How To Become A Polyglot

This post was inspired by the European Day of Languages

First of all, let me tell you that even though the word polyglot sounds a bit intimidating, it only refers to the people who speak more than one language.

Language Learning FAQ:

Q: Are you an expert linguist or what? Why should I take your advice? You’re 16!

A: I’m not an expert linguist and I don’t pretend to be. I just happen to like languages a lot and to be very fast at picking them up. I just thought I could share a few (lengthy) tips that have helped me learn English, French and now Swahili.

Q: Can’t I just wait until the whole world speaks English?

A: You can, but you don’t know what you’re missing! For example, I’ve been told I have a clear writing style -in all the languages I speak. I was not born with this ability, it comes from learning languages!

Q: How long will it take to be fluent?

A: It depends on the frequency and efficiency of your studies. However, if you are not able to carry a conversation with ease or understand a complex text within half a year, you are not learning the language properly. The time it takes to achieve fluency is greatly reduced by the number of languages you already speak. Also, the standard of fluency varies from country to country. If you’re learning an European language, it’s usually very high.

Q: Will I look stupid when speaking a foreign language?

A: At first, yes. You’ll express yourself like a 5-year-older (one that doesn’t have a potato in his mouth, if you’re good). Resistance is futile. Prepare to be humiliated. But then it gets better.

Q: Will I mix up the languages?

A: If you’re not very bright, perhaps. Otherwise, it is very easy to keep your head thinking in one language at a time and your mouth behaving accordingly. You will do this voluntarily at first by need, and that’s OK to some extent (“A qué hora quedamos en… la… beach”) but try not to abuse it.

Multilingualism Facts and Figures

  • It is far from strange to be a polyglot: Multilingual speakers outnumber those who can only speak one language in the world.
  • The language with more secondary speakers is French (190 million), followed by English (150 million) and Russian (128 million).
  • The more languages you speak, the easier it is to pick up a new one.
  • Languages all borrow from each other.
  • It is common in Europe and India to speak three languages.
  • It is  uncommon in the US to speak more than one language (17% speak two and many of them are immigrants).

Picking A Language

Not every language is good for every person. If you plan to learn several languages but speak only one now, many recommend Esperanto as your first second language because it’s made to be simple and fast to pick up while containing elements of many languages, providing a good base for further training.

It is easier to learn a language that is closely related to the ones you already speak. However, don’t make the mistake I made with Portuguese: languages that are too similar may bore you to death. Start with the same language family of your first language, but make sure that you are interested in the tongue: don’t base your choice in ease and speed of learning.

If you want to live in a certain country in the future for a long period, then it’s obvious that you should have at least basic knowledge of the language (that you can start improving the moment you set foot in it’s ground).

Do you enjoy reading? If you do, you must know that most of the great works of universal literature were not written originally in English, and there’s nothing like the original, right? My main inspiration to learn French were the works of Jules Verne, an writer I enjoy a thousand times more now I can read in French. Great choices are also Russian and Spanish. It’s really up to you and the kind of books you like reading (or films you like watching!).

If you want what I call “a totally awesome mind-blowing language experience” (I’m not good with names), then the one to choose is one that is completely different from the one or ones you speak. For example, I speak Spanish. Then I learn French and discover the grammar and syntax are similar. Then I go to France and discover that the people and customs are similar. Not the same, obviously, but still similar.   But then I start learning Swahili and it takes me a week to start finding resemblances to Spanish. The way Swahili is structured, it makes me think very differently than in English or Spanish. In different languages you can think and express concepts you may not be able to in your first. I recommend a couple hours in Wikipedia checking out exotic languages – you’ll be fascinated!

Lastly, a good guide to pick a language is your career and your interests. For example, I want to be an archaeologist and I am fascinated by ancient Egypt and Greece, so I assume I will be learning Egyptian and Greek at some point of my life. It may not be so obvious for professions that involve less travelling and history, but I’m sure you can find a way a language can help you be better at what you do best. Philosophers and psychologists I know are fans of Greek and German.

Learning The Basics

If the language you want to learn uses a different alphabet, by all means learn the language in that alphabet from the beginning. Don’t use some wishy-washy adaptations. You’ll regret.

Same way a lot of bricks are not a house, a lot of words are not a language. The first thing you want to know is the basic structure of the language: what the morphemes are and how they are put together to make words, and what the word classes are and how they are put together to make sentences. I’m not saying you must master Russian grammar the first day, I’m saying that you must not begin by learning random words (the colours, the verb to be, some animals…) because you will forget it all the second week. You must have something to which to stick the words you learn from the very beginning. There’s a wonderful book on this topic, The Loom of Language, which you should read if you are serious about the subject matter.

You will discover that learning the grammar of a second language will improve your use and knowledge of your beloved mother tongue. Same way, the more you know about said tongue’s grammar, the better equipped you are to learn new ones.

Another very important thing is to learn to respect the language. This is, accept that when you’re speaking Arabic you are speaking Arabic, and not translating English into Arabic. Every other language is not a translation of your mother tongue – they are individual languages that deserve respect. Don’t phrase in English and then translate -even from the very beginning- but give the other language a chance to be the the one in which you think to being with.

Learning Methods

The idea is to combine some or all of the following as it best suits you. Of course, you can also sign up for a class, but I don’t like schedules. It’s better to go at your own pace.

Travelling: This one seems to be the fastest and the one that deliver bests results. When you are surrounded by people who don’t speak what you speak, you will need to pick up their language fast. Need is the mother of invention, you know.

Speaking Online: If travelling is not an option at the moment, the best you can do is pick a webcam and a mic and start contacting people who speak the language you are learning. You can also use written IM or emails. Make sure to contact only people with whom you wish to begin a friendship of at least become acquainted, though. Don’t use people just to practise a language – that’s just plain mean and disrespectful.

Thought Method: Try to think on the new language and only in that language for a few hours a day. Perhaps just lay on your bed and start thinking about your day or your year. It’s faster than writing it all down, and the continuous flow of ideas will help you phrase concepts fast. It makes you feel the language as yours.

Input Method: Watch films, read books, read poetry, listen to music. A LOT. I learnt English mostly by input method. It’s main advantage is that you are given a lot of different situations and are getting the language at it’s full (some native speakers will dumb and slow down their speech so that you can understand them better). You are also getting to know the culture of the country or countries by the way they express themselves through literature and music, and it’s a highly enjoyable system. You can read out loud to practise pronunciation, but only if you are sure you know the proper sounds.

Creation Method: Start actually writing in the language. Songs, poetry, long letters, a journal, it doesn’t matter. Just use the language as much as you can. It works better if someone corrects it later. When we chat with friends we tend not to respect grammar very much. It is not good to learn a language only by using it with other people. You may learn to use it, but you will lack style and deep understanding, thus never being able to master it.

Studying: You will need to study grammar when you’re starting, as stated above, and when you want to improve your skills. But you will not learn to speak a language by studying grammar only. This belief may result in the dreaded “I’ve been studying Spanish for two years” “Qué te parece España? Te gusta?” “I’ve said I’m only STUDYING!”. Think twice before buying grammar books – there are vast amounts of free information online for almost every language. If you are a fan of printed media, the Lonely Planet Phrasebooks are excellent for quick, handy reference. Just don’t spend hundreds in learning material, it’s not worth it.

Woah! That was long! I shall bore you no longer🙂 Thanks for making it all the way to the bottom, and if you live in the EU like me, please remember that there are many European Days Of Stuff such as this one (that are barely remembered outside of Brussels) that are very interesting to take into account.

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Filed under Languages, Personal Development, World

Awesome Cities Invented By The Greek That Should Exist

Elysian Fields

Elysium - by Jeffrey K. Bedrick

Ever wondered from where the French got the name for their Champs-Élysées? Well, it was from the mythological Elysian Fields, a resting place for the souls of the heroic and the virtuous.

While most modern-day western religions are binary in their notions of the afterlife, Greek mythology had a wider range of rewards -and punishments- ready to meet you after you left this world. I guess it was good to know that if you were awesome in life, you would be rewarded better in the afterlife than the average Joe.

The Elysian Fields shared the Underworld with the Elysean Islands (resting place for the great heroes of myth), the Land of the Dead (common afterlife destination ruled by Hares) and the great pit of Tartarus (eternal jail for the damned souls).

And those that have three times kept to their oaths,
Keeping their souls clean and pure,
Never letting their hearts be defiled by the taint
Of evil and injustice,
And barbaric venality,
They are led by Zeus to the end:
To the palace of Kronos
Pindar (about the Elysian Islands)


Utopia - A word that actually means "no place".

A perfect land thought to exist in the northern region of Thrace (that’s where modern-day Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey share borders), where the sun shone twenty-four hours a day and people lived free of worries, sadness and disease (and for a thousand years). A perfect utopia.

It’s name means “beyond the boreas (the north winds)”. They worshipped the god Apollo, who made frequent visits, and gave presents to his temples.

Never the Muse is absent
from their ways: lyres clash and flutes cry
and everywhere maiden choruses whirling.
Neither disease nor bitter old age is mixed
in their sacred blood; far from labor and battle they live.
Pindar, Tenth Pythian Ode.

This place was, Pindar warns, as elusive as El Dorado itself:

Neither by ship nor on foot would you find
the marvellous road to the assembly of the Hyperboreans.


Artist depiction of Atlantis

Probably the most famous. Sometimes said to be a continent, sometimes an island. It was first mentioned in the works of Plato as a naval power that conquered part of Western Europe around 9600 BC (that’d be several millennia before the accounted beginning of civilization) and then sunk in the sea in one night after a failed attempt to invade Athens.

This one is different from the other on the list in that it has been thought to exist by many people, even in modern times. The Nazis led expeditions to the hypothetical locations of Atlantis in search of the origins of the Aryan race, and from time to time someone claims he’s found it’s location (it’s been “found” all around the world). However, most historians agree that Atlantis is a product of Plato’s imagination.

While Atlantis itself appears to be a work of fiction, a sunken city is not too much of an unrealistic notion. Sunken lands are a fact (tectonic plates move, folks), and in 1987 a rock formation speculated to be man-made or at least man-modified dating of 8.000 BC was found in the coasts of Japan (my fellow readers, remember not to jump to conclusions).

Mount Olympus

Mount Olympus - by Andyparkart

There’s a tall mountain in Greece called Olympus, a taller mountain in Mars called Olympus Mons and then there’s Mount Olympus. The top of the first mountain (the tall one) was said by the Greek to be the home of my favourite gods the human mind has created: the gods of Greek mythology.

Personally, if I had to pick a religion, I’d totally worship these guys. I don’t know why we changed them for the boring, monotheistic religions we have now in the western world. The Greek gods are much more balanced and interesting: there’s a god of war, a goddess of wisdom, a goddess of beauty, and so on. I haven’t read the full of the Bible (I quitted religion class when I was 11) but the adventures of the Christian god (creatively named “God”) and his worshippers weren’t as interesting as the ones of Apollo, Athena and the others. I guess it’s what happens when you put all the superpowers in the same hero (with the exception of Dr. Manhattan from the graphic novel Watchmen, who is awesome beyond words).

In Mount Olympus -whose castles at the top were sometimes said to be made of crystal- the Greek gods spent their time eating the most delicious of foods, drinking ambrosia, being amazed by their own awesomeness and planning the future fortunes and misfortunes of mankind. Now that’s an interesting place to visit. It turned out that when mankind decided to climb the mighty mountain, it’s top was unfortunately home to no things other than rocks and snow. Exploration’s got a bitter side sometimes.

That’d be all for today, fellow readers. Take care and say “please” and “thank you”, people will be pleased and will thank your kindness.

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Filed under Architecture, Art, Places I Like, World

Africa: Or How Over-Generalization Can Undermine Your Cause

This post was inspired by Waikisays’ There’s More to Africa Than Corruption and Poverty.

Indeed, there is more to Africa than corruption and poverty. I have never visited any African country, but I can’t wait to. It’s a very rich and diverse continent, full of magnificent architecture and breathtakingly beautiful natural areas. This may surprise you given that the image of Africa we get from the news in Europe is, from north to south: where illegal immigrants come from (10%), a huge desert (40%), the place where the documentaries are filmed (5%)  blood diamonds, sickness and starving children (40%), some rich white people (5%) .

This is Africa, too. Photo by Dr. Andrew Hill of Yale University.

I understand why the news give so much attention to these issues. It’s because these issues matter and need to be solved. But in their attempt to concern the general public about everything that’s wrong with Africa, they overgeneralise and forget to mention everything that’s right with Africa! And this is very, very bad for all those issues we cared about in the first place.

Why is it so bad? Because it causes detachment. In the first world it is very hard to consider African countries as equals because the media never talks about the things we have in common. You’ll never hear about the African girl who just wrote an outstanding thesis for her Architecture final year, you’ll hear about the one who didn’t go to school because she had to take care of her brothers. You’ll never see the exotic fashion the middle class is designing, you’ll see the rags and patches of the poorest. Judging from the news, Africa hasn’t discovered concrete yet.

This isn’t helped by the fact that most black characters in American media are African-American, born in America, raised in America. A fantastic example of the opposite is Lt. Uhura from Star Trek (1966), whose nation is the fictitious United States of Africa and whose mother tongue is Swahili. She’s also a female. Take that, inequality. Note that this doesn’t happen only with Africa… non-white characters in American TV tend not to be too foreign. Sadly, American media reaches the whole world, thus perpetuating this negative view.

But there’s one reason why it’s even worse: the common belief that Africa is a helpless mess paralyses the potential aider! The failure to show how Africa’s pulling itself out of poverty tricks the viewer into believing that his little aid will only help one child live a little longer, and then everything will be the same. It makes us think it’s a helpless cause, while it is clearly not.

I’ll be honest with you. I have no idea what Africa is really like. I’ve never been there. But I know it’s not a mess of a continent. I know it had a very rich history. I know that not everybody is dying of malaria and starvation.  I know that there are African scientists, doctors, historians and teachers who are just as good at what they do as any European guy. And I know that Africa is definitely worth helping solve the problems it currently has. So take action now.

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Filed under Places I Like, World

When Nothing Makes Sense, The Problem Is You

We all have our model of reality, which is different from everyone else’s. Some people think we humans are good by nature while others will die to defend the opposite. Some believe that a supernatural entity created the heavens and the Earth, and some don’t.

We all want, to some degree, to have an accurate model of reality. To achieve that, some turn to philosophy: a field of knowledge where every great figure is in disagreement with the others. Quoting Logicomix:

A Platonist thinks appearance is but a bad copy of real reality… while an Aristotelian puts all his faith in observation! Are mental concepts innate or acquired? “Innate”, says the great Kant! “Acquired”, says the great Hume! Is there an opposition between mind and matter? Yes, says Descartes. No, says Spinoza. “Why, it’s all in the mind” Berkeley says [bumps into lamppost] A rather extreme view if you ask me.

Given that science has not (yet) answered all questions we have about life, it seems impossible to get to a safe conclusion here.

However, this does not mean you can stick to your own interpretation of events if it’s wrong! Let me explain. Have you ever heard someone say, or said yourself, that “nothing makes sense”? For example:

  • Why would someone want to do harm to others? It doesn’t make sense!
  • Why does God allow for hunger in the world? It doesn’t make sense!
  • Why did he help me if he couldn’t get anything out of it? It doesn’t make sense!

But for most people is takes much more than one inconsistency to start questioning their models of reality. It shouldn’t take more than one. If philosophy was a science, then one counter-proof to your model means that something is wrong with it and it needs revision! It is certainly more likely that your model of reality is wrong than that millions of people are behaving wrongly, everyday, for thousands of years, isn’t it? Would you approach a person with “excuse me, sir, but I am afraid you are behaving incorrectly. People don’t work like that. Could you please act accordingly to my personal views”?

So folks, don’t assume you are right about life. If you observe something doesn’t work as you think it does, you are wrong. We are all attached to our philosophical views (they’re the one thing that’s ours after all), but trying to be accurate in such a chaotic area won’t do any harm.

Best regards, and wear sunscreen. Those bastards reach you even when you’re inside, looking at a glowing rectangle, in winter.

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Drawing Progress September 2010

This is the best I can do right now. I will post an update every month so you can (I hope) see my progress.

I sold my first portrait ever a few weeks ago. I had never thought of selling this stuff, but my mother suggested it and two of her co-workers actually gave me thirty bucks to draw them. Isn’t that awesome?😉

This is a digital painting version of the famous National Geographic cover by Steve McCurry.



Filed under Art

Learning Swahili From Scratch

Why Swahili?

Note that is it not my first attempt at learning a fourth language. A few weeks ago I decided that my French was good enough and it was time to make an addition to the family. Given that I speak Spanish, English and French, I decided to give Portuguese a try (talk about Eurocentrism). After one week I got bored and quitted. It was too similar to Spanish.

I quitted and started playing my favourite game, Civilization IV. When I got to the start menu, I paid a closer than ever attention at the theme song, which I had previously identified as “random exotic pleasant sounds”. I wondered what language that was. It was Swahili. So I suddenly realized that people outside of Europe and Northern Asia… speak. And their languages are truly fascinating! I spent the rest of the day in Wikipedia being amazed at the vastly different syntaxes, pronunciation, alphabets and grammar of the many languages of the world. Now I can say it is one of my primary interests (but then again, what is not one of my primary interests? ;)).

In short: because Swahili is beautiful and exotic. In shorter: because I like it.

Where To Start?

Now I faced a problem. The two foreign languages I speak were introduced to me at school. I had never started learning a language from zero.

I browsed a little on Amazon and this little book, The Loom Of Language: An Approach To The Mastery Of Many Languages, popped up. A life saver. Even though it is centred mostly on European languages, it made me understand languages better, and is a valuable acquisition given that I plan to learn more of them in the future.

Now for the Swahili. To learn it I decided to rely mostly on the information available online. I only purchased one book, the Lonely Planet Swahili Phrasebook , which turned out to contain much more information on the language than I thought.

The phrasebook itself suggests a very helpful website, The Kamusi Project, which is only one of the many free online resources available. So far, getting started in Swahili is costing me almost nothing🙂.

I am also reading a lot about the origins of Swahili and the history of Kenya and Tanzania, as well as Swahili music and poetry.


  • Hakuna Matata is Swahili.
  • Swahili is the mother tongue of Lt. Uhura, female African character from the TV Show Star Trek (1966).
  • Swahili is the national language of Kenya and Tanzania, and is the third African language by number of speakers.
  • In 1928, a standard written Swahili was created.
  • The Swahili word for itself is “Kiswahili”.
  • Swahili has only 5 million native speakers, but 80 million have it as a second language.

The Most Important Thing

Determination. I am determined to speak decent Swahili in three months’ time, and then I will decide if the language is worth more time of study.

And I know that as long as I am determined to do it, I will do it🙂

Wish me luck in this new experience, I will update next month with my progress! And don’t forget that Civilization V is going to be out soon😉

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Filed under Languages

Basic Guide To Learning

This is not a comprehensive guide to the mastery of any subject (as the title implies). It’s just a set of three principles that it’s good to keep in mind every time we try to acquire some new knowledge.

Learning principle number 1: Everything is connected.

Politics is really Psychology. Psychology is really Biology. Biology is really Chemistry. Chemistry is really Physics. Physics is really Maths.

Have you ever wondered why so many great minds are multidisciplinary? Take a look at  Leonardo da Vinci: “Italian polymath: painter, sculptor,architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer”. Well, turns out, every area of knowledge is connected with all the others. maths can teach you how to paint.

This is especially evident with languages. The more languages you know, the easier it is for you to learn new ones. This is where I discovered the importance of learning all those technical names for the words we already know how to use.

This is why I find it hard to believe that some scientists subscribe to the argument “you can’t apply the scientific method to religion and morals, it’s based on faith”. You either apply the scientific method, or you don’t. There is no such thing as unrelated areas. If you can affirm something is true without evidence in religion, you may be just as willing to do that in physics (my advice: be consistent!).

For further insights on this topic check out Holistic Learning(.pdf) and The Loom of Language(book).

Learning principle number 2:  Background matters.

“I study and study, but I can’t possibly pass this subject! How can it be, if it’s my favourite?”.

While it is a fact that some people are smarter than others, I believe the most important factor that differentiates a dedicated C student from a dedicated A student is when they started caring.

The people who is doing best in my class these high school years happen to be the ones that were interested in the subjects since they were very little. They read books, they asked questions. They have been building a knowledge base for their lifetimes.

On the other hand, some students have recently started caring about the subject at the same level than their A-obtainer counterparts. They probably used to study by repetition, not really understanding the content. They lack understanding of the most basic concepts of the matter, and thus have it extremely difficult to understand the more complex ones.

According to the first principle, the base you need to build for a new area of interest must be wide and comprehend several other areas. For example, if you want to learn Swahili, it’s not enough to learn the basic syntax and pronunciation. It’s also important to learn the history of the language and the culture of the people who speak it, among other things.

Learning principle number 3: Learning is organic.

“School is like Britannica. Learning is like Wikipedia”.

The educational system we have is linear. That means that you start at one point and you follow a line of increasingly complex concepts until someday you know enough and  get a diploma. The content is sorted in complexity order the same way the words are sorted in alphabetical order in a classical encyclopaedia.

There is no traced line from beginning to mastery of a subject or skill. You should not start learning by the basics, if the basics are not what interest you most. Learning must be a pleasant experience, always. Learning is like navigating Wikipedia. You see something you like, so you learn about it. While learning about it, you see related concepts that interest you, so you learn about them. Repeat.

When you learn in a non-linear way (organic if you will), the principle of background matters applies itself. You will not understand the most complex ideas so you will expand your knowledge until you do.

Note that this is closely related to “everything is connected” (as is should be, ’cause everything is connected ;))

For further insights on this topic check out Bring On The Learning Revolution(video), Math Class Needs a Makeover(video) and The Learning Revolution(Facebook Group).

I apologize for the made-up quotes on principles 2 and 3. I don’t know any quote that fits there!🙂


Filed under Personal Development