a very deep breath. And relax. And the reason for it is because our entire lives, we’re taught how to do things right. From the moment we were born we’re taught what things we should do, things we shouldn’t do, and how to do things properly.
Well, when it comes to language learning, the golden rule of language learning, the most important thing, is to get things wrong, to make mistakes, and that is the first rule. Let me explain to you why.
See, when we’ve known languages, we know a whole collection of sounds and a whole collection of structures, which combined make what I like to call — and for the purpose of this presentation — our language database. And our language database will contain all the sounds and structures that we know.
However, there is a whole family of sounds and structures that are beyond our database. And for us to be able to embark on those and to be able to explore those, there is nothing within our database, nothing within our knowledge that will tell us when we’re getting the structures right, nothing to tell us when that sound is precise.
Let’s say we’re going to explore this one specific sound. There is nothing in our database. When we say it, we could say it perfectly, but in our minds, it will sound like a mistake.
So you know that queasy feeling that we feel, that insecure thing, when we feel like we’re doing something wrong? That is the trigger that you need to look for. Because that is the signal that tells you that you’re going beyond your database and that you’re allowing yourself to explore the realm of the new language.
Let me show you how this works in practice. Let’s say, we’re going to go and learn the word door in Spanish. So, the word door in Spanish is Puerta. So, for Puerta we’ve got a few sounds that exist in English. So, the Pu, e, and ta. However, when it comes to the r, that sound is not in our database. The RR. The rolled r does not exist in the English sound database. And it’s a little bit on the outside.
So, if we allowed ourselves to bridge through our database, and to really break through and to make the mistake, we could make sounds like the RR. But instead what sometimes happens is that we get the closest relative of it that is within the database, and that is the ah-er sound. And that ah-er sound makes something that sounds like pue-er-rta, which doesn’t mean a thing in Spanish, and actually doesn’t sound too charming. And it doesn’t tell you too much.
So, for the first technique, allow yourself to make that mistake, so that sounds like Puerta can come out.
And now let’s go to the second one. For the second one, I’m going to need some of your collaboration. We’re going to read these four beautiful words. And on the count of three. So let’s start with the first one, on the count of three: one, two, three.
Mao. Mao, perfect.
The second one: one, two, three. Coco. Perfect.
Third one. One, two, three. Cocao. Perfect.
And the fourth one. One, two, three. Oh.
Let me show you what happened when we did this. We get theses four words and we put them through a sort of American English filter. And we get something looks kind of like this. And I’ll tell you the results of that. So for the first one Mão, which means hand in Portuguese, we put it through the filter, we get Mao.
For the second one we get coco, which is coconut in Portuguese, or cocô, which means poop. We put it through the filter, and we get a warm cup of cocoa.
And for the fourth one, we have huo, which means fire in Chinese. And we get — if you’re feeling really creative, maybe a dude doing karate… But anyways, they don’t tell you much about how these things are pronounced. And if you think it’s only one way, only if you’re going from English to a different language, think about non-native speakers.
And try to explain to someone that this is pronounced though, and that this is pronounced thought. And even though they look almost identical, they have nothing to do with one another. Or try to explain to them that this is enough and that this (enuf) is just simply wrong.
See, there is nothing useful about using that foreign alphabet, when you’re trying to learn a language. Why? Because it will give you wrong signals.
So what is the second technique? Scrap it. Scrap the foreign alphabet. Let me give you an alternative of how you can go about this. This is a Brazilian currency, and it’s spelled like this. So on the count of three, can we all say the name of the currency. Real.
We have some people who know the spelling. Yeah, re-al, for the most part. And as useful as this might seem, it doesn’t tell you a single thing. And when you’re speaking Portuguese, re-al means nothing.
Let me give you an alternative. See, in Portuguese, the way that you say real is heou. So let me teach you how to say it. So on the count of three, let’s say he. So it’s hey without the y sound. So, one, two, three — he. Perfect. And now let’s say ou. It’s like ouch, but without the ch sound, so it’s ou. One, two, three, OU. Perfect.
So, HE. OU. HE-OU, HEOU.
Now you all sound like passionate Brazilian capitalists. So why would we go and use something that looks like this, that looks like real, when instead you can use something that looks like this and gives you so much more information about how to say something in a foreign language.