My first contact with positive self-affirmations was with the fictional character Stuart Smalley, created by American comedian Al Franken. This fictional unlicensed therapist would look at himself in the mirror with a strangely gleeful smile and say, I’m good enough; I’m smart enough and, doggon’ it, PEOPLE LIKE ME! Needless to say, my perception of self affirmations was not very good. Later on I read Awaken the Giant Within, written by self-motivationalist Tony Robbins who taught that self-affirmations are good but only if you have a plan to achieve whatever it is you are affirming. You can tell yourself that you are handsome all you want but buying some new clothes, losing 10 pounds (or gaining 10 pounds as the case may be) and combing your hair every day isn’t such a bad idea either. That made sense and was more convincing. Lately I’ve had another contact with self-affirmations. Two very competent autodidactical linguists who I respect also use self-affirmations.

In this video you can see that Luca is trying very hard to explain his language learning methods in a way that will help others to be able to learn the languages that interest them. You’ll notice that one of the things he does is remind himself when he has to relearn a word or grammar principal multiple times over the course of several weeks that eventually these things will be very easy and that he will be surprised at how they ever seemed difficult. I think that this is very sound advice. I remember feeling like learning the Spanish language was like trying to drink a swimming pool full of apple juice with a spoon. I liked it and tried to get as much as I could but even after a month of drinking the pool still looked pretty full. Many foreign language students get stuck in between a basic knowledge of their target language and an intermediate knowledge. Instead of forging ahead they give up. It’s important to remember Luca’s advice: what is brutally difficult now will seem ridiculously easy in the future.

Steve the Linguist‘s method includes a full blown self affirmation for learning foreign languages. Here it is:

Have you studied Language X for many years? Are you still afraid to speak Language X? Please study this and repeat it to yourself daily.

I can be FLUENT in Language X. My goal is to be FLUENT. My goal is not to be perfect. My goal is just to be FLUENT. I can be FLUENT and still make mistakes.

FIRST I must FORGET what I learned in school. I will make a FRESH start. I will FORGET the rules of grammar. I will FORGET the quizzes and tests. I will FORGET all the times I made mistakes. I will FORGET what my teachers taught me. I will FORGET my native language. I will FORGET who I am. I am a new person. I am a Language X speaker. I will make a FRESH start. I will have FUN! I will FOCUS on things that are FUN and interesting. I will learn.

I will LEARN how to LEARN. I will LISTEN a lot. I will LET myself go. I will LISTEN and LET Language X enter my mind. I will LISTEN often. I will LISTEN every day. I will LISTEN to the same content many times. I will LISTEN to the meaning. I will LISTEN to hear the words and phrases. I will LISTEN early in the morning. I will LISTEN late at night.

I will UNDERSTAND the language. I will UNDERSTAND what I hear and read. If I UNDERSTAND what I hear and read I will be able to speak and write. UNTIL I can UNDERSTAND what I hear and read, I will not be able to speak and write well. But there is no hurry. I will work on UNDERSTANDING. I will read a lot and especially, listen a lot. I want to UNDERSTAND the meaning of Language X. I do not want to UNDERSTAND the rules of grammar.

EVERY day is a learning day. EVERY day the language is ENTERING my brain. I ENJOY reading and listening EVERY day. I study with ENERGY and ENTHUSIASM. I study interesting things and ENJOY the language. If I ENJOY the language I will improve. Let the language ENTER my mind. There is no need to push myself. I am getting better EVERY day.

I will NEVER say that I am NO GOOD. When I read and listen I will tell myself “NICE GOING”! I will learn NATURALLY and easily. I will be NICE to myself. I will NOT BE NERVOUS. If I make a mistake I will say “NEVER MIND”. If I cannot understand something I will say “NEVER MIND.” If I forget a word I will say “NEVER MIND.” If I have trouble saying what I want to say, “NO PROBLEM”. I will continue.

I will TRUST myself. I will be confident. Confident learners improve quickly. I will TREAT myself with respect. I will TELL myself that I am doing well. I just need to keep going, no matter what. The more I listen and read using THE LINGUIST, the more I will understand. The more words and phrases I save the more I will know. Soon I will be ready to speak and write well. I will take it easy. I know I will succeed. I will TRUST myself and TRUST THE LINGUIST.

The fact that two people taught themselves over seven languages using self-affirmations, among other things, seems like more than just a simple coincidence. Do you think that these attitudes or affirmations would help you to learn a language? Have any of you tried self-affirmations before? Would you consider sharing your experiences with the rest of us?

Tips for Raising Bilingual Children

Although I didn’t grow up bilingually I had friends who did. I always felt a twinge of jealousy when I heard them speak Spanish, Laotian or Tagalog so I decided that if I learned to speak another language I would raise my children to be bilingual. After getting married I devoured about four books on the subject, the best one being Australian linguist George Saunders’ book Bilingual Children: Guidance for the Family.

Teaching Your Children Your Second Language

Dr. Saunders did not grow up speaking German but decided that he wanted his children to. This was partly to see if a non-native speaker could teach his children to speak the second language in a society where that language was not common at all. Dr. Saunders was successful. He even taught in Hamburg for a semester, took his family with him and enrolled his two boys in regular German schools. Their grades dropped a little bit but that also could have been due to the move and living in a very different environment. They made friends with their classmates, wrote essays, learned new math concepts and even gave class presentations about Australia, all in German. The documentation of his children growing up speaking German, as well as his many references to other case studies, has given me lots of food for thought for when I have my own children.

Don’t Embarrass Them

One of the first mistakes parents make when they raise their children to be bilingual is that they show them off to their friends. Occasionally you come across an outgoing kid who likes the attention but most kids hate it. I once read a case about a British/French family showing off their bilingual kid to some British neighbors. When they asked the child to say something in French he responded, Non. The way the child perceives the language is very important so don’t make it seem like something embarrassing or uncommon. These children should be shocked when they find out that everyone isn’t raised with both languages just like they might be shocked that not all children are tucked into bed in the same way that their own mothers tuck them into bed.

Strike a Balance

I read about two minority groups in Australia that were unsuccessful at passing their language onto their children. One was an aboriginal group that was overbearing. They corrected their children’s and grandchildren’s native language so much that the kids ended up not wanting to speak the native language at all.

The next group consisted of Japanese immigrants. Many of the kids in the study said that they would have liked to have learned better Japanese but their parents didn’t really do anything other than speak to them in the language. Since the kids had no instruction and were not encouraged much to respond in Japanese they were embarrassed to use the little they knew with new immigrants or other Japanese speakers.

The trick is to encourage the kids to speak in the target language without being overbearing. Dr. Saunders did this by playing with his children in German and then, when they went to school, he gave them very short homework assignments in German that were appropriate for their age. He would also watch German movies with them. There were a couple of times when the kids got frustrated trying to express something that happened to them in school in German so he told them that it would be alright to tell him in English and then switch back into German. If this happens to your children a lot then don’t correct them on the spot. Wait a while and then think up a fun activity to do that will teach them the expressions that they are lacking in a natural and entertaining way.


The case studies with the most success were those that included children who would regularly go places where the second language was the norm. This usually included vacations abroad. Especially as the kids get older, they are going to need to see a reason to use the language other than to talk to their family. If going abroad isn’t an option (at least not a regular one) what you need to do is take your kids to festivals, religious services, stores or neighborhoods where they only hear the target language. Do it as often as possible. If knowing the target language well means making friends, getting a girlfriend or boyfriend, being able to buy cool things, participating in a fun dance festival, etc. then the kids will make sure they can still speak the target language even into their preteen and teenage years.

One Parent, One Language

This seems to be the most effective way to do it. If you mix the languages when speaking to the child then the child will most likely lose the minority language on the first day of school. It is amazing how fast kids learn languages but what studies show is that they forget them just as quickly. In mixed families each parent should speak his or her native language. In families like Dr. Saunders’, one parent should speak the majority language and the other should speak the minority language. Period. If you are inconsistent the children will always revert to the majority language and at best become receptive bilinguals (understanding two languages but being able to speak only one).

Relax and Have Fun

I believe that the greatest key to Dr. Saunders’ success was that he made German a fun bond that the children had with their father. The movies, the bedtime stories and games were all enjoyable. Even Dr. Saunders admits that their English is much stronger than their German but his observation is that that was okay. If his kids ever wanted to live in Germany, get a job in Germany, do business with Germans, get married to a German or read a book in German then they could do so in spite of the fact that they grew up in an English speaking country and neither one of their parents was a native German speaker. The fact that their command of the language was about 75% as good as that of their peers in Germany was almost beside the point. The point was that being a competent bilingual, as opposed to a perfect bilingual, was much better than being a simple monolingual.

Do you and your spouse speak a foreign language? Are you starting a family? Give your children the gift of bilingualism! Even if the two of you aren’t fabulous at both languages, give it a try! As with most important family matters, your family will find it difficult to do and maintain but you will all be extremely glad that you did it when your children are adults.

Luca the Italian Polyglot

I think it is interesting how some of the best language learners I have come into contact with are mostly self taught. My friend Luca is no exception. Luca is causing waves on youtube right now because of a nearly six and a half minute video he made of himself speaking in eight languages. See the video below.

This video has been watched thousands of times by people from all over the world. A European who speaks eight languages is extraordinary but not really a phenomenon. What makes Luca truly stand out from the crowd, even among his fellow Europeans, is his ability to speak with such a native sounding accent in his seven foreign languages. Give his videos in French and German a listen.

Right after watching Luca’s octaglot video for the first time I logged onto the polyglot website’s chat room, excited to share the video with people there. In one of the most bizarre coincidences I found that Luca was already in the chat room. I introduced myself and since then we’ve had some very good chats about languages and language learning. See Luca’s videos in Italian and Swedish.

Luca’s abilities are a testament to some of the things that I truly want to communicate on this blog: that anyone can learn a language, that learning several languages is not an impossible task, that learning languages is a life enriching experience. With his permission, I recorded some of a telephone chat that he and I had today about language learning. Listen to it here.

After I stopped recording, he and I talked for a while longer about other polyglots that we’ve come into contact with, like Stuart Jay Raj, Steve Kaufmann, Dr. Alexander Arguelles, Ziad Fazah and Dr. Carlos do Amaral Freire, to name a few. He also confessed that his favorite language, at least right now, is Russian. See his videos in Dutch and Spanish.

Linguists like Luca are inspirational and I think that there are definitely things that we can learn from them. If you look for Luca on youtube during the next few days you will see his video, in English, that includes tips for learning languages. We wish Luca well on his language learning journey and thank him for the interview. To end this post, I’ve included his videos in Russian and in English.

Being Interviewed by Steve the Linguist

Steve the Linguist’s blog is one of several that I subscribe to. Steve is Canadian and speaks nine languages. His command of Mandarin and Japanese is particularly impressive. A little while ago he decided to start interviewing language learners who had succeeded and failed to learn their target languages to get an idea from them what worked and what didn’t. The first interview he did was a lot of fun so I told Steve that, if he still needed people, I would be willing to be interviewed.

We did the interview yesterday and it was truly enjoyable. One of the reasons I started this blog was to have more contact with language enthusiasts (like yourselves) and Steve is one of the most enthusiastic of the bunch. You can listen to the interview here.

Building Nations with the Cunning Use of Foreign Languages

The British comedian Eddie Izzard once said that Great Britain built up her empire with the cunning use of flags. I thought this over simplification was not only pretty funny but that it also had a ring of truth to it. Thinking it over myself, I also found that many nations seemed to have built themselves up by defining their languages. Can I be a German if I don’t speak German; can I be an Egyptian if I don’t speak Egyptian Arabic? Are nations really defined by the languages they speak?

Family Matters

The Latin language gave birth to a large and violent family. Many of its children, like Asturian, Occitan, Valencian, Aragonese, Dalmatian and many others, never reached full maturity. Even to this day poor Catalan, Galician and Aranese have never really recovered from the abuse of their childhood. Latin’s eldest child, Italian, has become the language of love and culture. Latin’s illegitimate child, French, has become a literary and global giant. It looked as though Portuguese might end up as the runt of the family but instead it turned out to simply be a late bloomer.

The Iberian Peninsula, like the rest of Medieval Europe, was dived into many tiny countries whose boundaries were always changing after small wars. By today’s standards, we would say that most of these countries all spoke dialects since their languages didn’t really have much of a written standard. Most things worth writing were written in Latin. In 1290 King Dennis of Portugal founded the University of Lisbon and declared that Portuguese would be the official language of his kingdom, effectively cutting short poor little Portuguese’s linguistic adolescence. The day before, everyone in Portugal was speaking a corrupted dialect of Latin but a royal decree and a university laid the foundation for Portuguese to become the language of the Bible, Camões, Fernando Pessoa and over 230 million other people living in the four quarters of the Earth. King Dennis’ foresight allowed Portuguese to survive when other little countries, and their dialects, were swallowed up by Castile and Leon and the Spanish language.

Power to the People!

Bengali is spoken by over 170 million people who live mostly in eastern India and Bangladesh. When India was about to become a nation, independent of the British, the Muslim Indians wanted to have their own country so they wouldn’t constantly be out numbered by the Hindu majority. The decision was made to form Pakistan wherever there was a Muslim majority. The problem was that there was a Muslim majority in the western and eastern extremes of India.

The people in the west spoke Urdu, which is essentially Hindi written with a Perso-Arabic alphabet instead of Hindi’s Devanagari alphabet. By simply giving their writing different symbols the Indian Muslims of the west claimed to have created a new language: Urdu. Since Urdu was intrinsically associated with Indian Muslims and most of the Pakistani leaders were from the west, the new government of Pakistan decided to establish Urdu as the official language of the country. All dealings in the government, schools and media would mandatorily be in Urdu. The problem was that of the 69 million Pakistanis, 44 million lived in the east and spoke Bengali, not Urdu. This meant that 63% of the new Pakistani citizens had to watch TV and listen to the radio in a foreign language. It meant that their local town meetings as well as their national meetings would be in a foreign language and that their children not would be educated in the language spoken at home. This led to mass protests for several decades until Eastern Pakistan eventually separated itself from the rest of Pakistan and became the independent nation of Bangladesh where the official language is Bengali.

Ben-Yehuda’s Miracle

Even before the ancient Jews were defeated and carried away by the Babylonians (ancient Iraqis) Hebrew was losing ground to Aramaic, which was a related language. By the time the Jews came back to their country Aramaic was the language that most of them used in everyday speech. Most scholars believe that Christ gave His sermons in Aramaic, not Hebrew. After the second century A.D. Hebrew ceased to be anyone’s native language. Most Jews ended up speaking their own dialect of German (Yiddish), Spanish (Ladino) or whatever other language they were surrounded by. Today, eighteen centuries later, it is the native language of over seven million people. How did that happen!?

Hebrew wasn’t really dead but it was definitely in a coma. Luckily, the Jews acted like caring relatives and visited the language often. Most Jewish boys had to study Hebrew at an early age. Almost all religious ceremonies and rituals were conducted in Hebrew. The language was also used in rabbinical literature. As a result many Jewish people, especially men, had at least a basic grasp of Classical Hebrew.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, an Eastern European Jew, moved to the Ottoman controlled area of Palestine and set out to revive Hebrew as a living language, convinced that it could unite the Jewish people. Since Jews from all over the world were coming to Jerusalem, some of them were already using Hebrew as a lingua franca. Ben-Yehuda and his wife spoke nothing but Hebrew to their son and even tried to shield him from the influences of any other language. They also encouraged other Jewish families to give up their native languages and speak nothing but Hebrew at home.

His success was very limited until he was able to get Hebrew to become the language of instruction in public schools. Even this achievement had a rocky start. At first, several different pronunciations were being taught in different schools. A huge influx of Yiddish speaking Jewish immigrants also threatened to kill the movement. People also questioned the practicality of teaching a minority language of little economic value to their children. Yiddish has a high degree of mutual intelligibility with Standard German.

Ben-Yehuda could not be dissuaded. He, and others, came up with an official Hebrew dictionary with modern terms and regularly published a Zionist newspaper entirely in Hebrew. In the end, the Israelis decided that it made more sense for them speak Hebrew than Yiddish. Israelis who commonly used any language other than Hebrew were criticized and sometimes even harassed. The phrase, “יהודי, דבר עברית (Jew, speak Hebrew).” became very common in Israel when one Israeli heard another speaking a language that was not Hebrew. The movement was successful and Hebrew has been revived after a 1,800 year long coma.

One Language, Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All

In 1914, American President Theodore Roosevelt stated, “We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.” The United States has absorbed huge numbers of German, Italian, French and Spanish speakers. If Scandinavian were one language and not three, it would also count as a major language absorbed in the USA. Most children in the USA whose parents speak a language other than English at home end up having only a very passive knowledge of it and then very rarely pass it on to their children. This is the way things have always been.

The huge immigration of Spanish speakers to the USA in the latter half of the 20th century and in the beginning of the 21st has created something of a phenomenon. For the first time since WWI, when the German speakers were persecuted and their schools and newspapers shut down, a language other than English has a significant presence in the USA. This issue is controversial to say the least.

The US government is aggressively avoiding the issue despite what its citizens demand. Every few years it passes laws that fine people who employ or house illegal residents but these laws are almost never enforced. Twenty eight of the fifty states have declared that English is their official language but that doesn’t stop the Hispanics from speaking their native language or from having quinceañera parties. Ignorant and desperate Americans are holding raids in different parts of the country, rounding up people who have brown skin and speak English with an accent. There are even a few counties with telephone numbers to call and report illegal residents. Since the average white American is monolingual and does not know much about Hispanic culture, many legal residents are being arrested along with the illegal ones.

Many Americans fear that the Hispanics will eventually do what the Bangladeshi and Portuguese did: use their linguistic separation as a precursor to creating a new nation. Indeed, the only city with more Mexicans than California’s Los Angeles is Mexico City itself. The only city with more Puerto Ricans than New York is San Juan, Puerto Rico. Americans have a situation that is similar to the Israelis’: they live in a country of immigrants where unity is facilitated by a common language.

Are Americans wrong to demand that immigrants, legal or illegal, learn English and abandon their native language? Should they feel intimidated that more tortillas are sold in the USA than bread? Should they be bothered that some of their children have trouble finding part time jobs because they do not know Spanish? Should they use the situation to become a bilingual nation? Should they embrace not only Spanish but all the languages and cultures of their immigrants? Is it necessary for Americans to cling to English in order for America to continue in prosperity or is this a false perception on their part? Are Americans silly to think that Hispanics are taking over their country?