A New American Polyglot and Wise Words from Anthony Lauder

This is a quick hodgepodge post. Tommy McDonald is the newest polyglot I’ve come across. I have great respect for all polyglots but particularly ones who come from places that are culturally monolingual. His, subtitled, video below shows skill in English, Spanish, Japanese, French, German and Italian. How’s that for variety?

 

 

Anthony Lauder is very good at breaking things down into easily understood, yet insightful, pieces. I highly recommend all ten minutes of the following video.

 

What Is Leveling Up?

I Used to Be Overweight

Between 2005 and 2010 I gained 53 lbs. (25 kgs). My BMI was at the bottom of the obese range. During 2010 I tried a juice diet and lost 35 lbs (about 16 kgs) in three months. I slowly and steadily gained 25 lbs back and, in December of 2011, I decided that something needed to change. Since then I’ve used an app on my phone to keep track of my calories and control my portions. I’ve also gotten into exercising, mainly cycling and hiking. It’s been a good time to go through Michel Thomas Method Arabic and Chinese, as well as listen to podcasts in my other languages. To date I’m down 46 lbs and am at a healthy weight for the first time since 2005!

Leveling Up On Y Mountain

I’ve become a rather inhibited person and I don’t like it. In addition to getting my weight under control, I’m trying to get outside my comfort zone more often. On a hike a few days ago, I passed a group of young Mexicans on their way up the mountain. On my way back down, I recognized one girl who was still hiking up the mountain far behind the group. ¡Tú sí puedes! (You can do it!) I said to her.

It’s hard. she wearily replied. I usually let other people determine the language but this time I felt insistent.

Tus amigos te están esperando. ¡Vas a poder!  (Your friends are waiting for you. You can do it!) I was rather surprised by what happened next.

Van a tener que esperar mucho. (They’re going to have to wait a while) she said.

Para eso son los amigos. (That’s what friends are for.) is what I think remember saying but by then I was farther down the mountain and she probably didn’t hear me. I was proud of myself for getting outside of my comfort zone and the rest of the hike went quickly.

At the end of the hike I noticed a Chinese family taking pictures of the valley below us. I loaded my dogs into my car and was about to get in and drive away when I decided not to be such a chicken. Nervously, I walked over to them and said, 请问. 你们 是 中国人吗? (Excuse me. Are you Chinese?)

I’ve been speaking Spanish since the end of 2000. I can handle myself in almost any situation. Chinese is a different story. My Chinese is laughably limited. This is why I was so happy when the oldest son replied, . (Yup.)

I thought of asking them where they were from but then I realized that I wasn’t very familiar with China and probably wouldn’t recognize the name of the city. Under pressure, I smiled and said the only thing that came to mind, 欢迎! (Welcome! [As in Welcome to my country!])

They smiled back and said, 谢谢. (Thanks.)

That’s leveling up.

Leveling up is what many people in the online language learning community call giving a practical application to the language you’ve been learning. This was demonstrated very well in a video of Moses McCormick and Benny Lewis that I blogged about a few weeks ago. This can be done online on websites like SharedTalk.com and the Polyglot website’s chatroom or on Skype. I think the best and most rewarding way to do it is in person. My friend Rich blogged about a recent experience he had leveling up in Persian.

I know it sounds daunting but even if you mess up it’s usually exhilarating and makes you want to go home and learn more. Leveling up exposes your weaknesses and shows you where you are actually better than you thought. You often get much needed encouragement and make new friends. You learn little things that are impossible to learn by your self, like facial expressions and filler words. Have you had any experiences leveling up in a language? Tell us about them.

Language in Education: Part II

I was tempted to change the title of this post (and the last) to Minority Languages in Education but that would be inaccurate. Some students that belong to minority groups in their communities are educated in a language they don’t speak at home. This is the case of Curds in Denmark, Pakistanis in Kuwait and Brazilians in Japan. This is not the case, however, of millions of kids in Africa, virtually all of the kids in Haiti, or even of the upper-class kids who go to private English schools all over the world. These young students speak their native language at home, in the market, on the playground and pretty much everywhere else but in the classroom. In my last post I delved into the advantages and problems related to educating children in a language other than their native one. I am grateful for those who weighed in on the issue in the comments section.

The Good News

It is almost impossible for one group to take away another group’s linguistic identity. The only way your linguistic identity will be lost is if you allow it to be lost or pushed out. A long time ago, Americans tried very hard to squash the languages of the natives. Certain languages have been lost or will be lost soon but others came out of the experience stronger than before. You couldn’t teach Cherokee in school two hundred years ago because it wasn’t a written language. Now it is. Navaho is not only now a written language but can be used to give university lectures. The Welsh, Ukrainians, Norwegians, Basque, and even the English have all had their languages seriously threatened at one time or another. If you are willing to fight for it, no individual or government can rob you of your language completely.

As I said in my last post, this situation is a sticky one and there is no one size fits all answer but there are three principles that can guide every society facing this problem.

Principle #1: You Need to Want It

In order for this to work then the group that wants to promote its language needs a very strong sense of self-determination. If Xhosa speaking parents organize, come together, and say they want their children to receive instruction in Xhosa then I think the government should provide at least a few classes and activities in the language for them. Books should also be provided for Xhosa speakers at the library. If the Xhosa classes are enthusiastically received, if there is a very high level of participation in Xhosa activities, and if there is a long waiting list for Xhosa books at the library then I think the government should expand Xhosa services. They could perhaps even allow for schools to teach half in Xhosa and half in English.

Principle #2: You Need to Want It More Than Me

I often go to the Spanish language book section at my library. Do you know which people I don’t really see much in the Spanish language section? Hispanics. You can’t expect your language to thrive if you aren’t really enthusiastic about it. Especially in this economy, why should one group vote to allocate funds to support a different ethno-linguistic group if the members of the latter group aren’t going to make really good use of the money?

Principle #3: Think Win/Win

Many people approach language with a very Win/Lose mentality. If you speak my language then you can’t speak yours. Continuing with that logic these same people often think, If you speak your language then you cannot speak mine. When trying to push a language in schools it helps to assure others that the students will continue to learn English, or whatever other language they need to learn in order to function in a broader society. This requires some extra effort and a change in lifestyle that many do not expect. This is where principles one and two become very important.

This Can Really Work

When the Persians took over the Babylonian Empire they kept Aramaic as the language of government. Everybody already knew Aramaic so why should they try and fix something that wasn’t broken? Many languages coexisted side by side but it was understood that the official language was Aramaic. This is the way Greek functioned for centuries in the Mediterranean countries and Latin in much of Europe during the Middle Ages. Just like the ancients, I believe people in modern times can learn a vehicular language, like English, without losing their own ethno-linguistic identity.

Language in Education

Kirsten, a college student from South Africa, sent me a nice email a while ago asking me to weigh in on an issue that I find extremely important and often complicated. It is an issue that affects people in every country of the world and one that has affected every ethnic group in the history of the world. The question is whether children who should be educated in their native language or in a language that will give them more opportunities later in life.

 

What kind of opportunities in life will you have if all you know how to speak is a variety of Zapotec that only a few thousand people in Oaxaca, Mexico understand? No one would blame such a person for making sure their children learned Spanish from an early age. How far can you go in life in south western China if you don’t know Mandarin? Ethnic minorities are certainly not the only people confronting this issue.

 

German is the official language of six prosperous countries and has over 100 million native speakers with tens of millions of non-native speakers added to that number. It also has a literary tradition that is hundreds of years old and boasts some of the best writers and philosophers in modern times. In spite of this, every German engineering student knows that his or her career will be limited without a solid command of English.

 

Is it any wonder that millions of students from all over Africa are demanding to be educated in English instead of Afrikaans, French, Yoruba, etc.? Many American, British, Australian, etc. companies have been known to favor employees with fluent English over other employees who are harder to understand but are more competent in their professions. The advantages to combining impressive professional skills with fluency in English are palpable.

 

On the other hand, I wonder about the Filipinos who have a wider vocabulary in English than they do in Tagalog or Cebuano but speak it with a heavy accent. I wonder about Haitian children who are taught that what they speak at home is corrupted French, instead of a proper language. This means they have to be be taught to speak the real thing by teachers who usually cannot speak French well either. I also wonder about the Hispanic youth in the USA, the Turks in Germany, Moroccans in Spain, and Algerians in France who never learn to speak any language well.

 

What does it mean to undervalue, or even despise, your native language? What does it do to a person to intentionally lose or weaken the ability to speak with Grandparents and other relatives? How do we feel about ourselves and our worth as individuals if we believe that the language that feels most natural to us is somehow inferior to another language? Can a language’s true worth be calculated accurately with money alone?

 

I wish I had a simple answer to this complex problem. There is, however, no single solution that will work for countries as diverse as South Africa, the USA, China, Ukraine, and Malaysia. I would like to describe some principles that will help people as they try to negotiate their education between two or more languages and I will talk about them in my next post. Until then, what are your thoughts?

Level Up with Moses and Benny

This is a totally cool video and definitely worth sitting through twelve minutes of a shaky camera and poor audio. Even my wife, who is not a language enthusiast, loved this video. If you are a language lover or want to be one, please watch it.

Benny (the Irish Polyglot) Lewis has the playful attitude and lust for life that that his compatriots are famous for. In his case, this includes a love for languages and travel. Benny has been traveling the globe for eight years and got his language learning method down to a system. He’ll even sell you a book about that system. He likes focusing on a language for three months and striving to speak it fluently by the end of that period. We can thank this video in large part to his world travels, especially coming to Ohio (that’s a state in the USA). A point that Benny makes in this video, that I really like, is that shyness is probably not a lifelong stamp and often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Moses McCormick is the other language enthusiast in this video with an Irish last name. He, like Benny, also has language services that he would be happy sell you. If you watched the video you cannot help but be impressed with Moses. I know I can’t. With the soft relentlessness of a door-to-door salesman, Moses lets nothing stand in his way to have a positive language experience. In this video, he gives us all a fabulous example to follow: get out there and use your languages! He also gives us a great example of learning and using the languages in your community. Moses has never visited Cambodia and perhaps never will, but that doesn’t stop him from interacting with Cambodians in Columbus, Ohio.

Benny has also written a post about his experience on his blog which includes another video not seen here. I suggest you give a look. Thanks for the video guys!

Foreign Language Learning as an Adult

This post is a response to a comment left on my last post by someone who I will call Brandie. Like most people, she has always wanted to learn a foreign language. Brandie is interested in learning Greek and has access to native Greek speakers. She is concerned because she has no access Greek classes. It also worries her that she has reached the ripe old age of 20 and feels it may be too late to learn a foreign language well.  I began writing in the comment section but quickly realized that my comment was too long. I also thought that maybe my response could benefit or would be interesting to others.

Dear Brandie,

Children do not learn languages more easily than adults. The life of a child is set up to help him or her learn a language. Give an adult that much time and that kind of support and he’ll learn just as fast or faster. Children are also not expected to learn to speak in an eloquent or sophisticated way. How big is a five-year-old’s vocab? 200-300 words? Most adults feel very frustrated having to limit their self expression that way so they just give up.

Small children can learn to speak without an accent but for adults this is impossible to do all the time. If you really work on it then you can get a 75%-90% native sounding accent. That’s still worth the effort and plenty good enough to get you Greek friends (who don’t speak English) or a job where you need native Greek speakers to understand you. Guys like Richard Simcott have learned quite a few of their languages past the age of 25. I have learned all of my languages in adulthood and plan on learning more. Feel free to check out my videos. Keep in mind that I am not the most skilled polyglot on YouTube. If I can do what you see in these videos then you can too.

Greek is harder than Spanish or French but not a lot harder. I think you’ll find learning it a rewarding experience. No single learning method works for everyone 100%. You need to fine-tune your own method and this takes some time, creativity and trial and error analysis. Luca Lampariello, Moses McCormick, Steve Kaufmann, Benny Lewis and Robert Bigler are all polyglots who explain their independent learning techniques on YouTube. Check them out. If what they teach works for you then do it. If not then throw it out. Don’t be afraid to mix and match parts of their methods. Remember, this is about what works well for you.

I will say this, whatever method you settle on there are two simple things you need to keep in mind:

  1. Input (what you read, listen to, watch, etc.)
  2. Output (what you say, read or write)

Input

The famous language learning expert Stephen Krashen recommends listening to TONS of content in your target language that is 80% intelligible. Reading things that are interesting to you in the target language is also a good idea. Wikipedia is a decent place to go for that because there are lots of articles in both English and Greek. You need to find your sweet spot where you are not overwhelming yourself by needing to look up too many words to get the gist of what’s written/spoken but not so easy that you understand every single word. Again, it’s about finding the balance that works for you.

Output

You need to find a strong balance here as well between waiting too long to speak and not speaking soon enough. I recommend figuring out learning how to deal with short interactions first (Hi how are you? Find thanks, and you? I’m okay thank you, etc.). Pat yourself on the back every time you get your point across and understand more or less what they say in return. Do not try to be perfect at first. Do children wait to speak until they can speak perfectly? As Michel Thomas would say, “Just try to get the ball over the net.”

Another tool for improving the quality of your output is a foreign language journal. Speaking to people can be overwhelming because you have no time to look anything up. If you spend time writing at home then you will have that time. Again, don’t try to be too fancy at first. You need to walk before you can run with confidence. I recommend getting a book like Complete Greek (make sure you get it with the CDs). Treat it more like a guide rather than a strict instruction book. As you go through the different chapters ask yourself if you can tweak the materials to your personal needs. Before you try out your Greek on Greeks, I suggest writing it out in your journal first. The chat rooms at SharedTalk.com and The Polyglot Club can also give you the opportunity to practice Greek in a situation where you have time to look things up. Just make sure you get online well after the time when Greeks get off work.

Balance Daniel San!

I want to stress the idea of balance one more time. If you expect yourself to be perfect or very advanced too soon then you will disappoint yourself and eventually give up. If you get complacent with just getting your point across in caveman Greek then you will miss out on the joy and experiences that only fluency can bring you. Do your best and be happy be with that but try to make your best a little better every time. I wish you luck with learning Greek!

Language Learning: 4 Important Factors

Inspired by the Canadian program on hyperpolyglots, I decided to make this video.