Overcoming personal struggles and reaching new heights in language acquisition is at the heart of your journey to fluency. In a series of interviews with italki partners and polyglots, you will learn about personal stories from these language learning experts and be able to access novel and insightful language learning tips from those who have ventured on this journey.
Tell us about yourself, what do you do?
Originally I am from the United Kingdom, but the Republic of Macedonia has been my home now for the last eight years. I live in Skopje with my wife and daughter and it’s a great place to get a real mix of quite different languages. On a daily basis I get to hear Macedonian, Albanian and Turkish as well as a number of other interesting languages local to the region.
My day job is online, which affords me the chance to be based in Skopje. I work for a social media management agency called The Social Element as their Languages Director. I also run the Polyglot Conference each year with Alex Rawlings, which is a language conference for anyone who loves language. People come to the conference whether they are learning their first or 21st language and find a safe place to reach out to other learners in person and make friendships for life. They also leave feeling extremely motivated and energised for their learning.
What languages do you speak? What language(s) are you actively learning now?
I’ve studied over 50 languages in my life so far. It’s always tough to put a number on how many languages I speak though. Clearly speaking 50 languages regularly and to have them all at a high level of articulation is not possible. I do, however, use five languages at home with my family and a number of others regularly for work and travel in the Balkans. So overall, I speak roughly half of the active languages that I use on a regular basis throughout the year. The other languages that I learned comes into play when the situation calls for it.
Right now I am refreshing my Slovene for the next Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia in on 5-7th October 2018!
How do you motivate yourself when learning a language, and what do you expect to achieve?
Going to events and speaking to other learners helps to keep me motivated. I think there is an energy about talking to other people with similar goals which moves us all forward as a group. I guess it’s the same as playing sports or other activities that people do with each other.
Personally for me, I thrive on connecting with people and language is the lifeblood of that human connection. Language defines us as a species.
How has language learning changed your life?
I started when I was young and I can tell you that it’s not just language learning, but each new language changes me and my life in so many ways. I think probably the biggest thing would be that I am a Brit, living in a small Balkan country in Europe that most people in my home country know little about. That would probably be the biggest way languages has changed my life!
What are your favorite ways of improving your speaking abilities?
For me the best way to improve is to speak to people. I simply love getting the immediate feedback [from speaking to people] and I enjoy the frustration of making mistakes and then finally getting it right. When you start knowing you are making mistakes and feel the frustration to get it right, that’s when you know you’re growing in your language skills.
How do you feel people can use their language skills to benefit their community or those around them?
Language is communication, so your skills can be used in practical ways to help people on the street sometimes. You may be in a position to set up language groups or meet-ups to practise languages actively with other people around you who may find this of interest.
What is an important learning activity that you absolutely do (daily) to keep yourself going even when times are busy or the willpower to learn is low?
Thinking about the language consciously is THE most important thing. Even if you cannot get some active study or revisions in, you can always think about the language and consider what you last learnt, how to say certain things or do practice mental exercises in your head. These suggestions costs nothing to execute and takes only minutes of your day, which can fit into any routine.
What tips do you have for learning languages that don't have very many learning materials available in English?
For example, Chinese dialects such as Shanghainese and Hokkien, languages that not many English speakers learn. Another example is Serbian (one that I would personally very much like to learn for heritage reasons), and more obscure lingua francas such as Lingala.
The Foreign Service people often have some free materials around at a push for some lesser studied languages, including some of the ones you mentioned. Finding a language partner and leveraging their expertise would also be a good way to get around these issues too. You need to figure out what you want to say and find out how to say it from that person. I hear a site called italki is pretty good for finding those all important speakers!
Could you discuss what is easy and what is challenging about studying languages from the same language family? From different language families?
Languages from the same family can be really interesting to learn. They appear easy because of the shared or similar vocabulary and grammatical rules. Sometimes this can make it confusing to keep them separate though and you feel that they are merging in your head into some sort of naturally forming Esperanto.
The key to keeping them apart, should that issue crop up, is to learn one [language] to a solid level where you can express yourself freely on a number of topics and then learn the other [language] to a similar level over time, and then practise both languages back to back. Getting into the habit of switching between the two and being very conscious of their similarities and differences is super important to differentiate the two languages in your head.
Do you recommend learning multiple languages at the same time? Is it preferable to study languages from the same language family or different language families?
I often like to take on a very different language and a language similar to other ones I speak both at the same time. I do that because I can often start speaking the similar language relatively quickly, so it gives me a rush to do so. Then the other very different language feels less frustrating with the longer wait and time involved to start using it.
That said, if you halved your usual time, you also slow down your progress because of the time and capacity to concentrate and memorise everything. Only do this if it feels right to you. You will know quite quickly how it feels and if it blocks your progress too much. Remember that the language is not going anywhere and you can pick it up and try again later.
How does culture factor into your learning of languages?
Sometimes the culture is vastly different, so you are not just learning words and grammar, but also a way of communicating ideas that might be quite different to what you are used to. It is key to listen carefully to how people use language in the new society you are trying to communicate with, so that you can also talk to them on their terms. Paying attention to such differences also helps you to feel less frustrated when talking to native speakers, who are coming at the language with all of their cultural upbringing.
A lot of language learners ask about the importance of pronunciation or accent. What would you say to them?
For me pronunciation is important for clarity of communication, so that people understand what you are saying. Accent is something people talk about a lot. I agree that it can be nice to have an accent closer to that of the native speakers of the language you are speaking to. For languages where people are used to hearing foreigners speak though, I don’t find it so important. It does become important when you learn languages that people don’t hear foreigners speak because the native speakers find it harder to bend their ear to your way of speaking the language.
For more on this topic, I’ve actually wrote an entire italki article on the topic, read more here!
After every learning session, what do you do to retain the information / knowledge you’ve gained so that you’re able to recall it long-term?
It really depends on the language and the session as to how much I can retain. Similar languages are easier. I am sure I forget a lot of what I listen though and need things to be repeated many times, like most people I know. Our brains will take in what it can, and making words and grammar memorable by associating them with other things in our heads helps that process, but retaining everything for reuse is a tall order. I expect to forget things, make mistakes and learn after having things repeated many times!
How do you overcome the ‘chore-esque’ feel of learning a language and make it fun again
Languages are my main passion in life, so I rarely have this feeling. I think I might be extreme in this [aspect], but I can relate to the feeling to a certain degree. I simply need to associate the language to things I enjoy doing other than learning. I would find songs or activities in the language, so that language learning is no longer the focus but the side effect of the activity.
How do you overcome the plateau of learning a language if you’re not making progress anymore?
My first question is whether or not I need to. Can I do what I need [with my current language level proficiency]? If so, then I am happy to plateau. If not, then I simply need to get myself out of my comfort zone by tackling topics I don’t usually talk about. Getting your teacher to suggest topics you’ve not chosen can help, or at least a selection of them. Then you can find materials online on news sites or similar sources and start looking at the text and think about how to talk about that topic. Turn those topics into conversations during class time and bit by bit you will see that your language will continue to improve.
For you, what is the difference between maintaining a language and making progress in a language? How do you know when you are doing either?
Maintaining a language is not an easy thing to do as there’s no exact science to the process. Generally speaking we think we are maintaining languages by speaking. It is, however, inevitable that we lose fluency in certain topics that don’t come up as often for us. We may pick up new words or correct things in other areas though. So the lines between language maintenance and progression can feel blurred at times.
Actively making an effort to improve your language proficiency does tend to have a different feel to it though. You are consciously looking for new materials, looking at the grammar, and taking active steps to make improvements. That said, there will be elements from previously studied areas that will get rusty and will require additional attention later on. This is totally normal and it happens in our native languages too.
What final inspiration would you like to share to our readers?
No one has a magic pill for you. You need to find your own way to succeed. Setting realistic goals to avoid disappointment along with consistent studying and/or making revisions are key. How you study needs to fit your personality though. Your way might be a mixture of a lot of pieces of advice you’ve heard or read. Try things out. Language is about exploration and experimentation. You also need to make many mistakes to get it right!
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