How to learn 30 languages

How to learn 30 languages

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.

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