Do you really have to travel to another country to learn the language? The 10-language twins undertook the challenge of learning a language in a week in Berlin, their city of residence. What can we learn from how they learned?
By Ed M. Wood
What’s possible in a week? If you dedicated seven days to the achievement of one goal, how ambitious could you make this goal? These were the questions that the multilingual twins Matthew and Michael Youlden posed themselves when they determined to learn Turkish in one week. They would attempt to liberate themselves from the distractions and responsibilities of modern-day life in order to cram eight hours of study time into their daily routine. Here are the seven things that I learned by observing some of the world’s most capable language learners.
1. Get To Know Why
Lesson learned: Clearly define your goal at the very beginning and then plot a route towards this goal’s achievement.
The twins set themselves the challenge of learning a language in a week in order to stretch themselves, and then it was a question of choosing which language to learn. Turkish presented itself as a natural option; there are nigh on 300,000 Turkish speakers in Germany’s capital, and the areas of Kreuzberg and Neukölln are dotted with stores adorned with signs in Turkish. Truly understanding one’s environment in these neighbourhoods requires one to first understand Turkish.
2. Get Sticky
Lesson learned: Map and label your immediate environment in the new language from the very first moment. You’ll build and reinforce associations passively while going about your daily life.
The first operational step in the twins’ learning process was to decorate the entire apartment with sticky notes. This had an almost ceremonial touch to it as the twins delved into dictionaries and proceeded to label everything with its corresponding Turkish name. Within the space of about an hour it was impossible to carry out any menial task, be it making a coffee or flicking off a light switch, without first being presented with at least three different words related to this action.
3. Get A Partner
Lesson learned: There are few better motivations than a peer with the same goal. Whether you’re motivated by competition or a sense of mutual responsibility, the mere presence of a learning partner is likely to exert just the right amount of pressure to keep you on track.
The importance of the other twin’s presence became immediately apparent as Matthew and Michael delegated responsibilities for rooms to decorate with sticky notes. This simple task was augmented by continuous little tests that they would spring on one another, and the fact that they split up their day slightly differently and studied different topics meant that each twin became a source of knowledge for the other; the question how do you say that again? was met surprisingly often with an answer. The most extraordinary moment came towards the end of the week when the twins simply switched their everyday conversations to Turkish, asking one another if they wanted tea or coffee, were ready to cook dinner or when they were going to leave the house the next day.
4. Prepare Mini-Motivations
Lesson learned: You need landmarks on your route towards your goal. These landmarks can consist of small challenges - real life interactions in the language, for example - which force you to prepare areas of vocabulary to overcome them. The gratification that will come with their completion will serve to spur you on to ever greater heights.
Matthew and Michael had numerous micro-challenges throughout the week. On the first day they were visited by a Turkish friend who greeted them in Turkish and complimented them on how quickly they’d picked up their first words and phrases. They then learned the names of fruits and the numbers from one to a billion so that they could visit the Turkish market in Kreuzberg (although they refrained from purchasing nine hundred thousand kumquats). Displaying their haul after their first functional exchange in Turkish, they beamed with pride and a palpable sense of accomplishment before marching back home to study further.
5. Eat The Language
Lesson learned: Find a way to tie everything you do to learning. Surround yourself with the food, the music and the films, so that even in your downtime you can prime your mind towards the language and perhaps trigger further areas of interest and motivation.
On our second visit to the brothers’ apartment 24 hours into the week, we found them sampling dozens of different kinds of Turkish snacks. Like kids staring at the backs of cereal packs before heading to school, the nutritional information and various special offers and competitions on the packaging were analysed during snack breaks. There was no moment of complete removal from the language learning process during the eight hours that the twins had allotted to it. The intensity ebbed and flowed, but it never dissipated entirely.
6. Use What You Already Know
Lesson learned: The greater the depth of processing, the more likely the information will be remembered. Find pleasure in drawing parallels and making comparisons between the language(s) you already know and your new language.
One of the twins’ most common phrases was, “ah, that’s a bit like in … ?” They were constantly using their existing knowledge to support the ever-growing knowledge of Turkish. Not only did this spark some energetic exchanges regarding the etymology of various words, but it also ensured new words would never be forgotten once woven into their web of associations. Even if you are learning your second language, you will likely come across words that share common origins with words in your native tongue.
7. Variation is the spice of life
Lesson learned: So you have your route plotted and an idea of your favored methods, but do remember to try new things; your new language has just as many sources as your native language.
The twins spent a lot of time engrossed in books or on their computers and apps, flicking and swiping their way through exercises eagerly, but at other times they were to be found searching busily for Turkish radio stations and write-ups of Turkish football games on the web. There is no definitive method to learn a language, nor any tool or teacher that will single-handedly deliver you to the holy grail of fluency. Language is written, spoken, read and heard. Each of these areas is considered a core skill within which there are myriad potential inputs; would you restrict yourself to one in your native language? All too often, people enter their weekly language class to converse with their teacher, but then barely have any contact with other native speakers or the media being broadcast in their target language. Try something new every day. Listen to a cheesy song, read a newspaper article from a newspaper whose politics differ from your own, write a story for kids, attempt some improvised theatre and talk to yourself while cooking. Spice it up and add some flavour to your language learning!