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How I learned 4 Languages as an Adult


I grew up in a monolingual, English-speaking household, but I come from a long line of multilingual people. In an effort to assimilate, my family started speaking English the moment they set foot in the U.S. I grew up hearing nothing but English, and for the majority of my childhood, I didn’t give it a second thought.

I didn’t know that my grandfather spoke 3 languages, nor that my grandmother spoke 4, until after they had been gone for years. And I was pissed.

My cousin and I grumbled about this to our family at least once every couple of months.

Us: So we could have learned, but you didn’t even tell us that we had the opportunity?!

Them: Again? Please. They usually just spoke dialect. You’re not missing out on anything. Just speak English.

I found out about my grandpa’s linguistic background when I was finally deemed “old enough” to watch The Godfather (which happens to have been filmed in the town after which my family was named: Savoca). That movie had been banned from our house for as long as I can remember. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had to watch it at my grandma’s house. Something about Sicilian stereotypes, blah blah. It’s too realistic, blah blah.

And then came the passing comment that changed it all.

Grandpa didn’t need the subtitles for this part.

He didn’t?

I was equally caught off guard when I learned about my grandma.

I had been speaking with relatives on the other side of my family about my grandpa and how he spoke Sicilian.

Your grandmother spoke Sicilian fluently.

She did?

And Italian, French, and Spanish. And I’m pretty sure I heard some Arabic in that house. Maybe it was just their dialect of Sicilian… I don’t know.

So why don’t we speak any of them?

Sicilian was their secret language. They could talk about anything and the kids wouldn’t understand. Besides, sometimes people would come over the house — important people — and the whole group would just switch to another language.

Did she speak Sicilian with my grandpa?

Of course.

Why didn’t I know about this?

At this point, it became personal. I spent a year or two studying Sicilian, to the point that I was writing poetry and speaking with relatives in Sicily (that I didn’t even know I had) with ease. To me, not knowing about my family’s linguistic roots wasn’t about missing an opportunity to learn a language, but about missing an opportunity to connect with my family’s history. (Don’t worry: I grilled the rest of my family after that to see if anyone else spoke any secret languages.)

Learning new languages as an adult wasn’t as impossible as I thought it would be. I had dabbled in Spanish before I learned Sicilian. I failed the first Spanish exam I ever took, but at least I developed a foundation. Once I got comfortable with Sicilian, I went back to Spanish and became proficient. It was easier the second time around. Learning Italian was no problem after that. I was speaking, reading, and writing at an advanced level after taking a single semester of an Italian <> English translation course. I thought learning Russian would be an uphill battle, but it wasn’t.

There are no “secrets” to language learning.

But there are a few things that make it easier, especially if you do them faithfully.

  1. Having a connection to the language. If you have a reason to learn it, you will.
  2. Learning to read and write. I hear a lot of discussion about how learning to read and write isn’t necessary if you’re only hoping to attain spoken fluency, but I disagree. More on this in a moment.
  3. Receiving a daily dose of comprehensible input. In other words, you need to hear the language every day and you need to read things that are just a step or two ahead of your current level.
  4. Producing linguistic output on a daily basis. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Seriously.

Here is how these principles guided my learning and pushed me to proficiency:

Having a connection to the language. I have a connection to Sicilian because of my family’s history. I have a connection to Spanish because I live in a Spanish-speaking community and for awhile, I needed it for work. I have a connection to Italian, again, because of my family’s history. I have a connection to Russian because of a personal relationship.

Learning to read and write. I learned to read and write in all of these languages before I learned to speak. Seeing a language on paper makes it much easier to identify vocabulary and grammatical structures that we hear later. I tried to learn Russian without learning to read or write, and it only took a day or two before I got tired of hearing the same word 100 times and still being unable to pronounce it. In all of these languages, I couldn’t identify the sounds I was hearing without seeing them in front of me.

Receiving a daily dose of comprehensible input. Music and movies. And native speakers. But mostly music and movies. I often joke that the radio taught me Spanish, and that I learned Russian from this song.

Here is why the previous step was crucial in my language-learning process:

When I started to learn Russian, I listened to Russian rap on repeat while reading the lyrics. Every day.

Listening to rap is one of the best ways way to learn the natural rhythm of a language, to learn where stress falls on certain words, and to learn to speak at a native-like speed. I used to memorize a whole song every day, even before I understood all of the words. I would go back after memorizing the lyrics and analyze each unfamiliar word or phrase. I added dozens of words and grammatical structures to my repertoire, and I never forgot them. All I had to do was think, How does that song go again? Oh yeah, got it. I got the colloquialisms, too.

I also made an explicit request for my good night texts to be in Russian.

You sent my good night text in English. Can you do it again? In Russian? Actually, send it as a voice message.

Producing linguistic output on a daily basis. I speak Spanish every day, without fail. This was my downfall back in high school when I made a failed attempt at learning Spanish: I never spoke it. With anyone. Ever. Once I got past the fear of making mistakes, I stopped thinking in English. A few years later, I was serving as an interpreter during meetings at work.

It is harder to do this with Italian and Sicilian, because I have no native speakers around me — so I do a lot of writing and I actively seek opportunities to practice. Maybe I’ll translate one of my articles. Maybe this one.

It gets frustrating when I encounter native speakers and they don’t switch over to Italian or Sicilian. Sometimes they want to practice their English. Most of the time, they just haven’t spoken the language(s) in so long that it no longer comes naturally, save for a few common expressions.

Oh, you speak Sicilian? Me too! Not anymore, though.

Most of the Italian speakers I encounter also speak Spanish, so a lot of times we switch over to Spanish inadvertently. It takes a conscious effort to choosea language to speak when your brain might be thinking in a different one.

Russian is the most fun. I have a reason to speak and write Russian every single day, and I know I’ll always get a response. One summer, I sent daily weather forecasts in Russian just so I could learn weather-related vocabulary. I text in Russian. I write letters in Russian. I switch to Russian when I need to say something private. (Suddenly, I empathize with my family; I suppose it is nice to keep a language between two people sometimes.)

There are no “tricks” or “secrets” to attaining proficiency.

I didn’t use any apps. I didn’t use a particular book or website. I just made sure to use the languages in all four modalities — speaking, listening, reading, and writing — on a daily basis. You can do some of this with books and apps, but Duolingo isn’t going to make you fluent and a book isn’t going to help you hear where the accent falls.

As a graduate student, I did quite a bit of research about the critical period in second language acquisition. This theory states, broadly, that learning a language past a certain age is difficult and that it is virtually impossible for adult learners to reach proficiency.

I disagree.

It might be difficult to develop a native-like accent, but it depends on (1) the target language, (2) the base language or native language, and (3) the individual.

I taught adult ESL for several years, and I watched hundreds of adult students from all areas of the world attain English proficiency faster than I thought possible. Faster than I was teaching. I underestimated them. They didn’t have any “secrets”. They just had a true motivation to learn, and they used the language daily, in all four modalities. That was it.

Sometimes, I think back to my English-only days. I remember how I failed that Spanish test. It was about ser and estar, by the way… literally the basics.

I also remember how my cousin and I would blame our family for our own monolingualism. He ended up learning enough Italian to translate genealogical documents and to write letters to various archives, which is necessary for his work. And now he speaks Croatian fluently.

I guess it wasn’t too late for us, after all.