Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On the Spot – Vincent of Street-Smart Language Learning

This is an interview I did with the now-defunct Aspiring Polyglot. It was originally posted there on the date of this post, although it wasn't posted on this blog until May 8, 2010, shortly before Aspiring Polyglot closed up shop at the end of that month.

Another language learner interview for all of you to read and possibly learn something from. I have a lot of other things going on this week so I haven’t had the time to write a post of my own.

Here’s Vincent’s language learner interview. Vincent is the author of the Street-Smart Language Learning blog and is a firm believer in the benefits of language immersion.

You can read the full interview, after the jump.

Which languages are you learning? What level of conversational and reading ability to do you have in each of these? (I’ve avoided using the term ‘fluent’ here for reasons that will become clear below.)

I’ve given a crack at listing my language skills in the table below. As I’m sure you know, it can be pretty tough to categorize language skills. As a gauge, if I’m comfortable speaking with clients in the language I’ve listed conversational ability as “proficient” and if I’m comfortable reading contracts in the language (I’m a lawyer), I’ve listed reading ability as “proficient”. (You’ll see below my standard on fluency is pretty high.) For the languages in which I’m advanced, I could probably get through the same activities but it would be a bit of a struggle.


How long have you been learning foreign languages? What was the first foreign language you learnt or were exposed to?

The first foreign language I was exposed to was Italian at home. However, my parents weren’t strict about it and I didn’t really pick it up. Then when I was about eleven, my school had a year-long sampler for the three languages they offered: French, German, and Spanish. I first only really started studying a language with Spanish when I was twelve, so seventeen years ago. (The rest of my language-learning history can be found here)

What attracted you to the language(s) you’re learning?

I picked the languages I’m learning based on the how big the economies represented by those languages are. Of the choices I had at age twelve, Spanish was clearly the most useful in the States. While I was originally doing it on a sort of guessing basis, I now look at the percentage of world GDP controlled by that language when considering starting a new one. Strangely enough, my guessing matched up exactly with the GDP list.

Which languages would you like to learn in future? What are your reasons for choosing these?

If you were predicting based on GDP alone, the next languages I’d learn would be Russian, Arabic, Hindi, and Korean, but I’ll probably fully tackle Korean first and Russian second. Korean has a lot of similarities with Japanese (grammar and vocab) and Chinese (vocab), so it’s a path of relative little resistance for me. Moreover, my legal practice focuses on East Asia so it would make sense to add Korean to my repertoire. As for Russian, I started studying it in high school, but all I’m left with now is an ability to read Cyrillic script, pick out cognates, and say some basic words and phrases. I’d probably build off of that before starting another from scratch.

Beyond that, it would be Arabic, Hindi, and Dutch. Dutch might also get a bump to the front of the line because of its similarities to German and English. When in Belgium, I found that I could largely read the signs in Dutch thanks to the similarities to German, and I’ve already had to read a contract in Dutch just to figure out the applicable law and pass it to the right person, which I was able to do thanks to how close it is to German and with the help of an online dictionary.

How do you define ‘fluency’? Do you differentiate between oral fluency and literacy?

I’ve got a pretty strict definition of fluency. If you can turn on the TV in your target language and watch the same sort of things you’d watch in your native language with a similar level of understanding, you’re fluent. That’s more a test of oral fluency, but oral fluency typically follows written fluency (unless of course you make the mistake of learning how to speak but never learning how to write, which seems to be relatively common in Japanese and Chinese).

Do you use languages in your job or everyday activities?

Absolutely. I’ve used all seven of the foreign languages I speak at work, although some much more than others.

At home, lots of languages get thrown around. My wife is Japanese. While we speak English in order to smooth out the last remaining wrinkles in her English, she speaks Japanese to the kids and so it’s constantly in my ear. We’ll also use Japanese when we don’t want someone else to understand what we’re saying, and when we’re around both English and Japanese speakers, we’ll use French for the same purpose. We hire only Chinese-speaking babysitters and nannies for our kids, so there is frequently a Chinese-speaking person in the house, and as they typically don’t speak English we’re constantly hearing and using Chinese as well. My mom lives with us as well so she and I use Italian when we don’t want anyone else to know what we’re saying, and sometimes we just use it regardless.

How do you maintain and/or improve your skills in the languages you’ve learnt?

Lots of things. IMing, reading news and other things in the languages, hanging out with friends in those languages, listening to target language podcasts and music, etc., etc. Basically, any time I’m using a language, if I can switch it to a target language, I do.

Do you prefer to learn a language through classroom-based learning or through self-study? Do you make use of language exchange sites or have a penpal?

I’m definitely of the avoid-class-like-the-plague mindset. There are very few classes that are worthwhile so I only willingly sign up for one with much trepidation, and for the most part I learned the language I know on my own.

That said, pure self-study is not the way to go either. You want to surround yourself with native speakers and preferable have one or more native-speaker tutors to help you learn.

I suppose you could say I have lots of penpals, but they’re all really just friends who speak the foreign languages with whom I exchange emails, IMs, etc.

I’ve been using a variety of language sites, like Busuu, Lang-8, LingQ, and Livemocha, etc.

Do you use flashcards as part of your learning?

Absolutely. Preferably flashcard software with spaced-interval repetition.

Have you ever learnt a new alphabet or script? If so, how did you go about learning it?

Yes, in Japanese, Chinese, and Russian. For Russian, I just practiced writing it with some kind of workbook and studied the language until I got it. Phonetic alphabets like that are always a piece of cake.

For Japanese, I did the same for kana. For characters, I studied 30 a day, which got me through all the daily use characters in about three months. Then I reviewed 90 a day for three more complete pass-throughs of the daily use characters. By the time I got to Chinese, I already knew so many characters and was so accustomed to them that I didn’t do anything in particular to learn more of them.

Have you ever learnt (or tried to learn) an ancient or extinct language? Do you think there are good reasons for learning an ancient language, or do you think time would be better invested in learning a living language?

I’ve never tried and am pretty sure I never will. Based on the GDP measure I discussed above, I think you can see why I’d generally be against studying dead languages. That said, there could certainly be good reasons to do so, for instance if you’re an archaeologist, historian, or the like. Of course, if you’re just really interested in it and feel like learning it, good for you, although I’d still probably recommend a living language to you instead.

As an aside, with all the Romance language I know, I can get the gist of a lot of Latin, which is pretty interesting. While watching Rome, I dug up some of Julius Caesar’s writings and it was pretty fun to be hearing from the man himself.

Do you use podcasts in your language learning? If so, which ones do you listen to?

Yes. I use podcasts aimed at native speakers rather than language-learning podcasts. For instance, in Portuguese, CBN has a podcasts on a variety of topics.

How do you go about learning new vocabulary? Do you avoid certain subject areas and focus more on the subjects that interest you, or do you make an effort to develop a wider vocabulary base and learn words you will rarely get to use?

I believe you need to have a two-fold approach. First, you should seek out the most common words, and this includes when at more advanced levels. For instance, just because I’m a lawyer doesn’t mean I shouldn’t know the biological word “enzyme”, which I clearly understand in my native tongue. The basic words in any field will be heard from time to time even by laypeople, and if they’re among the most common words that you don’t already know then you should by all means learn them.

Second, focusing on subject areas of interest to you is also important. For instance, I naturally learn legal terms that most people would have no use for.

What are your thoughts on learning grammar? Do you prefer to learn it from a grammar guide or do you prefer to learn it through intuition?

I like to do an initial pass-through with a grammar guide and then reinforce what I’ve encountered through exposure. I’m against repetitive exercises to cram grammar into your head. Intuition alone is only truly effective when you’ve got a huge amount of exposure, such as little kids do when learning their first language.

Have you ever taken any language proficiency exams (e.g. JLPT, HSK) to test your abilities? Do you plan to?

I took the JLPT a long time ago and missed passing the highest level by one lonely point. My Japanese has since improved, and I toy with the idea of taking that test again or others as sort of a way to motivate my language learning with a specific, measurable goal in mind, but I still haven’t sent in any registration fees yet and I can’t say for sure that I will.

What would you say is the biggest obstacle in your language learning? What keeps you back from reaching your desired level of fluency?

I think the answer to that question is always lack of exposure. If you get enough exposure, you will learn the language.

What has been your greatest language learning achievement to date?

I would suppose it’s just the raw number of languages I’ve learned to the abilities I’ve learned them to.

Have you made any embarrassing linguistic blunders or cultural faux pas?

Jeez, I’m sure I’ve made ton of these, although not many come to mind. The first time I ate edamame in Japan, I didn’t know you had to take out the beans and I ate the whole thing. I remember thinking, “How gross”, but then someone else ate one in front of me the right way and I got it. No one saw me eat the husk, but I still felt like a tool.

Do you have any favourite words or expressions?
I sometimes joke with my wife with the Japanese saying "悪妻は百年の不作", which literally means "A bad wife is a hundred years of crop failures".

Do you think language learning should be made compulsory in schools?

Absolutely, but the methodology needs a lot of work. The excessive focus on grammar certainly has not produced many language speakers.

What are your thoughts on constructed languages such as Esperanto or Klingon?

Pretty much the same as my thoughts on dead languages, although I’d imagine that it’s harder to make a dime off of constructed languages like these.

Is it better to speak one or two foreign languages perfectly or have a basic understanding of many?

Let’s say you understand 90% of what a native speaker does. Getting that next 10% might take 5 years, whereas you could probably get to 90% in five other languages over the same time. I’d probably argue that it’s better to learn numerous languages to 90% proficiency rather than learning just a few to 99% proficiency.

Are there any linguists/polyglots that you admire? If so, what do you admire most about them? Do you use any of their methods in your language learning?

Pretty much all the linguists/polyglots out there who speak a ton of languages are high on my list, and typically they and I often use very similar methods to learn languages, whether I’m copying them directly or I learned the same lessons the hard way on my own.

Do you have any resources that you would like to recommend to other learners? These can include dictionaries, blogs, software, online media, online courses and pretty much anything that can be used for learning a language or improving one’s skills.

To put in a self-serving plug, I often discuss this very question on my own blog, Street-Smart Language Learning, and I’ll refer you there for details on my answer to this question.

However, I would highlight a few things. Any website that puts you in direct touch with native speakers is a great resource. Sites that come to mind are those I mentioned above: Busuu, Lang-8, LingQ, and Livemocha. When you’re getting started with a language, it’s not a bad idea to use some Pimsleur or Michel Thomas recordings, which I’ve had much success in digging up for free from libraries. And for getting things in your head, in addition to just generally maximizing exposure to the target language, it’s a good idea to make use of a spaced-interval repetition study tool, such as SuperMemo or Anki.

Finally, do you have any tips or advice to share with other language learners? Do you have any mottos or tips for staying motivated?

I’m working on finishing up an entire book on this very topic, but the one fundamental rule that I’ll emphasize here is that you should take all efforts to maximize your exposure to the language at all times, whether in your home country or in the language zone.

As far as staying motivated, the key is getting exposure that you’re interested in, or that at least keeps your attention. While I might read CNN in Spanish, that would probably be a bore for a teenage girl so I wouldn’t recommend that to her. You need to figure out what you like and use that to learn.

And you should always remember that you, yes, even you, can learn a language, in fact any language. Our brains are wired for it, and you just need to connect your brain’s cells to the right kind of exposure to get it in your head.

1 comment:

  1. On the original post, Scott made the following comment on January 29, 2009 at 11:51 p.m.:

    Hello Vincent,
    Very interesting to read your story, thank for you sharing. I have one question, you stated “I’m definitely of the avoid-class-like-the-plague mindset” thus I am curious to know what you did on your many extended forays into foreign countries while in college? Did you take classes despite this statement? or did you find a place to live and simply go about communicating and continued self study?
    Thank you,

    The answer is that I was forced to take classes by the programs I was on, but I hated it, so I minimized all efforts for classes and maximized my time doing other stuff. It was a trade-off that I made to get to the language zone and still graduate without too much delay.