The story of the woman who spoke fourteen languages and changed my life
When I was younger, in 1999, during the dark ages when the Internet still made beeping noises, I met a tour guide who changed the way I saw myself, language learning, and hyper-polyglots with one line.
This was in Israel. She was bringing a tour group to where I was working, and I met her at the entrance. She first spoke to me in Hebrew, then when she exhausted my Hebrew (quickly) she switched to English. She then spoke French and Russian to her tour group, so of course, I had to ask how many languages she spoke. The answer shocked me: Fourteen.
“FOURTEEN LANGUAGES??” I exploded. Then the follow-up. “How did you learn fourteen languages?”
So she told me the words that set me on my course:
“Some people are just good at languages. Maybe you could be. Have you tried?”
No, I hadn’t tried to learn fourteen languages. But was I good at languuages? I was intrigued. What should I do to find out? Try learning, I suppose.
So I started with Spanish. And I worked my butt off. I used a fledgling site in the US called Amazon to send me books and “cassettes”. I watched Argentinian soap operas (and briefly fell in love with the protagonist, Natalia Oreiro). I memorised lists of foods, talked to tourists, and generally put in hours a day on top of my job.
Eventually, after over a year, I could say I spoke Spanish. Hooray! People told me I must be good at languages. But I wasn’t sure. I had only learned one, and it was pretty hard! So I decided to try another one.
I tried French. Same way, I worked my butt off. After another year and a half of hard work I could speak it and again, people told me I was good at languages. I even believed it briefly.
Then I tried to learn Chinese. But again, it wasn’t easy. I had to work my butt off for two years, even quitting my job to go full time for nearly a year.
I still don’t think I’m good at learning languages. There is one thing I’m good at though: working hard, systematically, and being sure I’ll get a result.
THAT was our plan to learn Arabic, Swahili, and more. Work hard. Every day. Be systematic, and don’t get distracted. Invest with time (2 months), not wiath arbitrary goals of “fluency”. Focus on what’s important, ignore noise and anything boring and enjoy the whole process.
And we’ll share what worked (and what didn’t) along the way and at the end.
We look forward to having you along for that and subsequent adventures in Swahili, the Salsa, Kung Fu and whatever else comes our way.
Dana & Jo