The italki Awards winners for 2019 amazed us with their dedication and passion for teaching and learning languages. Here’s an interview with our Polyglot Teacher of the Year, Suzana Anđelković, who shared her language learning stories, inspirations, and how she teaches multiple languages.
1. What inspires you to keep learning languages?
First of all, languages are my passion and my life, literally. That means, if for example, I speak only in English or only in Serbian, I get pretty bored and I want to change the language. I guess it’s because of my super gigantic curiosity to discover everything new. It means, whenever I hear a new language, I feel like there are “small lamps” in my brain that “turn on” all the time and I HAVE TO find out everything about that language: how to pronounce it well, understanding the way that language works etc. Secondly, there are awesome people like Richard Simcott (a British polyglot who lives in Macedonia), Benny Lewis (Irish polyglot who wrote the super cool book “Language hacking”) and many other polyglots. However, my biggest challenge is to beat the score of Polish polyglot Andrzey Olszak who speaks more than 27 languages (so we have some kind of competition....who will learn more languages?). Thirdly, the native speakers who motivate you to use their native language and correct your mistakes. This way, they motivate you to use it even if you did not plan to do it. Last but not least, whenever I get this opportunity to speak in the target language with a native speaker (even with a lot of mistakes, no matter if I’m a beginner or not) I am very happy because it means that anyhow I made some progress because it means I can have some kind of conversation, so I almost feel like a child who gets the toy he/she wanted so badly.
2. How do you manage to maintain your language skills while also taking the time to teach languages?
It is so simple. I am an international girl: this means that my origin is here in Serbia, but my heart belongs to the whole world. That is why I have so many friends from different parts of the world. Usually they ask me to help them with Serbian/English in exchange for Portuguese/Turkish or whatever, in return. On the other hand, I LOVE to give lessons online because it gives me a great opportunity to speak with people from different parts of the world and so I can use my language skills (I can compare some vocabulary, some grammar points etc.) with their native language in order to understand it better. This is a win-win combination because they learn a language in a more effective and productive way and I get some feedback from them, and that will help me improve my language skills. On the other hand, if I feel like I am not that willing to speak, write, or read, in this case I go to some website and watch some TV series just to relax my brain. If I want to learn Turkish in a “lazy way" then I go to a Russian website and I watch Turkish TV series with Russian subtitles. It is super cool for me, because of many reasons. On one hand I learn Turkish vocabulary and I pay attention to the way the actors pronounce the words and phrases etc. On the other hand I read Russian subtitles when it is necessary to be completely sure I understood everything correctly. The other lazy way is music. I listen to the music, I enjoy the melody and the voice. After that if I did not understand something but I really liked the song, then I will find the lyrics in the target language and the translation in English or another language I speak, so I can learn some more words.
3. How has being a constant learner helped you become a better teacher?
Because learning a foreign language does not only mean “learning” a language. It also means getting familiar with the culture of that people, with their religion, with their habits etc. Finally, it means you'll make new friendships with them. It means, if I know about them a bit more, it will help me, so they start to consider me like a more “likable" person. On the other hand, if I speak to them in their native language, I will “melt” their hearts and they'll be willing to learn even more because their teacher put quite a lot of effort to learn their language. They'll be more open-minded, more talkative, and they'll be so excited to learn any language from you. As a result, they'll feel more comfortable and more confident and sooner or later you'll have a special connection with them that is crucial when it comes to learning a new language (especially for young learners). Plus, the smiles on their faces and the progress they make after each lesson is priceless (There is no amount of money that can replace that feeling that you feel deep in your soul).
4. Do you have an interesting story of a student and a teacher you have had the best experience with?
I really want to congratulate:
Who did a brilliant job, he gave me a great base, so that I can learn some Turkish basics, especially the basic Turkish grammar (harmony rules) that is the most difficult part. Once I made huge progress (because I continued with my Turkish learning by myself with some books and with software, Rosetta Stone), I asked him to give me some course for “teachers” so that I can use it when I want to teach a Turkish man/woman. Also, whenever some Turks would write me some messages and I’d know the meaning of the phrases, I’d ask him for help, and he never told me NO. That is why I consider him more than just a teacher, I consider him as a best friend too. All of this means a lot to me.
The best students:
The best experience I had, was definitely when I was in a super bad mood because my grandmother died four years ago. I did not know how to deal with my sadness and I could not cry anymore because I spent all my tears. I cried and cried almost all the afternoon. Later, I suddenly looked at the time and I saw it was about 15-30 minutes until the beginning of the lesson. I did not know if I should give the lesson or not...but then I decided to give that lesson somehow (because I knew that at some moment I would not think about my grandmother). Firstly, I somehow calmed down...then I called him and my face was super serious (that is so unusual for me) and I went directly to the topic (without asking about the health or any other information – that is also unusual for me). We started somehow that lesson, but then...I think he figured out something went wrong (or at least he had some sensation) so he started to make jokes and to make silly faces. After some time I figured out I could not stand anymore, so I started to laugh out loud and for the second I forgot about my grandmother’s death. I could say I felt like “reborn” after this lesson and my mood was much better. A couple of months later, we saw each other in Serbia, and we became even closer, which was priceless.
From the first lesson we got on so well. I think Leo is a very interesting and a super talkative boy. The best moments were when we started to speak, mostly in Serbian and just sometimes in English or Spanish. I could see his excitement in his eyes. Plus, whenever he speaks about Slavic languages, his eyes shine and his voice becomes like the voice of the “parrot” with the most beautiful voice. It’s so impressive how much he loves ALL Slavic languages and that is why working with him is a true pleasure. After some time, he introduced me to his mom (who is a singer) and it was a pretty interesting conversation in Spanish between him, me, and his mom. Also, I like the way he accepts his mistakes, he’s a huge joker as well, so I always laugh out loud and...very often I cry because of laughing too much. Because of this, I feel that my mouth hurts and my stomach too...but it does not matter. Also, he’s so disciplined, and he does his homework on time. Thank you so much for everything Leo.
5. What do you feel a student can do to improve at multiple languages?
There is no better way, than speaking with native speakers or at least advanced learners. The point of this is that the learner has fun, that he enjoys the language learning process and of course, to get the appropriate corrections from native speakers. If he/she is super busy or lazy, then he/she can watch some TV series with subtitles in the native language. I think TV series are great because usually there are not many slangs and many words repeat from episode to episode. That is why, the words will just “enter” into your head and you’ll learn them easier. For example...when we watch TV soaps in Serbia, the first words and phrases that we learn are: “Por favor” , “Te quiero” , “embarazada”, “te amo” , “te quiero”, “mi amor” “no me dejes”, “no te vayas” y “vibora”. Another way is to play different computer games in different languages. For instance: Heroes of Might and Magic – in English, The Sims – in Spanish, etc depending on what his/her level is and what his/her weak points are because PC games are awesome to have fun, to communicate with people in different languages, to listen to the stories, and many other things.
6. What is your language hack?
Ok, I’m a bit of a specific person. I like a bit of everything: to have fun with PC games, to watch TV series, to listen to music, to speak with people, to write from the first day (even my personal diary, I like to write in the target language) etc. If I do not have anybody to speak to in the target language, then I prefer to record myself speaking in the target language (and I do it every week or every second week) and then I send it to all native speakers to correct me and to give me some suggestions.
7. How do you use this skill to teach multiple languages to students?
I think people should know what kind of learner they are. For instance, if they are visual learners, then they should learn with some schemes, with some tables, with some drawings, etc much more. If somebody is an “audio” learner, then this person should find some TV shows in that target language, or simply podcasts (and to do some activities). If somebody prefers to speak from the first day, that person should go and speak with people to try to figure out the meaning of some words by context. If this is not possible, this person should ask for the meaning and/or for the repetition of that phrase/word, so that this person can make progress step by step and start speaking. When this person feels comfortable, then this person should try to speak as much as possible in that target language. However, the best option is that you make a good mixture of all of these, so that you can have a joyful and pleasant language learning journey.