Interview with Richard Benton from Loving Language

This week I am feauturing yet another interview with another language blogger. Richard is from the US and his blog is devouted to cultural understanding through languages and his learning experience. He even has a complete list of resources devouted to Somali.


Can you tell me a bit about yourself? What is your main occupation?

I received my PhD in Hebrew and Semitic Studies, and I previously taught Ancient Hebrew, Jewish History, and Comparative Religion at various universities, both in the US and in Ukraine and Lebanon. I discuss these sorts of topics at “The Bible as Literature” podcast.

Currently, I work in IT at a global, US-based corporation. I work on finding gaps and problem-solving, which often forces me to interact with teams in multiple countries, especially China and Russia. I co-chair our company’s Employee Resource Group for Global Mindset, as well.

How did you become involved with languages? Did anyone motivate you?

I had a friend who studied French in middle school. I thought it sounded fun, so I decided to do the same. Then, over the summer, I took an intensive Latin class. The following summer, I took an intensive German class. That German class hooked me. (I blogged about that class at “On pronunciation and memorization: A eulogy for Dr. Thomas Coates.”)

My mom always loved interacting with other cultures, which got me interested. As a natural introvert, she wasn’t so great with languages, but she was always trying. I remember listening to her language tapes when she drove me around in the van. She traveled a lot, and passed on her Wanderlust. Back in the 1960s, she traveled through Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe, and the Middle East. As a family, we traveled to Switzerland, France, and UK, and she visited me in Kiev and Marrakech when I was living in each. Even now at 70 years old, she just got back a couple weeks ago from Chile, Easter Island, Argentina, and Tierra del Fuego. She put into my genes the desire to learn about other cultures, people, and places.

Have your family, loved ones and friends been supportive with your language interests?

Too much so, maybe! My family traveled to Europe when I was in high school, after I had learned some French and a little German. My mom would send me to the train conductor to figure out if we were on the right train, and would have me order at the restaurants in France. Honestly, I hated it! When she heard languages being spoke, she would say, “Rich, go talk to them!”

My grandfather would get some new electronic gadget, where the instructions were in multiple languages. He would send the instructions to me in the mail.

My father was hoping I would get a job in international law or something, so I could make some decent money off of my languages.

Now my wife is very understanding of me. When I hear another language, I’m totally tuned in. If we’re eating in a restaurant, and she sees that “look” in my eyes, she smiles and stops talking, knowing that I’m not really hearing her any more. She is very patient with my love of languages.

My kids get embarrassed when I talk so much to strangers when we go out. At the same time, one asked if I might come speak to one of her classes.

But now it’s my turn. As a father, I try to impress the importance of languages on my children and their friends. I convinced them that we should have an exchange student this year, and we’re loving it!

I came across your latest piece about the reality of knowing and speaking foreign languages in the US, which was quite shocking and inspiring. How has been the reaction of other US citizens?

Most US citizens get nervous hearing another language being spoken. Some get indignant when they are asked on the phone, “Press 1 to continue in English.” Many immigrants train themselves to keep their voices low when speaking another language in public. Physical attacks are very rare, but the tension is common.

As native English speakers, I feel that we have a duty to cut this tension. We can learn their language. Let them have a break while I take the stigma for sounding weird onto myself!

Have you ever faced a hard moment while learning languages? How did you overcome it?

When I lived in Morocco, the family I lived with would often make jokes about me. It wasn’t personal; Moroccans are always teasing each other. I was so frustrated, though, that I couldn’t figure out exactly what they were saying or how to respond. I think I ended up yelling at them about it at least one time.

In reality, I was frustrated with myself, not with them. I overcame the problem by learning patience, that you can’t learn languages quickly. You only learn languages through perseverance.

What languages are you currently interested in right now? How do you
practice them? What are your techniques for that/those language(s)?

I’m focusing on learning Somali now. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St Paul contains around 50,000-70,000 Somalis, so you can hear the language all over. I mostly memorize words, and then go to a Somali café for a tea and sambusa for breakfast when I get the opportunity. When I get to the Somali parts of town I usually look for strangers who don’t appear busy and ask them questions. I write down what I learn, and then try to memorize it. I also listen to a Somali-language Australian SBS radio podcast.

I speak a little Amharic and a little Oromo, and I try to learn new words now and then when I run into speakers. I work with a native Amharic speaker, and he teaches me phrases from time to time.

At work I started a Spanish and a German table. We get together over lunch and practice our languages.

I started listening to Russian and German podcasts, just to keep my ear active. When I meet over video with my colleague in Russia, we conduct our meetings in Russian.

Are you interested in a certain language that you know, more or less, you won’t be able to study?

I can’t imagine what that would be. I didn’t know what Oromo was, and then a couple years ago I ended up studying it because I found a class on Saturday mornings. I love all languages, but I’m loving more the languages around me. And then I find out that there are way more languages around me that I thought. What will be my next Oromo?

Can you tell me a short, positive and funny anecdote about your language learning history?

I’ve accidentally sworn in multiple languages. When I was an exchange student in France, the teacher once asked if the class wanted to take the exam on the day planned or the following week. I said, “I don’t care,” and the class exploded in laughter. Even the teacher was unsuccessfully holding in chuckles. My friend turned to me and said, “You should say, ‘Ça m’est égal.’” This literally means, “It’s all the same to me.” I had said, “Je m’en fous,” which means roughly, “I don’t give a fuck.” The phrase is used commonly—but not in the classroom!

I learned that I better be ready to laugh at myself if I’m going to learn languages. Learning a language, I speak like a child, so I better be ready to sound like a child! It also taught me a little of the feelings that immigrants around me experience every day, so I learned some sympathy.