For those of us who aren’t polyglots, learning multiple foreign languages seems like a huge intellectual feat. BBC interviewed people who know 20 or more languages and found some common traits among them, including the ability to behave like a cultural chameleon.
Picture: Minnesota Historical Society
When learning a new language, the article suggests, you take on a new identity — the language you speak can encourage different behaviours depending on the associated cultural norms (talking and living with gusto, perhaps, for those learning Italian). If you resist this sort of change or are unable to put yourself in another’s shoes, you might find learning a new language more difficult.
How come? It’s well known that if you identify with someone, you are more likely to mimic them — a process that would effortlessly improve language learning. But the adopted identity, and the associated memories, may also stop you from confusing the language with your mother tongue — by building neural barriers between the languages. “There must be some type of home in your mind for each language and culture and the related experiences, in order for the languages to stay active and not get all mixed together,” [professor of cross-cultural management Tim] Keeley says. “It is not just the amount of time spent learning and using the languages. The quality of the time, in terms of emotional salience, is critical.” Indeed, that might explain why Keeley could switch so effortlessly between those 20-odd languages.
To learn more languages well, then, polyglot and actor Michael Levi Harris recommends mimicry, as actors learn to do:
The important thing, he says, is to try to imitate without even considering the spelling of the words. “Everyone can listen and repeat,” he says. You may find yourself over-exaggerating, in the same way that an actor may be a little over-the-top in their performance to start with — but that’s a crucial part of the process, he says. “In acting first, you go really big, and then the director says OK, now tone it down. And you do the same with a language.” He also suggests looking carefully at things like facial expressions — since they can be crucial to producing the sounds. Speaking with slightly pouted lips instantly makes you sound a little bit more French, for instance.
When learning a new language, then, it seems that adopting different personas is good for you. Be the Christian Bale of languages.