By the time he started eighth grade, Alejandro had five languages under his belt and was moving on to the sixth. Today he is graduating from Harvard, speaks 10 languages, and is on his way to a career in ancient languages and papyrology.
Alejandro’s Puerto Rican and Salvadorian parents may not have known, when they enrolled him in a French school at the age of three or four, that they were setting up their son for a lifetime journey of linguistic exploration. He spoke only Spanish when he started at school, but quickly became fluent in French and English.
“I think that really … formed my brain in a particular way to learn languages,” Alejandro told us.
In sixth grade, Alejandro had the opportunity to study Greek, which wasn’t usually offered at the school. He loved it so much that he and some of his fellow students petitioned the administration to continue to offer the class. Their campaign was a success. Alejandro kept up with his Greek and never looked back.
“In part it was just the way the instructor taught it. Learning this ancient language that … had been extinct, one could say, for thousands of years, and being able to connect with [the historical[ culture, it’s just really exciting. It was unlike the languages I had known, which was very exciting,” he said.
The following year, he added Latin to the list of languages he was studying. The year after that, German. At the same time, he was also dabbling in Mandarin after school.
“And I think by that point I started realizing that I really liked languages,” he said.
Alejandro believes that the more languages you study, the more easily you will pick up new ones. This is because, as a person studies different languages, that person can begin to identify relationships and similarities between them. This is true both for closely related languages like those in the Romance family, and for languages that are more distantly related.
Bolstered by his successes, Alejandro set out his freshman year of college to see whether he could teach himself a language outside of formal instruction. He tried it out with Italian.
“And by the end of it, I had realized that I was really successful in it,” he said.
This was a crucial revelation for the lover of linguistics.
A classical languages major, Alejandro spends most of his class time exploring the ancient languages. This doesn’t leave much time for classes in modern languages. Unwilling to stop learning new languages, Alejandro has honed a learning method that he has also used to teach himself Norwegian and Catalan.
Alejandro said he enjoys the way that language study allows the learner to experience the culture of the language in a way. After having studied Norwegian, he had the opportunity to visit a roommate in his native Sweden, where the language is very similar.
“It was really great being able to get around with people and just see … the language open doors, and the ways in which culture is not represented in languages,” he said. “There were a lot of things that surprised me, or that I didn’t expect.”
Alejandro’s method of language learning
With so many languages under his belt, it’s no surprise that Alejandro has developed a tried-and-true method for learning them.
He starts with the Duolingo program and goes through all the content available or the given language.
Then he begins to consume media in the target language: reading articles and watching shows, including shows with target language captions.
Grammar comes easily to Alejandro, while memorizing vocabulary is more challenging. So he devotes about an hour a day to studying vocabulary words with Quizlet Plus until he gets to the point where he can retain the language with a less intensive effort.
Finding his niche
As he continued in his academic career, Alejandro sharpened his focus to Egypt during the Greek and Roman periods. Specifically, he is interested in working on papyrus documents that are written in Greek and Latin.
He found an opportunity to work in the field at a summer institute. There was one problem: The opportunity was specifically for graduate students and junior faculty, and Alejandro was an undergraduate.
But he was undeterred. He set out to bolster his resume by learning Coptic, which is the final stage of the native Egyptian language.
Where do you find a copy of 501 Coptic Verbs? You don’t, because it doesn’t exist.
But Alejandro found a textbook and over the summer, he taught himself Coptic.
Oh, and he was accepted into the summer institute.
“And I really realized that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
Alejandro plans to become a professor of ancient history. When he returned to school after the summer, he decided to use his final year in college to take a class in ancient Egyptian, the hieroglyphic language.
“I don’t think I would have been able to pull [that] off on my own,” he said.
Making the most of study time with Quizlet.
Alejandro spends the majority of his language study time focusing on vocabulary words. He likes to make his own Quizlet sets for study. That way he can hone in on the words he doesn’t know, rather than spending time flipping through words he has already mastered.
“My way of studying is very dependent on Quizlet, and really taking the time to learn in a very deep sense, the words I encountered, so that it’s not just like temporary learning and then forgetting,” he said.
When he doesn’t feel like going over flashcards, he will watch TV in the original language with subtitles. While doing this, he’s also collecting new vocabulary words to transfer to Quizlet.
Alejandro’s study set for learning Italian vocabulary.
Alejandro’s tips for studying languages
- Alejandro’s Quizlet- and memorization-heavy language learning style works for him, but you might have a different style, and that’s ok! Explore and employ trial and error to determine what methods will give you the most mileage.
- Online resources like Duolingo are also good ways to get your feet wet in a language. There are so many resources out there.
- If you are a person-to-person learner, capitalize on that. Look for a conversation club or a penpal to converse or correspond with in the target language.
- Stick to it, and don’t give up. But know your limits and don’t burn yourself out. Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to take breaks to rest your mind and allow what you’ve learned to sink in.