Becoming a polyglot: how did I learn 6 foreign languages


The primary reason why I decided to pursue a career as a language coach is that, as an avid language learner myself, I couldn’t stop passing on my love for language learning to others.

Multilingualism has enhanced my life in many ways, and so it might happen to you. 

Being a speaker of eight languages, I can assert that there is a big difference between being able to order food and buy train tickets in a foreign country and being able to interact with locals and feel at home in a foregin country. It’s like night and day. 

I took my first trip abroad with my family when I was 13. It was in France, and I soon realized that the pleasure of speaking the local language was priceless. 

I remember strolling around the quaint streets of a medieval village in the French Alps and eavesdropping on random conversations of locals on the streets and ordering food for my parents in French. 

To make a long story short, I cherished every minute of that trip, and I wanted to replicate the same experience in other languages and countries. 

This is how I became a language enthusiast.  

In this post, 

I won’t tell you how easy it is to learn a language, because it is not true.

I won’t try to plant in your mind the idea that learning a foreing language is not time consuming. 

But I will shed light on the enormous benefits that being multilingual can provide. 

You will read:

  • how becoming fluent in French changed my life 
  • how I became fluent in Castilian Spanish 
  • how I became fluent in Slovak 
  • how I became fluent in German 
  • how I became fluent in English 
  • how I became fluent in Brazilian Portuguese  
  • becoming a Language Coach
  • the truth and the myths about language learning

Disclaimer – Believe it or not, I am not a natural at languages. I have met a lot of people with the extraordinary talent to absorb foreign languages faster and easier than I do. If I became a polyglot, it is purely out of love and especially because I devoted a lot of time and money to one big passion of mine: foreign language learning.  I learned English, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Slovak at different moments of my life and through various methods.  This is going to be a long post.  If you can’t help but leave before the end, make sure you read my story about French: that was the beginning of all of it.

How becoming fluent in French changed my life

My very first lesson in French was in Italian middle school when I was 11. I am not exaggerating when I say I was the worst student in the class. What made me feel miserable was that I was working hard before each French class and, still, my grades were miserable. I came to the point of pretending to be sick to avoid the two hours French class on Friday morning.

The truth was my French was indeed poor, no matter how hard I worked. Some people accept the defeat and move on, some people just can’t. That’s me.  And then, one day I was humiliated by my French teacher (who was kind of old school). And that was the turning point of my whole story with languages. 

I am a stubborn Sicilian; I told myself that I couldn’t let Mr. X just belittle  me like that, nor I could pretend to be sick to skip the French lessons every Friday.   So I resolved, at 12 years old, that would show my teacher that I could speak French. My goal was to get the highest score in the class on the upcoming test. Two weeks before the test, I took my textbook and started again on page 1. 

I didn’t follow the book’s instructions or the teacher’s. I reviewed every topic, but I did it in my way. If something in the book was unclear, I would check a different one or google it. I did this for roughly 12 days, every morning before going to school. After two weeks, I took the test and to my surprise I indeed  got the highest grade in the class. Even more than that, I continued collecting high grades for the rest of the school years in French.  The old-school teacher couldn’t  believe his eyes,.On the other hand, he was smart enough to praise me and acknowledge my progress.  

This is how, at 12, I learned one of the most important lessons in my life. A language (or any other subject) cannot be taught, but it can be learned in your own personal style. I forged my language learning style at 12 because of an old school teacher that challenged me a bit too much.

One day at the University of Savoy, in France

Because of speaking French

  • I spent one summer in Lyon studying French 
  • I earned a double Italian-French degree and spent one year and half studying in the French Alps
  • Used my French in many working situations
  • Thought French 
  • Became a francophile 

How do I maintain my level of French: 

My last trip in France was 6 years ago. However, French is still today one of my best languages. I am a voracious reader of French novels and I a make sure, each year, I take a conversational French course for a couple of months. 

How I become fluent in Castilian Spanish

I learned Spanish on the streets. Literally. My Spanish friends would say that my Spanish is “callejero” (street Spanish). I began studying Castilian Spanish my first year of university. The courses were OK, but not as challenging as I wanted. People who speak both Spanish and Italian will know that the similarity between the two languages is a pitfall: the words and grammar are similar, but the logic and the semantic of the language is very different.  For almost two years, I muddled through Spanish.  The opportunities I had to use my Spanish in Italy were few and far between. 

But then I was lucky enough to receive an Erasmus scholarship to work in Spain at a local city tourist info point. For five months, I helped out tourists who came from all over Spain and literally every corner of the world.  My Spanish level skyrocketed. I was also lucky to befriend many local people— some of them are still best friends of mine.

And that’s how I absorbed Spanish. It was the best language immersion I have ever had. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t recommend any immersion without having at least a lower-intermediate level of a language. Having a solid foundation in Spanish, before moving to Spain was the secret ingredient to  my immersion story.   

polyglot learning

Because of speaking Spanish

  • I took an intensive Spanish course at the University of Santiago de Compostela in 2012.
  • I lived and worked in Salamanca for six  months in 2013.
  • I wrote my final year dissertation in Spanish.
  • I lived and worked in Tenerife, the Canary Islands, for 10 months in 2018-2019.
  • I regularly travel to meet my friends in Madrid and Salamanca.
  • Some of my best friends are Castilian Spanish speakers. 

I have been speaking and using Castilian Spanish for eight years and it is by all means, one of my favorite languages. 

How do I maintain my level of Spanish: 

I travel to Spain at least once a year and keep in touch with my Spanish friends. I make sure I read books and magazines in Spanish too. 

How I became conversational in Slovak

Ja milujem Slovencinu! (I love Slovak). The best thing about Slovak is that there aren’t many speakers or learners. There are roughly five million native Slovak speakers in the world and 99% of them live in Slovakia, a small country in East-Central Europe.

So why do I speak Slovak? Because at some point, life brought me to Slovakia. I lived and worked in the capital of Slovakia for almost three years. But no, Slovak is not one of those languages that you can grasp just because you eavesdrop on it. 

Learning a Slavic Language is not for the faint of heart.  On my second day in Bratislava, I signed up for an intensive course and bought a textbook for beginners. 

Unfortunately, I never got to an advanced level of Slovak. However, I hope to make that happen someday in the future. The fact that it is not a primary European language means that there is a shortage of learning content available around. The shortage of learning material and my shortage of time don’t make a good combination .I would say my level of Slovak is lower-intermediate.

How do I maintain my Slovak?

  • I try to visit Bratislava once a year
  • I use my Slovak with my Slovak friends and read magazines online.
  • I brush up on my Slovak every six moths with a native Slovak tutor 
Because of learning Slovak I can:
  • Travel in Eastern Europe and Russia without feeling lost
  • Enjoy the pleasure of learning a minor language

How I became fluent in German

Most people learn German for professional reasons; I learned German on whim!

While at school, I could already speak four languages well: English, Spanish, French, and Italian. Back then, I had an English friend who always teased me, saying that I was only bilingual as I spoke English and three Romance languages. It might have been British humor, but to me it was pure cruelty. I wanted to show my friend (and especially myself) that I was good enough to get out of my (Romance) language family. And, why not debunk the myth that life is too short to learn German?

Many years later, I can actually say that life isn’t too short to learn this beautiful language. It took years of intense learning, language schools, travel and private language coaches before I could say—Ya, ich spreche Deutsch (Yes, I can speak German).

My German is not perfect and I am still actively learning it.

I am working toward reaching C1 level. Since German is not one of the languages I learned at school, I will take a certification test to have my language level certified. 

Brushing up my German in Bamberg in2016

I started actively learning German  at a language school (Goethe Institut) in 2014. Language schools are not the best option for me because they have a rather traditional approach: big groups and the progress you make is often slow. Not the best use of my time, I thought. 

After that, I spent one year working on my own, but I was already working full time and I soon realized that I needed a mentor to keep my motivation high and guide me through the tremendous and beautiful German grammar.

How I maintain my German

  • I meet a private language coach every Monday at lunch break. 
  • I read plenty of German magazines and novels.
  • I regularly listen to German news and podcasts.

Because of knowing German I can

  • Travel across Germany and interact with the local people. 
  • Read many interesting resources in German .
  • Help German tourists out when they get lost in Sicily!

How I became fluent in English

I took my first English class in kindergarten. I still remember that it was about the family. The instructor showed us pictures and had us repeat the words mum, dad and sister over and over again. The Italian education system includes the study of English beginning in kindergarten; however, I didn’t become fluent in English until I was about 20. 

English is a challenging language that has a reputation for being easy to learn. I couldn’t disagree more. A typical student of English faces many obstacles: which accent to impersonate, which English to learn, phrasal verbs, the illogical pronunciation! English, compared to other languages, is short on rules and that makes it hard for the typical student to build a solid foundation. The best way to learn English is probably by ear.

That’s why English has been a never-ending journey for me. I have been flirting with this language for over 20 years. I still make many mistakes and I have never got to impersonate the classical American or British accents. 

So, don’t be frustrated if you are not happy with your language learning after just two years. This is perfectly normal! Language learning is a lifelong experience; if you are not ready for this, maybe you should quit while you’re ahead.

Because of speaking English:

  • I write this blog
  • I work with my amazing students from anglophone countries
  • I travel the whole world with ease
  • I did an internship in Cambridge, UK

How I became fluent in Brazilian Portuguese

Having a solid foundation in several Romance languages gave me an edge while learning Portuguese. I became familiar with Portuguese while living in Spain, working at a tourist info point. I eavesdropped on many Portuguese conversations and thought it was a beautiful language to speak.  My drive for learning Brazilian Portuguese comes from an interest in South America. 

My in-depth knowledge of Castilian Spanish and the vibrant and rich Spanish heritage whet my appetite for more Latin knowledge. So I thought, why not Brazilian Portuguse  would open me the doors to one of the dominant cultures in South America, Brazil. 

How do I maintain my Brazilian Portuguese?

Portuguese is not one of my primary languages, but I enjoy integrating it in small and frequent doses through.

  • Conversation lessons on Italki
  • Brazilian online magazines and podcasts 

Interesting Fact: Some see the inability to commit to frequent travels to the target country as a barrier to one’s language learning journey. I am living proof that this is not true. I have never been to Brazil. Nevertheless, I made it to an intermediate level of fluency.  It is possible to learn a language without traveling to the country.

Becoming a language coach

At some point in my life and after a few jobs in different fields, I transformed my passion into a successful career. The upsides of speaking foreign languages are numberless. I genuinely believe that learning a second or third or fourth language is an empowering life experience for one’s life and profession, besides being an excellent workout for the brain.For many years I was also a chaotic student, juggling way too many learning resources without a clear plan. As they say, your weakness is your strength, too, so by working on myself, as a language student, I forged a consistent, efficient and smart way of learning, which I share with my students today.   

Debunking the myth, do you need to be young to learn a foreign language? 

No. In my experience as a language instructor, I have realized that adults have a better ability to learn, manage their time, and stay focused. Quality language learning is a slow and sweet process. I have seen many youths losing patience and motivation because they are just not passionate enough or are too busy learning other things. Anyone can learn anything. 

Is learning a language cheap? 

Yes and no. Today we are lucky as we have the whole word at reach and plenty of free learning content for free. In spite of this, I believe the best part of learning a language is traveling to the countries where the people speak your target language, buying quality material in your target language or being trained by native language coaches. 

Yes, you can learn for free, but at the expense of sacrificing those perks that I have just  mentioned. I always make this comparison with my students: 

Working with a private coach is like getting trained by a personal trainer at the gym. 

Yes, you can also go without a personal trainer or a plan. But, do you expect the result to be as fast and efficient as it would be if you got personal training? 

As always in life, you get what you pay for. 

Why do you study so many languages? Do you have that much time? Are you a  freak?

The answer to the first question is, I learn for the sake of it. Out of love for learning. That is my only secret. Unfortunately, these days, as are many of you, I am short on time. Most of my learning is done by integrating tiny language learning habits into my life through books, conversations with tutors, movies, or magazines, etc..

If I can speak many languages, you can too. 

I was born into a bilingual family (Italian & Sicilian). For the first 18 years of my life, I was educated entirely in Italian and spent the vast majority of my time in a remote Sicilian town, with no international community or language schools.  

Nevertheless, today I can speak eight languages and teach some of them.

The foreign language I have the best command of today is English. My English is far from impeccable, but it’s the language that I regularly use for work, life, tourism and education. On my bed table, there are always three books: one is in Italian, one in English and one in one of my other languages. I feel comfortable using English in  every possible situation. I would say English is my second language today, after Italian.   

Nevertheless, the longest I’ve lived in an English speaking country was four months, seven years ago. 

If you’re thinking of embracing the language learning journey today, you are lucky, because every possible resource you need is at your fingertips. Of all the things that I have gifted myself, the gift of speaking several languages is the most fun and enriching one. What’s the best gift you’ve given yourself? What motivated your language journey? How has language learning changed your life?  

Serena Capilli

I’m the creative force behind both this blog and my collection of short stories in simple Italian for language learners, available on Amazon.

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Ciao, I’m Serena! I’m the creative force behind both this blog and my collection of short stories in simple Italian for language learners, available on Amazon.

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