As I am going back to my blogging routine, the interviews are back as of now, and I am proud to present my first interviewee from this year, Michele from Italy. I have known him for a while and I am very interested in focus and choices of languages.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself? What is your main occupation?
I am an Italian polyglot. I like to call myself “the Euroglot” or, more recently, “the Wandering Euroglot”, because I love travelling across Europe and learning European languages most of all.
I started to love languages as a teen, when I had French and English at junior high school. Afterwards, I chose to become a translator: I got a BA in Translation and Interpreting, and a MA in Translation, but they weren’t enough for me to actually get a job as a translator. So, for the time being, I just work as an online tutor and language teacher at italki.com, and keep studying languages.
How did you become involved with languages? Did anyone motivate you?
It all started in a very ordinary way, with French and English classes at junior high school. My French teacher was excellent and I must thank her for what she taught me. The summer holidays I’ve been spending in France with my family almost every year also helped me stay motivated and improve my skills. Sadly, my first experience with English was not so good at all, as my junior high school teacher was totally ignorant! After three years, when I went to high school, I could barely make up some short sentences about myself!
However, I had fallen in love with languages and went to a high school focusing on humanities and languages, where I studied French, English, Latin and German. I soon started to learn languages outside school: I began studying Ancient Greek with a retired teacher, and Esperanto on my own during the 1998 summer holidays. I think nobody has ever motivated me to learn languages. It all started spontaneously.
Have your family, loved ones and friends been supportive with your language interests?
Not really. My family members accept it but they would prefer that I would have a well-paid job instead!
Did you ever face a hard moment while learning languages? How did you overcome it?
I often face such moments. There are times when I feel that I suck or that I’m not improving enough. I think this is normal. On the other hand, I don’t really know HOW I overcome these times. I guess I just let the sadness and negativeness go away and then resume my learning activities.
What languages are you currently interested in right now? How do you practice them? What are your life-hacks for that language?
My main languages for this year are Ukrainian and Breton. I’m studying both of them with ASSIMIL courses. I must say the Ukrainian course is a bit too short and simple for me, maybe because I already know Polish and a bit of Russian. For Breton, I was using an old course full of interesting remarks and useful exercises for months, but eventually the lessons had become too long for me to study one per day. Therefore, I have recently started a more up-to-date course with shorter lessons, to see if I can progress faster. In both cases, I mostly listen to the audio of the lesson, then copy the original text and add the translation by hand. I also write the texts and my solution of all the exercises.
I haven’t practised either Ukrainian or Breton much so far, apart from short Facebook chats with Ukrainian friends or the postcards I write to Ukrainian members of postcrossing.com
(check it out if you don’t know what it is, as this project can also help you improve your language skills).
It always takes me long before I feel like starting to talk in a foreign language. While I can already read and write in Ukrainian, it will take me much longer until I can read something in Breton and even longer before I can talk to a native speaker, if I ever find one!
In the beginning, I tend to focus on observing and learning how the language works. I usually know the basic grammar before I can have a fluent conversation because I’ve always cared a lotn about correctness. I know this isn’t a very popular method, but it usually works for me (it worked even very well when I learnt Latin at school: I haven’t forgotten almost anything after 13 years since I finished high school) and my online students also seem to appreciate it. So, my life-hack for learning any language is to deal with grammar since the very beginning, so you will be doing the hardest part of the work when you are still committed, and things will get easier as you progress. I’ve had students who had a broad Italian vocabulary but didn’t master the Italian grammar to the same level. That’s what I always try to avoid.
And here comes a life-hack for those of you who are considering learning Eastern Slavic languages: follow the order Polish-Ukrainian-(Belarussian)-Russian. I’m realizing that the Ukrainian vocabulary is much more similar to the Polish than to the Russian one, so if you learn Ukrainian after Polish, you will already understand quite a lot and will have time to focus on grammar and on the Cyrillic alphabet (you will devote a couple of weeks to learning the handwriting). Knowing Ukrainian will make learning Russian much easier.
Are you interested in a certain language that you know, more or less, you will not be able to learn it properly?
My lifetime goal is to reach an A2 level in all the official European languages. I don’t know if I can make it through, but I’m constantly working in that direction. Among the languages I plan on learning, I fear I may never learn any agglutinative languages well enough. My first try to learn Finnish and Turkish failed (the ASSIMIL Turkish course was to blame, as I found it way too difficult), hopefully things will work better next time.
From time to time, I consider learning non-European languages like Japanese, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, but I always fear they would require too big an effort and I may not stay motivated/committed long enough to reach a satisfactory level. As of this February, I have started learning to write hiraganas in my free time, to see if I can ever start learning Japanese.
Can you tell me a short, positive anecdote about your language learning history?
In June 2013, I travelled to Krakow, Poland, for ten days. I had arranged to stay with four different Couchsurfing hosts and was eager to test my Polish skills with them.
My first host was a guy from Nowa Huta (the Soviet-like area of Krakow), whom I had previously hosted in Italy. He was very welcoming but not so keen on speaking Polish, as he also wanted to practise his English. Anyway, after some talking in English, we started using Polish too.
My second host was supposed to be the most interesting experience of my stay: a cultivated young lady I had been in touch with on Facebook. We shared a few interests and values, so I was looking forward to meeting her and spending time with her, talking about various topics. Sadly, she was busy with her studies and spent most of her time at her desk, alone, so we didn’t share much. What’s more disappointing, she didn’t seem to realize I was still a foreign learner: she spoke very fast and got nervous when I didn’t understand her. This meeting frustrated me quite a bit, and made me think I sucked at Polish.
However, the second part of my stay in Krakow was much more interesting and rewarding! My third hosts were a family with a young mum, (a busy and mostly absent dad) and two children. The mum had a teaching degree and, having two children, she knew very well how to talk to people who are not proficient in Polish. She spoke very clearly and not too fast, so that I could understand almost everything she said. I could also speak well enough, having a patient partner who was willing to help me! But what stroke me the most was that I was even able to talk and make friends with her daughter, who was 8 years old! She was also amazed, because it was the first time she could communicate with a foreign guest!
My last host was a man in his late thirties. He was extremely welcoming and willing to share great moments with me. He drove me outside Krakow to visited interesting places I’d have missed otherwise. He even took me to a typical restaurant in the evening. Meanwhile, we talked quite a lot, and always in Polish!
On the following day, I flew home happy about the human experiences I had had, and confident about my Polish skills.
As you see, it is important to find a language partner who supports and motivates you. An ideal partner should help you with suggestions and corrections, without overwhelming and intimidating you.