How to Learn 30 Languages?

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Some people can speak a seemingly impossible number of tongues. How do they manage it, asks David Robson, and what can we learn from them?

Out on a sunny Berlin balcony, Tim Keeley and Daniel Krasa are firing words like bullets at each other. First German, then Hindi, Nepali, Polish, Croatian, Mandarin and Thai – they’ve barely spoken one language before the conversation seamlessly melds into another. Together, they pass through about 20 different languages or so in total.

Back inside, I find small groups exchanging tongue twisters. Others are gathering in threes, preparing for a rapid-fire game that involves interpreting two different languages simultaneously. It looks like the perfect recipe for a headache, but they are nonchalant. “It’s quite a common situation for us,” a woman called Alisa tells me.

It can be difficult enough to learn one foreign tongue. Yet I’m here in Berlin for the Polyglot Gathering, a meeting of 350 or so people who speak multiple languages – some as diverse as Manx, Klingon and Saami, the language of reindeer herders in Scandinavia. Indeed, a surprising proportion of them are “hyperglots”, like Keeley and Krasa, who can speak at least 10 languages. One of the most proficient linguists I meet here, Richard Simcott, leads a team of polyglots at a company called eModeration – and he uses about 30 languages himself.

With a modest knowledge of Italian and some rudimentary Danish, I feel somewhat out of place among the hyperglots. But they say you should learn from the best, so I am here to try to discover their secrets.

When you consider the challenges for the brain, it’s no wonder most of us find learning a language so demanding. We have many different memory systems, and mastering a different tongue requires all of them. There’s procedural memory – the fine programming of muscles to perfect an accent – and declarative memory, which is the ability to remember facts (at least 10,000 new words if you want to come close to native fluency, not to mention the grammar). What’s more, unless you want to sound like a stuttering robot, those words and structures have to make it to the tip of your tongue within a split second, meaning they have to be programmed in both “explicit” and “implicit” memory.

Speaking extra languages delays dementia by five years or more

That tough mental workout comes with big payoffs, however; it is arguably the best brain training you can try. Numerous studies have shown that being multilingual can improve attention and memory, and that this can provide a “cognitive reserve” that delays the onset of dementia. Looking at the experiences of immigrants, Ellen Bialystok at York University in Canada has found that speaking two languages delayed dementia diagnosis by five years. Those who knew three languages, however, were diagnosed 6.4 years later than monolinguals, while for those fluent in four or more languages, enjoyed an extra nine years of healthy cognition.

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