June 15, 2020

How polyglots learn foreign languages - University research questionnaire

Hello everyone,

a university student from Finland asked me if I could answer some questions for his Master's thesis about how polyglots learn foreign languages. It's not like I get flooded with requests like this every day. I am very honored, that someone would like to hear my opinion for academic research and every time I am asked to summarize how I learn I feel like I get better and better at summarizing something I have no idea how to summarize :) 

I suspected my answers would turn into a small essay so I decided to post the text as an article for anyone interested as well.


1) Mother tongue(s): 

Slovak/Czech, Hungarian

2) Enlist the languages you know and evaluate the level of each according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, eg. Spanish C1 etc. (descriptions of the levels available on the last part of this questionnaire).

Current level:

Slovak C2
Czech C2
English C2
Mandarin C2/C1
Spanish C1
Italian C1
German C1
Russian C1

Hungarian B2
French B2
Portuguese B1

Classical Chinese B1
Latin B1

I learned other languages as well, but my current level in them is very poor. Maybe worth mentioning only might be, that when I was more involved with languages, apart from the above, I was able to hold a decent conversation without having to switch to English in: Polish, Serbian and Persian.

May 30, 2020

Are Simplified Chinese Characters really that new?

The great majority of Simplified Chinese characters* were created during the simplification process in the 20th century in the PRC. What is however probably not very well known is that a lot of what we call Simplified Chinese Characters today are characters that are very old themselves.

These characters may have originally had meanings that were not the same as the characters they replaced in the simplification process, or they sometimes were alternative modern or older versions of the same character but in either case, these Simplified Characters existed for a very long time in history as well (as will be shown, often for more than 2500 years).

The point of this post is not to argue that all Simplified Chinese characters are old, or praise their age and neglect the fact that they don't corrupt the phonetic and semantic elements of Traditional characters they replaced. I'm simply stating an interesting fact and addressing the common misconception that all Simplified Chinese characters were created ad hoc in the in the simplification process in the 20th century.

Furthermore, the simplification in the 20th century by the PRC government wasn't the first one in Chinese character history. There were several ones, some large-scale and systematic, others having the nature of random improvements, with the 20th century one being the most recent one. These previous simplifications also often corrupted individual character elements rendering them irrecognizable as will be shown below.

To name just a few all following Traditional characters had previously been simplified with their originals clearly containing recognizable phonetic and/or semantic elements:

Original meaning "to harvest grain" formed by 禾 (meaning grain) and 千 phonetic (pronounced qian1) originally written as 秊

Original meaning "outer side of garment" formed by 衣 semantic (meaning "clothes") and 毛 phonetic (pronounced mao2) originally written as 𧘝

October 18, 2019

Language Trivia

Hello everyone. I made a list of language-related questions for a friend of mine for a trivia game and I thought I would post the questions here for fun.

The rules are:

A) No google:)
B) If you get the whole question right, you get a point
C) Feel free to write your answers in the comments

Here are the questions:

1) Name the three largest Indoeuropean language families in Europe

2) Name 5 major Germanic languages

3) Name 5 major Romance languages

4) Name 7 major Slavic languages

5) Name 3 major Ugro-Finnic languages

September 16, 2019

Impossible tasks and bad techniques

If you see someone trying to lift a 500 kg stone with rollerblades on their feet, maybe knowing that that person had never done any exercise in their lives before, it's clear to you that that person will not lift the stone.

Firstly, the stone is just too heavy and secondly, it's really a dumb idea to try to lift it with your rollerblades on.

Unfortunately, the way people are trying to achieve language proficiency in some languages, is something you cannot see with your eyes, and a lot of people simply don't realize that either the goal they are working towards is impossible to achieve or the methods they are using will not work.

Some very difficult languages just cannot be learned to a satisfactory level with current methods. It's just like trying to lift that very heavy rock with rollerblades on.

So..if you are learning a language and are not making progress the problem might not be your lack of talent, but rather the fact, that with the methods you are using, you just objectively cannot learn what you are trying to learn.

August 29, 2019

Multilevel text analysis

Sometimes people ask me whether I use any special methods to learn languages so quickly and so well. These are their words, not mine:) I think language learning is very difficult, takes forever and I think I make a ton of mistakes in every language I speak including my native language. I used to say that talent, passion, focus and a lot of time are probably what influence my results most, but there are also a few methods that I like to use and I wanted to write about one today.

When I'm learning a new language, I like to analyze it on my own. The usual way I used to go about this was to make notes directly into the text I was reading, but this would get messy very quickly, especially when I knew very little or nothing about the language, because I needed to take a lot of notes:

My notes on Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic wars. Latin.

The advantage of this approach for me is, that I can write notes or translations of the text I'm analyzing directly into the text in any language I feel fits the translation/analysis best. If, for instance, in the text I come across a noun in accusative, I write the translation of that word into my native Slovak, because it also has an accusative and represents the form of the Latin original in my mind perfectly. If it's some strange verbal form, I usually write the translation in Italian (or English), since its verbal system is quite complex and derived from Latin and I usually can find a very good match. If it's some rare expression, I usually translate it into English or Slovak, since my vocabulary base is best in these two languages.

July 09, 2019

Understanding Chinese characters is a book that compiles years of Chinese character study in a concise and understandable way for the learner. Learn to understand Chinese characters for what they really are with a book that is easy to use, combining the best modern Chinese character academic research with the best learner experience.

Written by Vladimir Skultety, a graduate of Chinese studies specialized in Chinese character etymology and a polyglot speaking 15 languages working as an interpreter of Mandarin Chinese, English and Slovak.

Buy PDF for € 24.99 (+VAT)

Free Character practice sheets included

Download a FREE 50 page preview

Key features
  • suitable for anyone looking to understand and learn Chinese characters quickly and effectively
  • simple enough for beginners, detailed and accurate enough for advanced learners
  • characters in the book cover up to 70% of most modern texts written in Chinese
  • contains both Traditional and Simplified characters 
  • free printable character practice sheets with correct stroke order included
  • based on years of extensive and very detailed academic research, but written in a way which avoids academic clutter
  • high quality color images
  • custom designed illustrations
  • custom painted Oracle bone characters
  • licensed beautiful Seal Script font
  • 273 pages

May 10, 2019

Learn to read Chinese with manga

Hello everyone,

I started an experimental series on Youtube called Learn to read Chinese with manga. Feel free to check it out if you like.

I found reading to be a fantastic aid which helped me learn most of the languages I speak because of the following:

  • the language is 'frozen in time'. When you listen to something, even if it's a recording that you can rewind, words flow very quickly. When you are reading something, the language is frozen and laid out on the pages you read and you can read whatever you want at your own discretion. 
  • you can look for patterns in the language (crucial for learning a foreign language) much more effectively, because you can quickly compare something you see on page 7 with what you saw on page 3 etc. enabling you to get to your Aha! moment quicker
  • you can make notes directly onto the page you are reading
  • you have more time to analyze the structure of the language because you don't have the speed of the language to fight with
  • you can constantly return with your eyes to the Aha! words/constructions on the page you are reading (repetition - crucial for remembering new information)
I also found that when reading a foreign language, the absolute best thing ever is, when beneath the text I have a literal translation of what is written word by word in Neanderthal and then a translation of the same thing in nice English, as it should be said by an educated native speaker like so:

Latin  Praeterea se neque sine exercitu in eas partes Galliae venire audere, quas Caesar possideret, neque exercitum sine magno commeatu atque molimento in unum locum contrahere posse.
Neanderthal Moreover himself neither without an army into those parts of Gaul to come to dare, which Caesar possessed, nor an army without great supply and difficulty into one place to bring together to be able
Nice English That, besides, neither dare he go without an army into those parts of Gaul which Caesar had possession of, nor could he, without great expense and trouble, draw his army together to one place

If you are reading something on your own, the most tedious task is to work out the Neanderthal version and the nice English version on your own.

All of the above is exactly what I am trying to achieve in this video series:

March 24, 2019

Fluency staccato

What I call Fluency staccato is a phenomenon where due to constant back checking and constant active concentration on the most elementary parts of speech you loose focus and are unable to form natural longer sentences which would still make sense. The reason is that you run out of 'attention currency' (for more information on this topic watch the wonderful TED talk by Apollo Robbins https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZGY0wPAnus) as there's only a limited amount of things you can concentrate on consciously at the same time.

Anything you concentrate on consciously (like grammar rules, sentence structure, pronunciation etc.) costs you a certain amount of Attention currency and your budget is limited. If you, as will be the case in this article, spend too much of it on individual morphemes, while at the same time you have to concentrate on pronunciation, syntax, the vocabulary you want to use etc. you very quickly run out of cash and you have nothing left for other very important things like: the actual thought you want to convey. Your sentences will at best not connect to one another, at worst, what you say will only be natural on a sub-sentence level.

I was inspired to write this article because a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese left the following comment under one of my videos, and reminded me how destructive it is to learn a distant language starting from it's most elementary parts (tones for Mandarin learners, articles for learners of English, case endings for learners of Russian etc.):

As a native speaker, my advice is that you'd better start off with individual characters rather than words. Although starting with learning a bunch of words helps you put up sentences easier you will get confused soon after passing the beginner level because the Chinese language at its core is the meaning for each individual character. Though nowadays characters usually appear combining with other characters forming into words the meaning of a word is still defined by the characters within. Words with the same character can carry drastically different meaning but the meaning of that particular character may stay the same. For example, in the following two words contain the same character "所" but they have different meanings. 场所:a place ; 厕所:restroom ;  if you try to remember all the words with a "所" it is quite confusing and when a "所" pops out in a sentence it causes problem. However, if you know that the character "所" generally speaking means "a place" it will be much easier. for “场所” since both of the characters mean "a place" the word means 'a place'. for "厕所" the first character means the things you would do in a restroom combining with "a place" therefore this word means restroom. Then whenever you run into a "所" you can guess it is talking about a place except for one occasion that I can think of "所以" which means 'so' or 'therefore'.

I answered the comment and a few interesting things came out of it:

Hello. You are a native speaker of Mandarin and never had to learn Mandarin and without a lot of teaching experience you unfortunately cannot understand what problems foreigners learning Mandarin face and in what order they have to tackle them. It's the same situation when foreigners are trying to learn my native language. I have no idea what they need to know and in what order simply because I never had to learn my own language.

Your method would lead to poor results in my opinion because of this:

March 04, 2019

What is fluency?

I was asked to participate in a small scientific study about polyglots and multi-linguals. There were a few interesting questions in it (and a few questions that I've been asked many times before) so I thought I'd write an article sharing my answers:

What is fluency?

It's a difficult question. I think fluency is a moment when you've reached critical mass in the target language when it comes to speaking and understanding. Meaning you can understand 90+% of what is said fluently (you don't have to necessarily understand every word, understanding what is said is enough) and you can fluently transform 90+% of your thoughts into the target language (not necessarily exactly as a native speaker would, but correctly using your own words).

The 90+% is just an estimate and I would have to think about this more.

Reading and writing is not taken into account.

How do you go about choosing a new language?

It's usually related to charismatic people (past or present) that make learning the language extremely interesting. This can be anything from a romantic relationship to meeting a very charismatic native speaker of the language or reading about Julius Caesar.

Are there occasions, where you feel like another person, given the language you speak?

No. I believe that if a person speaks a foreign language really well, that person can bend the language around their personality and not let the language bend their personality.

Would you consider going to language classes once or twice a week in order to learn a language?


Would you consider yourself as a more of a self-taught learner or do you prefer the instruction of language?

A good instructor is an absolute gem and very rare to find. I prefer a good instructor of course, but as they are so rare, I am a self-taught learner.

I prefer to learn alone.

Has your education played a decisive role in your language choices?

Very restraining. As soon as I 'have' to learn something I do everything in my power to avoid it.

February 24, 2019

Chinese character Zen storytelling

So an innocent question under one of my videos about Chinese character etymology
(https://youtu.be/Svb7rulL5aE) led me to about an hour of research and I wrote a reply to the comment which I thought was worth publishing as an entire article on my blog. Gotta love science :)

The main reason why I thought this comment was worth publishing as an article was (apart from the fact that it was hopefully good research and took some time), that it is absolutely paramount to understand that people should be scientific and very careful not to interpret the structure of Chinese characters purely based on what they see today and resort to or believe Chinese character Zen story telling. I really can't stress this enough.

As Wikipedia teaches us about the Scientific method: "It (the Scientific method) involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation."

This could not be more true when it comes to Chinese characters.

The character I analyzed 黎 (which is today pronounced lí and today means 'many, numerous') is today structurally made up of 禾 (grain) 人 (person) 水 (water) and a mysterious 勹 + 丿

I could come up with 20 different Zen combinations as to how grain + person + water + (勹 + 丿)  could mean 'many, numerous'. Try it yourself before you read the rest of the article and compare it to what I wrote. Just for the fun of it and just off the top of my head:

黎 character

Modern meaning: many, numerous
Modern pronunciation: lí

Structural composition today:

禾 (grain)
人 (person)
水 (water)
and a mysterious 勹 + 丿

Top of head, seemingly cool interpretation:

'It's a person having to endure the burden of a lot of work because he has to irrigate a lot of grain with a lot of water'. All pointing to the meaning 'many, numerous'.

Let's pretend the 勹 + 丿 is not even there.

It took me, as someone who has spent a lot of time researching Chinese characters, about 30-60 minutes of research with a lot of modern tools to really understand the structure of this character and there still are blind spots in the analysis as you will see. What I'm trying to say is that if someone gives you a cool, funny, mysterious, 'Zen' interpretation of a character (like: 'It's a person having to endure the burden of a lot of work because he has to irrigate a lot of grain with a lot of water' in the case of 黎), please be very skeptical. There usually is much much more to it. Based on the difficulty of researching only this one character hopefully you will be able to appreciate why being scientific is a good thing.