How to Learn Languages Like A Polyglot

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Are you cheating? See me after class! (Image from Filip Pticek used under a Creative Commons license.

Are you cheating? See me after class! (Image from Filip Pticek used under a Creative Commons license.

If the last time you tried to learn a foreign language was at school, learning a new one will seem pretty daunting. Here’s a thought; why don’t you cheat instead? You couldn’t get away with cheating in exams, but this is real life. There are no invigilators here; no teachers ready to smack you on the hand with the back of a ruler. Cheating can take many forms, from full on faking to taking short-cuts. You can speak double Dutch in the Netherlands, or get a helping hand in Hungary. We look at full-on faking it first, then show you how to speed up language learning so much that it will feel like cheating. Because it sort of is.

Faking It

Here’s the scenario; you’ve been a bit economical with the truth, telling your new date that you’re fluent in five languages. Now you’re sitting in an dark, Italian restaurant and she’s waiting for you to order. The waiter comes up, takes out his pad and… you begin speaking gibberish in an ostentatious Italian accent. But does the waiter roll his eyes and blow your cover? No – because two hours earlier you nipped in on your way to pick up your date and slipped him a tenner. You can get away with completely faking a foreign language in very limited circumstances. These are:

  • When secretly collaborating with people who speak the language you’re faking.
  • With a person or group of people who don’t speak the language you’re faking.
  • When trying to infiltrate a terrorist bar in Cairo.

Even when you’re full on faking it – some of these tips will come in handy.


Linguistics expert Gretchen McCulloch says that you can go a long way just with the right pronunciation. Instead of approaching each foreign language as individual challenge, she suggests looking at the odd ways English pronunciation works. For example, English vowel sounds are unique. We run in to trouble trying to hold on to them when we speak other languages. “This basically means, pronounce “i” like “ee” in see, “e” like “ay” in play, “a” like “a” in la, “o” like “o” in go, and “u” like “oo” in too.” McCulloch says that sticking to this rule will reduce your odds of getting pronunciation wrong from “99%” to “30%”. Some other quick pronunciations tips:

  • Overpronounce the “r” sound. Imagine every “r” is a double “r”.
  • Pronounce all vowels fully. In English, we tend to shorten them
  • Listen to the person you’re speaking to and mimic their pronunciation

Body Language

A frequently cited theory suggest that 93% of communication is non-verbal. This breaks down further; 38% of meaning is communicated via tone of voice and 55% is body language; including posture, facial expressions and gestures. That leaves only 7% for the actual words you say. Body language isn’t universal though. You might bite the tip of your thumb if you’re nervous in the UK. In Pakistan, this gesture tells the person you’re speaking to that their family is a bunch of losers. A “thumb’s up” tells most people in the world that everything’s hunky dory. In the Middle East and Latin America, you’re inviting people to stick things up their bottom. No wonder they hate Paul McCartney so much in Syria.

One way to level up your ability to fake a foreign language, then, is to learn the body language of that country. And there are some enormous differences.

Here’s our top five:

The Gaelic shrug
Mouth turned down, shoulders briefly hunched – it’s the way French-people show their indifference. Which is often.

The Indian head bobble
Indian people may wobble their head from side to side when they’re taking to you. It’s a good thing – it’s considered polite and it means they agree with you.

The Middle Eastern stare
While we in the West make eye contact frequently but briefly, people in the Middle East prefer to hold your gaze when their speaking. They won’t trust you otherwise.

The Bulgarian negative
These Eastern Europeans nod for no and shake their head for yes. The potential for confusion is great.

The Teutonic fist bump
If a German pal bangs both fist on the table, it doesn’t mean he’s about to invade your lebensraum. It means “good luck”.

Speed Learning

All our tips so far have been about faking it – or at least appearing more convincing. Our last bits of advice will actually help you to speak in a foreign language, but faster.

Base Words

The average vocabulary of a University graduate is between 13,500 and 20,000 words – according to a 2007 study. That sounds a lot of learning to take on when you want to be fluent in a foreign language. The good news is that you don’t need a vocabulary of boffin proportions to be understood. Recent Kickstarter backed learning program Fluent Forever says you only need 625 base words to get by in any language. Even better, you can download a full list of those words (in English) from the site for free. Learn these words first and you’ll be on your way to speaking any foreign language of your choice.

Important Phrases

Most of us have the best language cheating tool ever invented in our pockets: our phones. Gone are the days you had to fumble through the index of a phrasebook. Now there are apps for that instead. Some of them even do all the talking for you. Lonely Planet is known for tour guides – and they produce a nice line in phrasebooks too. Now you can get those as apps for Android or you iPhone, so you’ll never be short of a handy phrase. Then there’s iTranslate on Android and iPhone. With clever speech recognition, it translates anything you say. Or it can translate anything back to English. There are versions with and without voice recognition, but the version you talk to supports 42 languages.

We’d be doing you a disservice if we didn’t mention Google Translate. It’s free, you can access it on your phone or a computer and it recognises 80 different languages!

Start from Scratch, Faster

And if all that cheating sounds like too much hard work, give Duolingo a try. It’s a free language learning app for mobile devices and computers. Running on Android and iOS devices or the web, you can choose to learn French, Spanish, German, Italian or Portuguese. As you learn you unlock rewards and level up, so it feels like you’re playing a game. And the best part about it? You can fit lessons in to any break in your day. It’s not quite cheating, but compared to reciting verb tables at school, it certainly feels like it.