Home » Matthew Youlden: How To Learn Any Language Easily at TEDxClapham (Transcript)

Matthew Youlden: How To Learn Any Language Easily at TEDxClapham (Transcript)

Matthew Youlden

Here is the full transcript of polyglot Matthew Youlden’s TEDx Talk presentation: How To Learn Any Language Easily at TEDxClapham conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: How to learn any language easily by Matthew Youlden at TEDxClapham


Learning a language can feel a little bit like rocket science, something out of this world and out of reach to 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 Furtherfield say in the United States or Australia, let’s be honest, when it comes to learning languages or speaking them with the kind of people that likes to think we’re fluent in the multitude of diverse languages such as Geordie, Kiwi, Cockney or what about Canadian, now don’t get me wrong. I’m very very proud of my [monk union] heritage but I wouldn’t suggest it’s a separate language just yet.

After all we don’t need subtitles when we watch Coronation Street in our viewing, although I can see you do same I do. Yet, despite this, if you were to cross the channel or say if you’re feeling slightly adventurous, cross the Seventh Street, into Wales, there you would find that speaking another language or being bilingual is simply a reality. Yet there and further a field, many are still convinced of the fact that this is a long challenging, somewhat painful and dare I say a daunting task.

Now 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, about 22%, one in four almost, speak another language at home apart from English. I myself even as a monk union speak approximately 20 languages, and of those around half fluently. And the question I get asked by people the most is why? Well, the answer from me at least is rather simple. I’m convinced that 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 face when learning are myths and I genuinely believe that we have to debunk them. Now, in order to remember these more effectively I came up with the nice and friendly sounding acronym DIE which is funny enough if you write it out, not pronounce, if you write it out it’s one of the words for a word in German.

Myth number 1: 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 Japanese as our first language. We were simply surrounded or immersed in a language generally from a very early age. Now that our people however out there many of them in fact that started to learn a language second or maybe even a third much later on in life and guess what they’re now completely fluent in this language or the other languages, even perhaps more so than in their so-called mother tongue. Why is it? Because there is no cut-off date by which you have to have learn another language.

Think about how many people you know that say, uh my kids are sitting in French school, I really want them to become fluent. But I can’t, no way, it’s impossible. I should have simply paid more attention when I was at school. Well, studies reveal that while children generally are much faster at picking up a new language than people older than them, it’s actually us, you just breathe as a sign of relief, it’s us, the adults, that are more effective at learning them. Why is it? Because we have the experience of learning, we know how to learn already.

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Myth number 2: Languages are simply irrelevant. I don’t need to learn another language at all. And as we here unfortunately hear quite a lot. I was going to do in a cockney accent but I won’t do it. I’ll spare myself embarrassed for doing it. Languages, I want to think this 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 stay off neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, there are real hidden gems that we can discover when we speak another language. How about getting an upgrade on your hotel room as was recently in the case with my own call before going to Turkey on holiday, he asked me if I could send over a few phrases in greetings in a language that he could try out in the hotel. Turns up, caught up with his suitcase and throws out a few sentences in Turkish and bam, given an upgrade on his hotel room straight away.

Now you might not always get an upgrade on your hotel room, I can’t promise you this. However, I can promise that you may be — just maybe through another language will meet the love of your life. We all remember Jimmy from actually learning Portuguese for our Delia. And in fact, on almost one in ten Brits is married to someone who was born overseas. Furthermore, the Guardian reported on research showing that people that were able to speak two languages or more are more or better adapt, are better equipped at dealing with problems that are better at multitasking and prioritizing tasks. Now this is definitely a much sought after scale in our day and age when all of us appear to be glued to our phones. I wonder how many people now watching this will be glued to their phones and how many are actually going to be bilingual.

Myth number 3: You have to be an expert and be in a place where the language is constantly spoken. Even you just get a grasp of the language. Well, 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 no. My brother and I, I’ll leave you to decide who’s who. It’s actually my twin brother. My brother and I were 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. Now I’m not saying that we all need to be going out there to learn a language in a week. Not that it’s actually possible to learn absolutely everything there is in such a short space of time. I can ensure 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.

Now 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 languages you would like to learn. And furthermore, they’re so simple you might be left thinking at the end “Why didn’t I think of?” So let’s take a look at these shortcuts.

Number 1: 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 the Germanic language with the wealth of influences in 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 we 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, Roman languages with despite the fact that English is a Germanic language essentially.

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Shortcut number 2: Keep it simple. At first sight, you might think that 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 much quickly because every language has easy elements to it. Some languages only have two or three tenses. So for example, you end up saying I had in this one verb, I had, I have had and I had had and I am is 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 is now going to lend itself to become “besprechen” to discuss, “entsprechen” to correspond “versprechen” and “absprechen” and so on and so on.

Shortcut number 3: 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.

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. Now 30 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 goal. On the way to work, to university, to school, out in the evening meeting friends whilst on the train or bus. We all have all these minutes that we can commit to learn.

Furthermore, by learning for smaller periods and at 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.

Now these active forms of learning, we need to complement 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 that you 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 film in the language and post subtitles on in English and then others can join and watch with you as well. And we all know how everyone seems to be going crazy about the Scandinavian TV crime series at the moment. Some of which have been dubbed into English, keep the origins.

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Now 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’d like to refer to them as the golden rules of language learning that each and every one 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 and 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. Why? Because we learn by making mistakes. It’s actually the only way we can get things right. As children, we even expected to make them. But as adults we are apprehensive because they make us feel vulnerable. Admitting from the beginning that 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.

Now 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 that if you get a friendly competition going, that your chances of succeeding are much better and enhance your performance.

Languages are often perceived to be the great unknown. We like to think of them as something unfamiliar, 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? First one would be as you say in French “avoir les dents longues ” which is be ambitious. It literally means, however, have long teeth. Mine not that long. And I’d like to wish you all in Italian “In bocca al lupo” which is good luck, but literally means into the mouth of the wolf. And finally, as we say in Ukrainian — which means the more languages you know, the more people you are. Enjoy learning a new language.

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