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A Short Biography of a Polyglot

I’ve loved learning languages for most of my life. Because I hold degrees in two languages and demonstrate varying levels of proficiency in several others, I sometimes get asked how many languages I know, or when, or how, I started learning them. Learning languages is such a passion that I’ve been known to stop anyone with an accent and ask them what they speak and if they can teach me a phrase. I’ve traded language lessons for…well, language lessons, just so I can learn a little bit more about someone’s culture. So I figure it’s time to explain where my love for languages has come from and where it’s probably going.

My Family History is (mostly) Monolingual

Though it’s possible that I have some Native American heritage from my mother’s and father’s families, my wife’s due diligence on Ancestry.com has confirmed that I am almost exclusively Swiss.  And despite the strong Swiss roots, I’m a few generations removed from the native German, French, or Italian speakers that came to America in the mid 1800’s. My family has spoken American English for at least the last 100 or so years.

My mother is one exception to the rule. She was an advanced student and began taking Russian in the 7th grade. She took Russian for six years from middle school through high school. She then spent a few years in college studying to be a Russian translator before switching her studies to English and Reading. My mother could (and still can) speak Russian pretty decently. She’s read Dostoyevsky. In Russian.  That Literature major who complains about reading Crime and Punishment has nothing on the one who read it in Russian.

So outside of my Russian-speaking mother, I come from a family of good ol’ fashioned Americans.

I Caught the Language Bug Pretty Late

I went to a private school from kindergarten through the second grade, and it was in the second grade that my parents put me in an extra program for learning Spanish. So I got my first taste of another language when I was seven learning conversational Spanish. Even though the neurology of determining the right age for a language is still up for debate, general consensus says that the earlier the better. And even though I took some Spanish lessons at seven, that had me far from even being conversant, let alone fluent.

I really caught the language bug when I was twelve, when I found my mother’s Russian textbooks. I learned the alphabet in about a day or so and I spent the next few years digging through her textbooks. Since the books were written at the start of the Cold War, you can safely guess that I speak the Russian your grandparents spoke (I’ve actually been told that).

 And High School Was When the Language Bug Manifested

My high school only offered French and Spanish; Spanish was the obvious choice my freshman year. I had taken a small interest in theatre, and I decided to take choir for the sophomore one. I never made it to a single choir class; I switched to French my second or third day in. I remember the theater and choir teacher both pulling me out of a class to express their disdain of my choice. I didn’t feel bad then and I don’t now. Both native French speakers and vocal instructors agree with this choice.

I was well-behaved in most of my classes in high school. French and Spanish were definite exceptions. Somewhere around junior year the ‘click’ happened, and I could have a conversation in Spanish. I’d have no problem acting like a complete goof-off in Spanish because I was that bored. I could hold my own in Spanish well-enough that I could argue with the teacher about my grades. He got the right idea to hand me an Italian textbook (he used to teach Italian) and have me read it while we waited for other kids to finish their Spanish tests.

In French, I wasn’t much better. For my first year of French, we had a teacher who spoke the language fluently. She had the funds in the French club account to help take a lot of kids to France. My mother, my grandmother, and a few chaperones with another 20 or so kids went to France. When it wasn’t the tour-guide or the teacher, it was me or just a few other seniors who placed food orders and asked for directions. For the remaining time in high school we had another teacher who only minored in the language in college and had no verbal competency in it. Somehow between she, my mother, and me, we agreed that I needed to take French IV and French III at the same time. The school board wouldn’t allow it, so I took an ‘Independent Study’ my senior year where I read some extra books in French.

I had developed friendships with the German exchange students in high school, too. I picked up a few phrases here and there and found out that I could read German decently: My mother had found an old German textbook story reader. I started reading it. When one of the students approached me and started talking in German, I told her I didn’t understand.  She asked me how I was reading a book in German and I said, “I don’t know, I just am.” She didn’t believe me, opened the book to random pages, and asked me to translate. I did. Successfully.

My the time I left high school I had French and Spanish down pretty well, Italian was good enough that I could tell you what was happening in the un-subtitled parts of the Godfather, and I could at least be considered illiterate in German. I had also given up on Thai after one week when I told that exchange student that her grandmother was dead.

College can Teach You a Thing or Two (about Languages)

I went to Southern Illinois University — Carbondale entering into the Foreign Language and International Trade program. I was doing FLIT for Spanish, and had a second major in French.  It turns out international trade requires knowledge of these things called numbers, and it is apparently a requirement that you be able to do math with them. Even though I was in the advanced math classes in high school, I dropped out after Algebra II my sophomore year.

Since my HS guidance counselor told me I didn’t need to worry about math on account of my languages— I gleefully accepted her guidance. Fast forward to college. You need to take three pre-requisite math classes before you can take the one math class required for your major. You’re in math 108. It’s you and the entire football team. The coach comes in to the class to wake them up. They’re taking this class because they need to graduate. You’re taking it to get through two more before you can take calculus. You’re headed down the wrong path. And your guidance teacher was an idiot.

I maintained my double-majors in French and Spanish all through college. I switched out my third major from business to economics to criminal justice. Because of those constant third-major switcheroos, I had enough hours for two full degrees.

The difference between humility and humiliation is simply a matter of who does it

I was cocky my freshman year and tried to skip from the 201 Spanish classes to 301. It was because I thought holding a conversation in the language was enough. Four years of Spanish get you into the 200-level courses off-the-bat. Intricate knowledge of grammar, syntax, and not asking the professor when she got her doctorate might possibly get you to the 300-levels. And bragging about speaking three languages is probably a better idea in the glass-blowing program than the language department. The head of the language department and Spanish program was Greek. All of my Spanish profs spoke at least three.  I had a French professor who wasn’t sure if she spoke five or eight; I guess if you’re a Hungarian who studied at the Sorbonne and learned native-level Polish from friends, that’s a problem you can have.

I took a single Chinese class (Mandarin) and loved it enough to almost consider it a minor. I even took private Mandarin lessons the following semester. I couldn’t read more than ten characters of the language, but I could speak it decently enough that it surprised my friends from Taiwan.  I would meet with the Japanese students from my church to trade Spanish for Japanese lessons. I could crack jokes about being a dumb American.

Somewhere I got the bug for Hebrew. I learned the alphabet and then bought a Hebrew-English Tanakh. Knowing only about three words of Hebrew, I did a lot of find-and-compare between Hebrew and English until I got to Psalms and could read it decently. I read it a bit like I read German; I didn’t know why words meant what they did, but I just knew what the meanings of words were.

I left college having added Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and Hebrew. Though I never dived deep into Japanese, I still went farther than the one week I feigned interest in Polish on account of a few cute girls thinking it was cute that I wanted to learn it.

Being an International Guy at an International Company

After my wife and I moved to Texas, she found a job at a company called Mannatech. She started in the call center and found out they needed someone who could speak French. Eager to do anything other than clean swimming pools in another Texas summer, I opted for getting yelled at in French-Canadian. I was hired as a French rep in the call center… and then they found out that I could speak Spanish. I ended up being the voice on the call prompt who said, ‘press two for Spanish.’ That makes it twice as fun to talk to the xenophobes having a problem about “pressing one for English.”

One day someone got a Portuguese call and asked if I could take it. Turns out that speaking Portuguese isn’t too different from speaking Spanish under water…or while drunk. So I managed to fake speaking Portuguese well enough to place an order once in a while. We had a few Jewish callers that inspired me to learn modern Hebrew. We had enough Korean callers that I figured I should at least learn a few phrases before I transfered the call to our Korean reps. And then I ended up in the web marketing department.

Mannatech is currently in 21 countries. They were in six when I started and 17 when I left. So starting as a content producer in the web department was perfect for me. Korean is really phonetic; find-and-figure-out between an English translation isn’t too rough once you can sound it out.  I also figured out that Danish and Dutch weren’t overly different from German; you just have to start with the similarities and then use English as a baseline for learning the differences. Swedish and Norwegian weren’t very close at all to the more Germanic ones, but if you’re paying attention to the English translations, you figure out the syntax and then discover that between those two, the vocabularies aren’t too different. For Simplified Chinese you learn that this is false advertisement, and that Japanese should always get the modifier “Complicated”.

During my five years at Manntech, I had officially attempted and given up on two languages: Arabic and Hindi. It took me approximately three months to learn the Arabic alphabet. Since I had learned Russian, Hebrew, Greek, and Korean alphabets each in under a day, this was a huge departure. I never got farther than a few Arabic phrases and I still can’t read it well enough to sound it out. I absolutely gave up on Hindi (50 characters, come on!). As we had a lot of Indians in the IT department, it seemed prudent to try Hindi. It wasn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever made it passed “how are you?”

When I left Mannatech I could sound out and read some Korean. And just like with German, I could read Danish, Dutch, Swedish, and Norwegian well-enough to figure out what they were saying; I could never really write or translate, but I could figure out when the translation was off.

And Now I’m Focusing on the Middle East

For the last two years I’ve focused a lot of my energy on Modern Hebrew. Unlike the other languages I’ve studied, I’ve focused more on speaking the language than I have on reading it. Because I want to go on one or several mission trips to Israel, oral proficiency is important to me.  And I have an undying love for the nation and its people.  Pimsleur’s courses  and Barron’s “Mastering Hebrew” have paved the way for the first language I’ve learned to speak completely without a classroom or friends.

A few weeks ago, I took a poll on Facebook and decided to go back to Farsi. I tried to learn it while at Mannatech, but since I’d needed to know the Arabic to read it, and we all know how that worked out… This time around, I’m starting with Pimsleur to gain competence in speaking it and adding in some reading for the vocabulary boost. It’s so much easier to read a language when you can speak it, first that the alphabet seems like a breeze.

There’s no Gift in Learning Languages

A lot of people want to say that I’m gifted in languages. I’m not.  I love learning them. When you do something you have a passion for, you’ll do it better than anything else. The more you pursue your passion, the more your pursuits reward you.  Because I loved my high school Spanish classes, I learned to speak the language. You can tell how much I loved math by the fact that I count with my fingers.

Anyone can learn a language

Seriously, you brain doesn’t have a ‘calculus’ region, nor does it have a chemistry or European history region. But it does have a region for languages. Every human on the planet is born with the ability to learn languages.  Your ability to speak your own language, and any other, is pre-programmed.

I’m not a fan of how languages are taught

If you struggled with French or Spanish, or whatever language you took in high school or college, that’s because language education blows. My apologies to all the language teachers in American, but…hold on, scratch that. I don’t apologize for what I’m saying to language teachers of America: you suck at your job.

We spend 4-5 years learning to read a language before learning to read it. We wait another two or three years  before learning grammar. You don’t dive into reading comprehension or full-on composition for a few after that. And yet, you hit year one of high school Spanish having to memorize the alphabet, getting drilled in vocabulary, aggravated with grammar, and fed up with flashcards. Two years later you’re reading stories in it and can’t figure out why the horse has a dollar in his ass (el caballero tiene un dolor en su cuello). Language teachers of America: You don’t teach algebra while you teach how to count; why would you teach grammar before you can even speak the language?

How I really learn languages

Language creates reality. The language(s) you speak are the fabric of how you interpret the world you live in. Think about this for a second: there is nothing “wall-y” about a wall. You don’t know why it’s called a wall. You just know it is a wall. Same thing with ‘dog’ and ‘mother’. The language creates your reality and, when it’s your  native language, you just accept that. When you’re learning your non-native language, you don’t accept the language as a reality. Instead you create a ‘translation barrier’ where you don’t accept ‘pared’. You see a ‘wall’ and then translate  your reality of a wall to mean ‘pared’. And this is how you see your world; you live in English and its translation(s).

I intentionally don’t create a ‘translation barrier’. I don’t do flashcards. I don’t do rote repetition.  In Hebrew, I don’t translate “I want to eat”.  Only my own person can be “Ani”, and no one else. I create this feeling of ‘want’ that makes the work “rotze” the only way to express my desire to have something. And “le-hol” is the thing I do to put food in my mouth. So saying, “Ani rotze le-hol” doesn’t translate to “I want to eat”; “Ani rotze le-hol” just means it.

So rather than memorizing a bunch of words that do nothing to help me think in the language, the moment I learn a word, I look around in my world and start seeing that word.

Grammar sucks, BTW

I don’t do anything  about learning grammar. At all. Grammar is just a description of the language’s rules; just how 2 +2 is not the same as having two jelly beans and getting two more. If grammar just describes how the language works, then it’s useless while you’re learning it. Instead, you just need to learn what sounds right  and what doesn’t. You can only do that by getting hints, clues and phrases from native speakers.   I learned to read Old Testament Hebrew not through grammar books, but by comparing phrases. I just…figured out that you only say certain words in a certain order. Considering that’s how we all learned English, I don’t see this as a bad approach.

In all, my philosophy of language learning is based on how we all learn our first language: Speak it. Read it. Learn about it. Write it. Critically reason in it.

And really, how many do I know?

  • Spanish: Fluent, near bilingual (according to bilingual friends)
  • French: Fluent
  • Hebrew: Conversant
  • Russian: A really good tourist
  • Chinese: A good tourist
  • German, Dutch, Danish: Good enough to actually be called illiterate
  • Korean: Sound out the words, probably won’t cause international incidents placing a food order
  • Japanese: Can’t sound out the words, food orders are probably iffy
  • Swedish, Norwegian: Can assemble Ikea furniture based on these instructions
  • Hindi: Able to prove with ease on a tech support call that your name isn’t ‘Richard’
  • Arabic:  Bad enough to cause an international incident, but good enough to get to the embassy

 More Languages?

Modern Hebrew will keep my focus for at least another year, as will Farsi. I’ll eventually go back to Arabic,and I might pick up Pashto eventually.  My goal is to be able to travel through most of Europe and anywhere in the Middle East. I have a real heart for the people of the Middle East and I’d love to be able to do serious missions there. So I’m pursuing that passion, and I’ll let the pursuit reward me.