Introduction: Sam is a polyglot, writer, and M.A. student in International Affairs behind the website www.lingholic.com. He’s been passionate about learning languages for over 6 years, and since his addiction started, he’s never looked back once. From Korean to Chinese, including Spanish and Portuguese along the way, Sam has gained considerable experience in the acquisition of foreign languages. Read more about Sam and read his insightful posts on his website here. He has many great reviews, language learning tips as well as just general thoughts on language. Additionally, if you are interested in reading interviews from other language lovers please check out this series.
1.) Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about you.
My name is Sam and I’m a passionate traveler and language learner. My addiction for languages started over 6 years ago, and I’ve never looked back once since then! Over the past several years I’ve lived and traveled in Oceania, Southeast and East Asia, and across North America. I’m currently completing graduate studies in International Affairs in Canada.
2.) What languages do you speak and to what capacity?
My mother tongue is French, and I have learned English, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, and Mandarin Chinese to varying degrees of fluency. I would consider my English to be native-like. Apart from that, my Korean could be qualified as advanced, Spanish and Portuguese intermediate, and Mandarin Chinese elementary. Of course, these labels are subjective and ultimately, I prefer not to ascribe any such labels when possible.
3.) Define communication. How do you think it applies?
Communication is, of course, a very broad term that encompasses a range of conceptions and meanings. Communication can be approached from various perspectives, but from the approach of a language learner, I see communication as ultimately a window to exploring and understanding different world views. In other words, communication is how we connect with other human beings and share our different understandings of the world and, more generally speaking, interact socially.
4.) How would you define language?
Language is another very broad term that encompasses a large range of meanings. When we speak of a “language” as in the languages spoken by humans around the globe, an ultimate definition would necessarily have to be, in my view, political. There is a popular adage that says that “A language is a dialect with an army,” which seems largely true. In a broader sense, though, language could be thought of as any means of communicating and interacting with others.
5.) What is your approach to linguistics?
Linguistics is the scientific study of language, and I claim to be no linguist if defined in such a way. If you mean, rather, how I approach the acquisition of foreign languages in general, I would say that I approach it in an inductive manner (or “top-down”). I see language acquisition as much more efficient when learned in context (both grammatically and culturally), and as such when learned in “chunks” rather than in dissociated parts. For these reasons, one of my favourite language method is Assimil.
Ultimately language is organic, cultural, and interactive by nature, and I always try to keep these aspects in mind when learning a foreign language. In the end, the process needs to be enjoyable and rewarding. When it ceases to be that way, something needs to be changed!
6.) You explain that your passion for learning languages was sparked a little over 6 years ago now. What gave you the initial interest in language learning?
I boarded a plane headed for Australia, where I ended up living for nearly 2 years. Over in Down Under I met travelers from all four corners of the world, and that initially sparked my interest in languages. More significantly, Australia is the place where I met my partner, with whom I am still together with, and from then on I started learning Korean.
7.) In this process, you also mention that you found a few unique techniques that work for you. How do they differ from mainstream approaches and what do you think has helped you to be successful in language acquisition?
I wouldn’t say that the techniques I have been using are “unique,” but they do differ from the “mainstream” approaches commonly thought of. I think the wide majority of people out there see language learning as something that absolutely has to be done in a classroom setting. It’s quite interesting if you think about it: most people who learn a skill which can be thought of as a hobby or a necessity (surfing, driving, cooking, website building, etc.) usually either take a few courses and learn the remaining on their own, through practice, or either learn it from friends, over the internet or through books, or through any combination of these ways.
I see foreign languages as no different from such activities. I think that with the advances in technology and the amazing array of resources that the internet has brought, learning a language in a self-directed way has never been easier. Ultimately, it’s all about getting to know yourself as a learner and seeing what works best for you. As hinted at above, I learn mostly using a “top-down” approach, and after having gone through a beginner textbook in the early stages, I usually try to switch as soon as possible to more interesting and diversified content, such as movies, music, TV series, and of course, conversations with actual people!
8.) Do you think that there is such a thing as a hard language to learn?
Objectively speaking, some languages are naturally harder than others. There is no doubt that languages that are further apart from one’s native language (in terms of language family and heritage) will require more work. Grammar is also significantly harder in some languages (Korean, Japanese, Russian) and significantly more simple in others (Mandarin Chinese, Malay/Indonesian, etc.). On the other hand, some alphabets are much easier to learn in some cases, whereas a language such as Chinese uses thousands of characters that need to be memorized.
Subjectively speaking, culture can play a big role, and is intimately tied to language. So if you’re learning a language but you don’t like the culture very much, the road will be a lot rougher. Lastly, if you’re interested in learning, say, Vietnamese but couldn’t care less for French, it will probably come to you easier to learn the former simply because of your passion and interest for it. If you find something incredibly boring to learn and you see it as a chore, chances are you will not fare that well (there are always exceptions, of course).
9.) Is having the ability to speak other languages a hobby for you or is it something that you use professionally? Maybe both?
For the present moment, it’s something that I enjoy as a hobby. However, given my field of study, International Affairs, I have no doubt that the ability to speak other languages will come in handy one day or another throughout my professional career.
10.) How has being able to communicate in other languages influenced your life?
Languages have profoundly changed my life. I believe the largest benefit I have drawn from them is that I have gotten to know different cultures and understand different perspectives of the world, and of course along the way I have met a lot of really interesting people that I would never have met otherwise. It’s been a wonderfully mind-opening experience; it’s kind of like the “Matrix” movie: once you’ve had a taste of being “out” of the matrix, it’s hard to go back as you realize a whole new different world going on around you that wasn’t apparent before.”
11.) Which language would you really like to speak, but do not currently? If you were to begin learning that language today, how would you start?
There are too many languages I’d really like to speak, but this year I’ve decided to begin learning Urdu (the national language of Pakistan, very closely related to Hindi). I’ve actually started learning it very recently, and for the time being I will start by learning the alphabet (something you should always do, the exception being languages that use pictographs/ideographs as opposed to an alphabet). I’ll then go through the Urdu Teach Yourself book, and I’ll hopefully get to practice speaking it with friends as often as possible.
12.) Is there a topic in linguistics that fascinates you most? If so, which is it?
The topic in linguistics that fascinates me the most is the relationship between language, culture, thought, and ultimately identity. Whether one begins with language, culture, or thought, the other two are woven in; these three points are in a constantly flowing circular continuum, with each influencing and being influenced by each of the others. And that’s what I find so fascinating about languages. Ultimately we are all cultural beings, the product of our own culture.
13.) What advice do you have for people who want to learn a second language?
Start NOW. Believe you can do it. Do a little bit of it, every single day. Believe me, it’s all about consistency and attitude. And learn as much as you can about the culture and whatever that interests you about the language and the country (or countries) that speak it. And of course, read my blog 🙂
14.) As a fellow student of International Relations/Affairs, I am curious in knowing how you think that language learning relates to diplomacy?
I think foreign languages should have a bigger place in the study of International Relations/Affairs. Too many theorists and practitioners in the field of International Relations have too little knowledge of foreign tongues. We see “experts” on the Middle East and on various other parts of the world all over the place, yet how many of them actually speak the local dialect of the region they study?
I honestly think that if everybody learned a foreign language, sought to understand how others perceive the world, and understood that we are ultimately all cultural beings, we would live in a much better world. I do not mean, however, that we should force people to learn a foreign language. Rather, a curiosity for the outside world and for diversity should be fostered from a young age; the rest will follow.
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