Full Text of 5 Techniques to Speak Any Language by Sid Efromovich at TEDxUpperEastSide conference.
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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. And that puts us in a really good spot because at this point we allowed ourselves to break through our database and to make mistakes, to go into that uncharted territory of a new language. And then, we figured out how to take notations in a way that the information is actually meaningful.
But then how can we test it? And that’s where technique number 3 comes in. Technique number 3 is about finding a stickler. So finding someone who’s detail-oriented and won’t let you to get away with the mistakes. And more than finding someone who is really that person, the guru for the language, it’s more about establishing the right sort of relationship. Relationship with someone, where they’ll correct you, they’ll feel comfortable correcting you and making sure that you’re getting to that spot you wanted in a language. But at the same time, someone who will encourage you to get things wrong and to make those mistakes in the first place. And sticklers could be your teacher, it could be your tutor, it could be a friend, it could be someone on Skype or on Craigslist; it doesn’t matter. You can find sticklers all over the place, and with technology, it becomes a lot easier find them.
And then it’s time to practice. And for practicing, we’ve got the fourth technique. See, I always thought I had this thing that was a little bit of Sid craziness that I did, and then I realized how useful it was. I always did what I like to call Shower Conversations. And shower conversations are exactly what they sound like. When I was learning a new language, I would stay in the shower for a few minutes. And I would remember having all these discussions; I remember when I was learning Chinese, and I would haggle and try to get two yuan more, to get that wonderful dumpling, and getting the discount; or I would go to Rome and I’d ask for directions to the best piazza. It was amazing.
And the beautiful thing about a shower conversation is that it allows you to find wherever you have a gap in your knowledge, because you’re having a conversation on both ends. For example, it’s easy to ask for directions, how about receiving them? Or even better, giving directions. Well, the shower conversation forces you to have both sides of the conversation. And you don’t need to have them in the shower. The wonderful thing about them as well is that you can have them anywhere. So you can have them in the shower, in your apartment, walking down the streets, in the subway, and seriously, if you’re in the subway, speaking to yourself in a foreign language in New York, you’ll fit right in. You’re fine. And it’s great, because you don’t depend on anything or anyone to get your practice, and I did this for years. And later on I found out that professional athletes do, too. Michael Phelps is known to visualize every single one of his races, several times over, before jumping in the water. Worked great for him, and it works great for me, too, so it would work for you as well.
And now let’s go to using the language. Because up to now, it’s great, we’ve figured out how to do all these things, and that puts us in a really good position to use the language, and for that I recommend you find a conversation buddy. And to find a conversation buddy, I recommend you follow what I call The Buddy Formula. And that is a way that you can make sure that your incentives are always aligned to use the new language. So for that is, the target language should be your best language in common.
Why? If you’re anything like me, you like to learn languages, so that you can communicate with more people, so that you can reach out and understand a little bit more about their brains and hearts. And so, if we try to talk to someone in a foreign language that both of us don’t do really well, when we could be speaking English, or whatever language you’re more comfortable with as a pair, odds are that you’re going to revert to that language that is easier. So I recommend you find someone where your best language in common is your target language. And if you can’t find one locally, try technology. Or if you can travel, that would be perfect.
There’s a problem with that, and I realize it, because it’s difficult to find someone that fits that profile exactly. Well I’ve got good news. And I’ve found that out when I was at work, and one of my colleagues, he’s a linguist, too, he speaks a ton of languages, and our best language in common was definitely English. Our second best language in common: definitely French. But we always spoke in German to each other in the office. Why was that? It was because there were people in the office who spoke English; there were people in the office who spoke French. But we could talk about Friday and Saturday night in German, and nobody had any idea what we were talking about. So it can also be your best secret language in common. And it becomes such a convenient tool. You can have that with your friends and you get the sense of privacy in public. No matter where you are, you can have a private conversation.
So, let’s recap. With the first technique we allow ourselves to break through the barrier of language and to explore the uncharted territory of sounds and structures outside our database.
Then with the second one, we learn how to take notes and how to make sure that we can take notes in a way that we can replicate those sounds and structures later.
Then we can check the mistakes by finding a stickler.
Fourth: Practice. Have your shower conversations wherever you want to be. And then, follow the Buddy Formula, and you can find someone to practice your language with.
And after that, [Italian] we get to a truly beautiful place, [German] where learning languages is no longer something stressful, difficult and boring, [Spanish] but rather a world of possibilities. A world where each of us has the opportunity to explore [French] new cultures and all the different ways of living. [Portuguese] The greatest reward from this is that we end up learning more about ourselves. [Greek] As of now, it may all sound Greek for you. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn it. [Mandarin Chinese] “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” [English] And this is not a problem because now you know how to walk.