Elisa Polese is an Italian polyglot known for teaching multiple languages at once (up to ten languages at a time!), including Arabic, Catalan, Dutch, Italian, English, Esperanto, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. In addition to her focus on multilingual learning, Elisa is also a big proponent of speaking from day one and getting over the fear of making mistakes. I had the privilege of witnessing her impressive multilingual teaching skills firsthand at the 2019 Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava, and it was exhilarating to see so many languages flying around in the room at once!

“Step by step, anyone can learn a language. Anyone. I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t learn a language. It’s just a matter of studying a little bit day by day and concentrating on the skills you want to develop. If you want to speak, try to say whatever you can say with the words you learn.” —Elisa Polese

Topics

In the interview, we discuss:

  • Elisa’s language teaching background and why she now teaches mostly online.
  • The pros and cons of 1) learning languages in-person vs. online, and 2) in a group vs. one-on-one.
  • How Elisa’s language learning and teaching methods have evolved over the years.
  • Why I always insist on calling a language like Japanese “different,” not “difficult.”
  • What Elisa has found most interesting about learning Japanese.
  • Why Elisa believes that becoming a polyglot is about passion, not talent.
  • How to best internalize the grammar of a foreign language.
  • The similarity betweening learning a language and learning a sport.
  • Why you should focus on the most common conjugations first (e.g. I and you) in Romance languages, Russian, etc. instead of memorizing the entire table.
  • Why language teachers should focus on a small set of useful words, phrases, and structures in the beginning, and not flood students with rare terms or exceptions to rules.
  • The difference between declarative memory and procedural memory (see my post Why You Need a Balanced Diet of “Declarative” and “Procedural” Memory Tasks for more on this topic).
  • The importance of emotions in language learning and the critical role of fun.
  • Why mistakes are an essential, unavoidable part of language learning (see my post Mistakes don’t BLOCK the path. They ARE the path.).
  • Why adults are actually better language learners than children in most respects (with the exception of pronunciation).
  • Why and how Elisa teaches multiple languages at once in her classes.
  • How learning one language (or dance) helps you learn others.
  • Why learning multiple languages at once doesn’t lead to mixing them up as most people would expect. On the contrary, it can help you remember the differences between similar languages more easily than learning them in succession.
  • The importance of focusing on language features and patterns (e.g. knowing that words almost never end in a consonant in Italian).
  • The joys of teaching languages and how it’s often a form of stand-up comedy!
  • Why languages should be a “get to do” instead of a “have to do.”
  • Elisa’s tips for making language learning more fun and effective.
  • The importance of taking tiny, consistent steps and focusing on what you already have instead of what you’re missing.
  • How to get and stay motivated in language learning.
  • Why you have to make time, not find time to learn languages.
  • A typical day of language learning for Elisa and why she focuses on listening input most.
  • Why passive and active listening are both useful.
  • Why language apps should be “nutritional supplements,” not “meal replacements.”
  • The power of having a clear, strong WHY for learning a language (see my post Define Your “Why” for Learning a Language for more).
  • What Elisa has changed her mind about in language learning and teaching.
  • The difference between accuracy and fluency, and why they must be trained separately.
  • Why one size never fits all when it comes to language learning resources, methods, etc.

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