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.

Vladimir



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.

I didn't reach a level worth mentioning in any other language (A1-A2 max).

Some people say that polyglots who speak 10+ languages have only very superficial knowledge of the languages they speak. In my case this is certainly true for a lot of languages I've learned and never had I in my entire life said I spoke all the languages I speak fluently or perfectly. At the same time I am also sad whenever I hear people say that what I've learned is all completely fake or that I know one-two languages well and that I can only utter a few sentences in the rest at best. 

I would never say this in real life, but only for the purposes of this study, I would like to write my top achievements in the 9 best languages I speak:

1) Slovak: Native

2) Hungarian: Native, but a bit rusty now

3) Czech: secondary native, studied at a Czech university

4) English: I've spent a lot of my childhood in the United States and have been working as an English interpreter and translator for private clients and the government here in Slovakia for about 15 years. I also have the highest level state exam in English.

5) German: I have the same highest level state exam in German as well. I worked as a German interpreter/translator in Slovakia too, but I had much less German-related work than English related work.

6) Mandarin: I have the highest level state exam in Mandarin as well, but this one is from my Czech university. I have read about 100 books in Mandarin and worked as a judicial interpreter and an interpreter for the customs and criminal police here in Slovakia for about 5 years. I have a bachelor's degree in Chinese studies and wrote a book about Chinese character etymology.

7) Italian: I have a university C1 exam in Italian and worked briefly as an Italian interpreter as well. 

8) Russian: I worked as a Russian language interpreter.

9) Spanish: I worked as a Spanish language interpreter. 

Apart from interpreting to and from my native Slovak language (Slovak>English, English>Slovak, Italian>Slovak, Slovak>Italian etc.) I also routinely worked with more exotic combinations:

English>Mandarin, Mandarin>English
Spanish>Mandarin, Mandarin>Spanish
Spanish>German, German>Spanish
Spanish>Russian, Russian>Spanish
English - Slovak - Mandarin (interpretation in every direction)

I think people who know how hard interpreting from and into you native language can be can appreciate how difficult it is to interpret between 2 languages that are not your native tongues, especially if one of them is Mandarin Chinese. Again, this is not to show off and I would never say this in real life and am saying this only for the purposes of this study, but it just feels very saddening when people say that I know one or two languages well and only scratched the surface with the rest. Behind all of this is my entire life of very hard and dedicated work with an amazing effort of my family in the background. 

Even when I wasn't learning any new language, I would listen to news in foreign languages for at least 3 hours each day, every day for years. I interpreted news into my native Slovak language in my mind as a form of practice for my work because I never knew which language I would use in my work as an interpreter next. 

People also say that if someone speaks Spanish, Italian, French, Romanian and Portuguese, that it's no achievement at all as these languages are too related. To this I say:

a) It is certainly easy to learn to understand two related languages, but it is still quite hard to learn to speak these languages.

b) To get to a very fluent C2 level with a good accent and flow of speech is still very very hard, regardless of whether it is a language related to the one you speak or not. Getting to C2 in Mandarin is of course much more difficult than getting to C2 in Spanish, when you speak Italian very well, but getting to a C2 in Spanish is really not an easy thing to do either.

3) Write about your linguistic background and personal journey of learning the languages you know.

I was born in the south-east of Czechoslovakia, went to a Hungarian kindergarten and spoke Slovak, Czech and Hungarian natively as a child. Still as a child I spent a lot of time in the United States, watched many hours of German TV every day and eventually spent time in Austria as well. When I was about 13, I think, I spoke the above 5 languages almost equally well. 

I heard some people say that my parents must've been very rich, because I traveled to all those places when I was a child. Actually, I was born and lived in socialist Czechoslovakia for 7 years of my life and I don't think we were particularly poor or wealthy, because in socialism almost everyone had roughly the same amount of wealth (which wasn't too much). My family had to save up money to send me to our relatives in the US and Austria with the sole purpose of me learning English and German. 

As Czechoslovakia and later Slovakia were only opening up to the world and I was from a relatively small city, I didn't really want to learn any other languages except for the ones that I had already learned simply because a thought like that had never even crossed my mind. I've never heard or seen or heard of anyone speak Chinese, Japanese or even Spanish at that time.

Much later, when I was a university student, I learned Italian in Italy while I was doing my Erasmus there. I learned Russian on my own mostly by listening to Russian news (quite intensively actually, up to 8 hours/day) for about 3 months and then saved up some money and went to Russia for one month. 

I was learning French since my childhood. I never had the chance to really bring it to a very fluent level (C1-C2) but since I've been speaking and learning French on and off since I was 6, I felt pretty comfortable with the language. My French is nothing special (my maximum was C1 in 2017), but I can speak fluently and hopefully correctly for hours without having to switch to English. I can read books and watch news in French without much problems. 

I then enrolled into the Charles university in Prague, department of Chinese studies, and started studying Mandarin. During this time I learned a bit of Portuguese, Polish, Dutch, Romanian and Persian out of curiosity on my own. I continued learning and practicing Portuguese, Polish and Persian on and off since then. 

As a part of our curriculum, we had to learn Classical Chinese and had to pass several exams in the subject. As my specialization in the Chinese department was Chinese character etymology, I spent a lot of time researching Chinese characters and read several books and dictionaries in Classical Chinese (說文解字 for instance) and translated a few of them into my native Slovak language (Art of War, 白馬論,宋玉「風賦」).

I then spent 5 years in Taiwan living in an almost 100% Mandarin speaking environment. I had a company there, paid my taxes in Taiwan and probably the only thing I didn't do as a TW person was that I couldn't vote. 

While I was in Taiwan I learned some A1-A2 Japanese. I was teaching one Japanese friend speak Chinese and he was teaching me Japanese. We had 2-3 hour long conversation classes almost every day for about 6 months. 

I also learned a little bit of Cantonese and Taiwanese (Southern Min - Northern Taiwanese variant) while I was still in Taiwan. I was listening to a lot of podcasts in Cantonese and tried to talk to my TW friends in Taiwanese.

When I returned to Europe, back in Slovakia I learned a bit of Serbian. I listened to several hours of news in Serbian each day for about 6 months, read one 500 page book in Serbian and talked to my friends in Serbian every day for about 6months. 

While in Slovakia, I also learned Latin. I read Ceasar's Gallic wars about 20 times, analyzing every sentence in detail.

4) In what kind of different contexts have you learned the languages? (e.g. classroom, language courses, friendships, stays abroad, extracurricular activities, autodidactic learning etc.)

I think I voluntarily or involuntarily tried/experienced most of what you've mentioned but, for me personally, only some things were really effective. I found, that the most effective method for me was always just hours and hours of talking to my native-speaking friends, reading books and hours and hours of intensive listening and listening accompanied with simultaneous interpreting into Slovak in my mind. 

5) Describe as specifically as you can what kind of learning methods you have been using to learn these languages.

I think it's pretty hard to describe something like this without going into too much detail or being too superficial so that it doesn't sounds like complete BS. 

I think, as a basis I was always 1. Very curious 2. Very motivated 3. Very focused and I always spent really a lot of time using the language (as mentioned up to 8 hrs/day every day for months). My language learning was usually a total disaster when I wasn't doing one of the above 4 things.

Of the specific methods, I used:

a) mnemonics to help me with vocabulary (I put emphasis on organic learning though. I use mnemonics only as a learning aid, not as a means of learning). 

b) silent simultaneous interpretation - I would let audio play in the foreign language and then simultaneously interpret the content in my mind into my native Slovak

c) 'Intensive' reading (https://www.foreverastudent.com/2019/08/multilevel-text-analysis-method.html). I would then re-read the text many times over and over again until I could perfectly understand everything.

d) 'Intensive' listening. Same thing as 3) but with audio. I would analyze an audio recording (natural dialogues if possible) until I knew what exactly was going in with each word, each expression and each sentence and then I would listen to it over and over until I could understand it perfectly. 

6) Which are the factors that you consider having been most important when it comes to obtaining such great results in language learning? (e.g. passion, talent, motivation, personality, learning strategies, mother tongue etc.)

I would say (in no specific order):

Environment
Motivation
Curiosity
Talent
Focus
A lot of time spent with the language (as mentioned up to 8 hours/day for a minimum of 3 months with languages more similar to the languages I already knew).

7) What kind of tips would you give to other language learners?
a) Learn by using.
b) Practice using the language as much as you can.
c) Be curious, motivated and focused.
d) Always keep comparing yourself to the goal you've set up for yourself. 

5 comments:

  1. Very insightful Vlad!

    Thank you for sharing :)

    Tony

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  2. Love your work Vladimir, you should truly be proud of being the most honest and verifiably fluent polyglot on the internet.
    Just juggling 5 languages in my own case sometimes seems like a part-time job so I have a lot of respect for your level of dedication but also frankly am quite baffled as to how you have kept yourself motivated to invest so much energy into maintaining so many languages at such a high level especially when there is proportionately little economic reward for such extraordinary accomplishments in our society.
    What keeps you motivated and what do you do when you loose motivation? Could you imagine focusing less on languages and perhaps becoming equally dedicated in pursuing some other interests eg. academia, arts, science, coding, building a business, environmental work etc. ? If yes please elaborate :)

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    Replies
    1. A friend of mine told me once that when he met me for the first time, he couldn't understand why I spent so much time learning and maintaining all these languages since to him it seemed like a pretty cool party trick but nothing more.

      I do work as an interpreter in several languages so maintaining a good level in several languages is necessary but..maybe not 12 or 13. I can see how it could look like like a party trick although I had never thought about it until my friend mentioned it.

      I thought about it for a bit and realized that in my country and especially in my family a lot of emphasis was put on learning several languages because:

      a) we are a small country
      b) there weren't a lot of good opportunities to make it in life growing up in the 80's and 90's in Slovakia. I really didn't know what the future would hold for me but since my family from a very young age kept stressing how important speaking several languages is, I just did my best. Being as versatile as possible seemed like a good plan.

      I've been dedicating much less time to language maintenance and zero time to language learning (except for Latin) in the past 4-5 years. My only language maintenance is the 'organic' maintenance I do in my work as an interpreter.

      The funny thing is I do try to dedicate a lot of time to all of what you wrote! :) So funny that you mentioned exactly the things I was or am working on. Academia, arts, science, coding, building a business and some other projects.

      Delete
  3. That was very smart of your family giving you a big advantage upon potentially emigrating to more prosperous places eg.Canada, USA, Germany, France etc.

    Nice, organic maintenance seems like the way to go in terms of longevity and freedom of exploring other avenues.

    Cool, would you mind elaborating as to what kind of science and business you are pursuing? :)


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