Since starting the Language Mastery Show in 2009, I have interviewed over fifty of the world’s best language learners, including some “polyglots” who speak five, ten, fifteen, or even more languages!
One of the most impressive such individuals is Lindie Botes, a South African UX designer based in Singapore who speaks 12+ languages to varying degrees, including Korean, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and Hungarian!
So how did she acquire so many languages when most people struggle to learn just one? And just as important, how does she maintain the languages she has worked so hard to acquire?
She has many interesting methods (which I encourage you to dig into on her website or YouTube channel), but the one I find most intriguing is “language stacking.” In a nutshell, the method involves learning one foreign language through another that you already speak to a high level.
As Lindie explains in her video How learning 8+ languages changed my life | My polyglot story:
“Language stacking is learning one language up to an intermediate or advanced level and then using it as the language of instruction for another language.”
Suppose that you have reached a high level of fluency in Japanese and want to learn Korean next. Instead of getting Korean learning materials written for native speakers of English, with language stacking, you would instead find Korean materials written for Japanese speakers.
Sounds crazy, right? Why add in this extra layer of complexity?
Well, as accomplished polyglots like Lindie have shown, this approach can actually make language acquisition much more efficient and effective. It allows you to squeeze out much more benefit from your daily doses of language study, it makes it feasible to maintain multiple languages over time, and in the case of certain language pairs (e.g. Japanese + Korean or Spanish + Italian), it allows you to leverage similarities between the two languages.
Take Japanese and Korean. Both have the same basic word order and share many helpful grammatical features (e.g. honorifics, use of grammatical particles, etc.). There are also a lot of cognates, with thousands and thousands of the same original words borrowed into Korean (Sino-Korean vocabulary) and Japanese (Sino-Japanese vocabulary) from Chinese over the millennia. With enough exposure, you can start to spot phonetic patterns and sometimes guess how a given word will be pronounced in any of the three languages even if you only know how it’s pronounced in one of them (though you should of course check the dictionary to confirm the proper pronunciation).
For example, “library” is tú-shū-guǎn (圖書館, 图书馆) in Mandarin Chinese, do-seo-gwan (도서관) in Korean, and to-sho-kan (図書館) in Japanese. See the similarities? You can always hear the gradual transition from one to the other as the word gradually moved from China to Korea to Japan over the centuries.
But you needn’t limit language stacking to similar languages. Lindie, for example, has used the method to learn Spanish through Japanese (not exactly linguistic twins). What matters, as in all language learning, is that:
- You choose materials at your level.
- You choose materials that fit your interests.
- You spend time with the language every day.
If you follow these three criteria for enough time, you too can get fluent in one or more foreign languages. You probably won’t get to 12+ languages like Lindie unless you design your life and identity around languages, but so what? You can at least get really good at a few. Polyglots like Lindie are impressive. But their accomplishments are completely replicable by the rest of us. It’s simply a matter of choosing the scale and pace that fits your life, not someone you admire on YouTube.
Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash