Setting the stage

Being a polyglot is a problem of definition first. Who can be described as a polyglot? At what level do you actually “speak” the given language? Some sources cite that polyglot means speaking more than 4 languages, others 6. My take is it doesn’t matter. I am more interested in the definition of when you speak the language. If you can greet and order a coffee in 20 languages do you actually speak them? I don’t think so. Do you need to present a scientific document or write a newspaper worthy article to be considered? That’s too much. I think the best definition would be that you can go out with a group of native speakers, understand what they are saying and participate in the discussion that would range from everyday stuff to maybe work related stuff and not switching too often to English nor using google translate. It’s ok to pause and maybe ask for a specific word or ask the group if your message got across. This is what I am aiming for when I study a specific language. 

Why learn a foreign language when soon we will have AI auto-translate from our glasses and other wearables? This is a valid question for work related purposes but socially it’s not. You can never be interacting with glasses talking in another language while having dinner with friends nor at a date for example. The small things that make you part of the culture are hidden in the language. The respect and the motivation to blend in is irreplaceable. 

For reference here are the languages I speak at approximate levels:

  • Greek - native
  • English - proficient (C2)
  • Spanish - high level (C1) active learning
  • French - medium level (B2) active learning
  • Italian - coffee+ level (B1) active learning
  • Dutch - survival level (A2) in hibernation

Get started

Firstly, I think the first foreign language you learn could be  taught in a formal way with an experienced teacher. That will teach you the way to structure your thought process and learn how to learn efficiently. It’s common in Europe and non-English speaking countries to learn a second language at school. This guide is not about how to learn formally though. It’s about how to take up new foreign languages without a *permanent teacher (I will expand later). One of the most important things when learning a language is motivation. You either love the culture, the language itself (how it sounds and reads), a loved one or you are moving there or doing a long term stay. If you hate the language, it is mandatory that you learn it but you’d rather not then none of this will work. I found that to be the case with Dutch where while I did like the culture, I found the language pretty bad sounding (almost ridiculous hhh-hhh sounds) - sorry if you are Dutch. That resulted in me learning the minimum in 7 years while I picked up Italian in a summer. Now that you found your calling let’s proceed.

Methods & Tools

I wholeheartedly recommend Memrise as an app for learning. It’s vastly better than Duolingo and much less repetitive and boring. It reminds you of words you have forgotten at regular intervals utilizing the spaced repetition learning techniques. It’s much more focused in everyday interactions and their unique selling point is videos of random people. It’s genius that they are asking native speakers on the street to pronounce words and phrases for you. Having a visual reference makes it much more engaging and sticks. In my experience, trying to learn a new word takes maybe 10 fictional time units and if I am in a real conversation and someone corrects me, it takes just that time and I will forever remember the face of the person correcting me and the place. In a smaller degree that’s how memrise works. But we need to be a bit more structured. After learning everyday phrases and words some grammar is in order. You can try to pick up a beginner grammar book and focus on very specific language structures and go easy on other ones. My advice for a new language that you want to pick up fast is:

  • Learn only 4 tenses. Past for one time events, past continuous, present, future. These are enough to go by and explain yourself.
  • Skip conditionals and indirect speech and learn only a few important verbs in imperative form so you can give an order if need be.
  • If you are going there physically, learn words of everyday use such as cutlery, toilet things, city block stuff like the word fence, garbage can etc. If not, then focus on words that you will actually use such as in education,work,vacation as these are the discussions you will mostly have. (fun story, I passed the C2 exam and then I realized I didn’t remember the word faucet when I went to the UK to visit a friend). 
  • Forget complicated spelling and especially accents in French if it’s not entirely necessary. There is no need to learn if a word takes a ` or ‘ if you know how to pronounce it correctly. (Edited because I wrote intonation instead of spelling in the first draft).
  • Don’t spend too much time memorizing if a noun is female or male in languages that are not easy to tell from the noun itself. Everyone will understand you in any case.
  • When you look up a word in one language, do it for all other languages too. The mind works like a database and each row has columns for each language you speak. Fill that database up!

My favorite tools are:

  • Memrise
  • Lexilize app (they have a spaced repetition technique only for words and a realtime dictionary I add words to when I watch movies or read articles. It also has lists of common groups of words for each language so you can focus on what I said earlier.
  • Internet website for quickly searching verb conjugation. Looking at the charts frequently will make you remember them. I usually repeat some charts when I read them mentally.
  • Preply* for hiring an occasional teacher by the hour online.
  • ChatGPT**

*A note about hiring teachers by the hour. I explain to them what exactly I want and don’t want. In this specific case I want to practice speaking in different scenarios with a native speaker. I tell them to correct me. I usually send them pictures of a situation that we can expand on or photos of an event and then I start describing everything there is in the photo, the people, their fictional lives etc. What not to do: there is no value in paying a teacher to be your google translate. You can look up words later on your own. But you can ask the teacher for differences in words or how exactly to use them in sentences, there is a lot of nuance in synonyms. There is also no value in a teacher repeating the present tense verb chart to you.  

**How I use chatGPT. I use it to ask grammar questions or nuances between the use of words such as what I did with the live teacher. But the most fun is either starting up a chat with it in the target language about life, poetry and robots or making it create language games for me.

Pro tip: try the following prompt "create a repeating game for me in Italian where I need to fill in the blanks with conjugated verbs in one of the following tenses: past continuous, present, simple future. After I give you my answer tell me if it’s right or wrong and if the latter, explain to me why. Then give me another exercise. Keep repeating the game forever".

It’s not my place or job to think how will the education industry cope with a teacher that costs $20/month but makes you wonder.

Continuous improvement


After I have a basic grasp of the language I try to have daily exposure to it. For example Netflix is awesome for this. I start watching my favorite series and gradually make it more difficult for me. 

Level 1 - Series in English or native language and subtitles in target language OR  Series in target language and subtitles in English or native language

Level 2 - Series in target language and subtitles in target language

Level 3 - Series in target language without subtitles 


If you reach a sufficient level in the target language you can also start reading books in it. What I do in order not to get bored with reading books I never intended to, I pick a book that I wanted to read that requires a medium level of understanding (reading Nietsche while learning German would be quite bold). I recommend reading the book using a Kindle so you can achieve 2 things: a) press on a word and immediately search the dictionary or a whole sentence and see the translation and b) when you end the book have a place that you can repeat and see all the unknown words you had.

Podcasts and news

I listen to the news in different languages every day. Sometimes I put hour long podcasts to listen to although if the subject is boring you will find your mind wandering.

I also switch Google news to other languages too but you may read too many local news that you don't care about.


Try to start messaging your friends that are native speakers (better to avoid at first other friends that are trying to learn the language because you may repeat their mistakes). Try to say a few words or kick start a conversation in a group with the native speaker. They will be happy to respond back unless they are Spanish(!) and they will reply back in English. You need to specifically tell Spaniards that you want to practice their language. I am kidding of course but I have multiple real-world examples of me having a chat going like: Hola como estas? (native speaker answers) I’m fine, how about you! (me) Todo bien, vamos hoy por la playa? (native speaker) Sure what time? (me) sobre las 7? (native speaker) OK great see you at the beach! (me irritated) amigo, entiendes que estoy hablando en tu idioma? (native speaker) yes but I also want to practice my English!

Final wisdom

There is always what I call an inflection point where the complicated pasta in your head starts to make sense and have structure. You finally see something behind the fog. This is the time that you feel like “I got this, I just have to keep going”. This is a good time to start having casual chats. It’s a mortal sin to wait until you are proficient in a language to start chatting because you are too shy or can’t accept being wrong or being corrected. You can’t learn a language like that, you need to dive deep now!

I usually remember my breakthrough chat in each language. It’s the time where I had a chat with someone for a long time and didn’t have to switch back to another language which usually happens around the 10 minute mark when you cannot support the whole conversation in the target language. In this breakthrough chat I may occasionally ask for a word or even look it up if it’s important but I don’t need to say whole sentences in another language. I remember the person, the place and many other details usually in these chats because your mind is working in overdrive and your neurons are firing up with happy excitement. Don’t drink too much in this chat. One glass of wine augments the chat, 3 glasses destroy it! Happy learning. I’m always up for a chat @arisalexiseco

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These are my favorite kinds of posts. Subject expert gives full explanation of optimal resources and methods they used to get where they are.

Some studies have strongly indicated that learning Esperanto as the first foreign language greatly facilitates the learning of a subsequent language. For example, in Finland students were divided into two groups: one took three years of German, the other took one year of Esperanto followed by two years of German. At the end, students in the second group knew more German and were more fluent in German than those in the first group. See 

I don't know how much that would help in languages beyond the first post-Esperanto language, but a positive initial experience with language learning would seem to be useful.

Very interesting. I suspect the effect would be much greater for Mediterranean languages because Esperanto itself is latin based.

Hi there,

Fellow polyglot here, I've mostly studied Spanish, Russian, and Vietnamese.

Most people really struggle with language learning so I'm glad to see a post like this here. I'd like to add some notes I've learned in my own language-learning journey.

  1. Textbooks — Textbooks are useful but people misuse them in really self-sabotage-y ways. I recommend spending less than 5% of your time doing textbook-related things. This is because they're very boring and kill motivation, and because they mostly build declarative/conceptual understanding rather than procedural knowledge.
  2. Movies/cartoons/songs — My school classes weren't set up to teach listening comprehension, so I turned to kids' cartoons for practice. But they didn't actually help because I couldn't follow what anyone was saying. So then I started writing transcripts of everything they said. I would pause and go back over the sentences I didn't understand, to the point where it took me like 12 hours to watch a single 20-minute episode. Actually like 99% of my study-time consisted of transcribing cartoons and drilling flash cards. This worked unreasonably well for me, but I haven't seen anyone else do this. I think most other successful language learners mainly read books in their target language.
  3. Vocabulary — The biggest bottleneck in language learning, by a wide margin. Sure, grammar is fun and interesting, But Vocab is absolutely key and drilling flash cards is ALWAYS a great idea. In my experience, 15 minutes of drilling corresponds to 1 learned word, where "learned" means that I'll remember that word 6 months later. When you're just starting out with a new language, and aren't familiar with its sounds and relative frequencies of morphemes, this rate can be a lot slower, though. 
  4. Sleep — My learning ability degrades a lot when I'm tired. Once I started keeping a consistent study routine this became really obvious really quickly. So I make sure to sleep enough when I'm doing mental work.
  5. Listening to Music — Another thing I noticed with my study routine was that listening to music degraded my efficiency in studying. I still just continued listening to music anyway because it was more fun. I mean I honestly don't think I would have had the patience to study flashcards for like an hour every day without the music, so it helped in that sense, but just comparing the days where I studied with music, vs without, I finished my study routine 20-30% faster on silent days.
  6. Grammar — Grammar is by far my favorite part of learning languages. Firstly, most people don't like grammar and they don't learn it perfectly. All of my Spanish teachers got the Subjunctive Mood wrong, even at the college level, so be careful about what people say about grammar. The very basics—subject, object, verb, adjective— You can trust that, but beyond that be skeptical! Secondly, you can get really far on raw intuition just by getting lots of exposure to the target language. So I'd recommend not worrying too much about grammar and just focusing on taking in the language. I mean, if you love grammar like me you should learn it, but don't worry if you're not like me!
  7. Classes — I think learning in a classroom setting is extremely inefficient. The main advantage of classes is that you HAVE to go to them so they force you to learn, but getting a private tutor is much much better. If you're intrinsically motivated enough, the tutor isn't necessary, but they always help a lot. I think for a private tutor, at least 3 sessions per week is necessary. 1 session per week isn't enough.
  8. Study Abroad — I did a 1-year study abroad and, well it's hard to evaluate, actually. I used Spanish a lot there, but I also retreated back to English-Speaking-Internet during my down time, and I stopped doing my normal Study regime, so I don't think I got all the value out of it that I could have. But using Spanish all day definitely helped me with holding conversations in Spanish, which is nice. I don't really consider myself fluent, but I do alright in small groups and can talk about most topics, so I'd say overall it was a success.
  9. One of the problems that I haven't really solved is getting Spanish as an actual part of my daily life. When I used to study Spanish it was always scheduled time that I specifically dedicated to practicing Spanish. It was always effortful, like fighting against a current. But ESL people get a lot of automatic practice in English since it's the Lingua Franca of the internet, and all the most interesting parts of the internet are in English. I mean, how cool an experience is it, to grow up in like Portugal, learn English through the internet, and find all the cool places like LessWrong, and those hour-long speedrunner video essays, and the special-interest chatrooms in English? Isn't that such an awesome way to learn a foreign language? I don't know, I guess I'm just kind of jealous. This is just a rant though, not useful advice. Don't beat yourself up though if you're not as fluent in your target language as your ESL friend is in English.

I'm curious if your experience lines up with mine? I think fundamentally, the main reason I'm successful at language learning is just because I love it so much and can do it for long periods of time without exerting as much willpower, but I'd love to know if my advice is useful to others.

I do agree and I admire you because you learned very different languages which is more difficult. I kept the germanic-latin tree of languages.


A nitpick: you say

fun story, I passed the C2 exam and then I realized I didn’t remember the word faucet when I went to the UK to visit a friend

but here in the UK I don't think I have ever once heard a native speaker use the word "faucet" in preference to "tap". I guess the story is actually funnier if immediately after passing your C2 exam you (1) thought "faucet" was the usual UK term and (2) couldn't remember it anyway...

(I liked the post a lot and although I am no polyglot all the advice seems sound to me.)

I’m an adult from the UK and learnt the word faucet like last year

Yes I didn't even know the difference :) I thought tap is only for pub beer ! Totally disconnected from the exams where you only dealt with essays


I found the language pretty bad sounding (almost ridiculous hhh-hhh sounds)

Now I am curious: what sounds are these? As in, what is it actually spelled like, because no word sounds like six "h"es after each other in English

This description rather reminds me of Icelandic, where I noticed in a video playing in a museum (geothermal energy exhibition) that they have the same word for "hand" as Dutch, except there is a huff after the word, like "hand'hh". It sounded as silly to me as it probably does to English speakers when putting a stray quiet gasp for air after each instance of the word "hand".

I am not aware that Dutch has elongated "h" sounds like that, so maybe you mean something like the "g" in Den Haag (The Hague) or the "ch" in Utrecht, which I suppose can be h-like (but, to me, that's a single one and not elongated)?

Exaggerated ofc, not sure how to write the pronunciation. Word s like graag (gladly) can be written in English like "hraah" for example. Or krachtig (strong) could be krahtih. Lots of repetition of these sounds.


Aha! Interesting that you see the Dutch g sound as an English h; to me, the English h is... I can see some resemblance but, at the same time, it seems as different as the vowel in "seems" and "says". (Then again, perhaps someone from a language without an a-as-in-says sound would approximate that with e-as-in-seems.) I indeed won't say Dutch is a great language to the ears, it's neutral to me. It's the one I'm verbally best in due to nativeness, but I'd just as soon it gets replaced with something more widely spoken! Much more practical for everyone.

Thanks for writing this guide by the way, I expect these practical tips are going to help me with German :)

isn't German very easy to learn for Dutch people? most I met became quite fluent very fast due to similarities


Yeah I wish. I'm even from the region that has a lot of German influence in its dialect (as if Dutch itself wasn't Germanlike enough), but my innate comprehension is at the level where in high school I once looked through the list of words to study before a multiple-choice test, thought "yeah this looks doable, I'd know most of these and thus pass the test", and then went on to score worse than random on the actual test as the only student. (If only that teacher could see me living in Germany now; we'd have a good laugh.) And that's not even considering the language has fifty words for "the" as well as adjectives, which will take forever to become automated in my head.

Didn't have much trouble with French in school -- not that I remember any of it by now -- and evidently English is no problem either. It's just German. I'm listening to German podcasts, posting in German subreddits (using tools like DeepL Write or, before that existed, just DeepL translate it back into English and see if it comes out right), speaking to the neighbors in German, reading German books, recently started chatting with some coworkers in German: the whole shebang. It has been five years and my German is functional now, but only barely...

Ah, look on the bright side: I got the opportunity to work here in English so far and allow myself this time to get that foundation going. And at least I seem to have Zusammenschreibung down to about native level because it works exactly the same as in Dutch. (I think this is an objectively useful feature, which English kinda has it but takes them decades to decide "life saver" or "web site" are really just one word and it needn't use a space that also, ambiguously, separates things that are not part of the noun, so German has that going for it!)

Generalizing, though, I cannot imagine there exist many languages easier than German for a Dutch native (Afrikaans, maybe English because it's so simple and Germanic-ish, and perhaps something like Swedish? So that leaves German around rank ~5 out of about ten thousand languages?) so you're right in that regard, but it's still a considerable amount of effort. It's far beyond learning a dialect but, yeah, also short of learning something like Japanese. The inverse is easier because German has all the grammar rules Dutch has and then some, so they just need to use a subset of what they know.

Thanks for this great article! I'm a Native Spanish speaker (not from Spain though) and do try to communicate with foreigners in Spanish when they venture themselves to have a full Spanish conversation.

As I'm from Latin America, it might be intimidating given the amount of differences in meaning on the same exact word from country to country; sometimes even regionally speaking.

I'm learning Greek at the moment, first month has gone by real quick but I'm awestruck at how similar some words are and the way that Greek words have the definition of the object their referring to within their grammar. If you ever want to share some thoughts or ideas in Spanish, and in time, let me do the same with you in Greek, I'd be delighted!

Sure thing you can contact me. In Greek we use several Spanish words in their original form and I was wondering was that because we had many shipping ties with Spain and was it the marineros that brought them? Word s like timón, barca, galleta etc.

I actually find my latín american Friends easier to understand, they do use some unknown words but speak muchuch slower especially vs the Andalusians