Introduction: Today I introduce to you Randy Hunt, of Yearlyglot.com. Randy has worked up a passion for all things international since he was a child and has taken on the goal of becoming a cosmopolitan citizen of the world. His drive to learn about other cultures and Peoples has helped to propel his development in learning languages. He holds true to the ideal that language is a means not an end. I invite you to check out his site and read more about his approach to learning one new language a year. If you would like to read more interviews with language lovers, linguists, localization professionals and polyglots please click here.
1.) Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about you.
Thanks. I’m Randy Hunt and I am a “yearlyglot”. That is, I learn one new language each year. The rest of the time I work as a software developer in Chicago, and I enjoy traveling to just about everywhere else.
2.) What languages do you speak and to what capacity?
Thank you for the specificity; I hate it when people just say “how many languages do you speak?” as if it were either a yes or no to speaking. I speak English natively. I speak Italian, Spanish, and Russian fluently. My German is “near-fluent”, depending on the topic. I can do Turkish and Greek at very basic levels. I understand a good bit of French, and can occasionally keep up with dialog in French films, but I don’t speak it at anything more than a novice level. By virtue of speaking Russian, and with a bit of external influence, I can read and understand a great deal of Polish and Ukrainian and a bit of Macedonian, but I speak very little of them. I can exchange greetings and ask for basic things in Mandarin, Portuguese, and Tagalog. I guess you could say that I know a little about a lot, and a lot about a little.
3.) Define communication. How do you think it applies?
Communication is the means by which one person shares an idea with another person. Whether it’s a bee dancing, a dog raising his tail, a soldier waving a white flag, or an orator speaking behind a podium, they’re all just sharing information. Even a question is really nothing more than sharing the fact that you wish to know something specific. And applying it? I think that’s something we all inherently have a desire to do. We want to share ideas, so even in the lack of a common language, we find ways to communicate.
4.) How would you define language?
For me, language is a formalized framework for communication. If you and I want to share our ideas, we need to agree on a common framework for doing that. If I point up to the sky when I mean “up”, and you understand that, you will also point up to the sky when you want to communicate that to me… and boom! We’ve just formalized one rule of our communication. When we have several of those rules, and apply them all in the same context with each other, we have a language.
5.) What is your approach to linguistics?
Wow, that’s a wide-open question! I’ll answer that in two ways. When the word is used in the formal academic sense, my approach to linguistics is simply one of fascination and curiosity. On the other hand, my approach to linguistics in the sense of language acquisition is pretty simple: I just try to use a language as it would be used. As much as possible, right away, I try to find things to read, say, hear, and write. That may start out with basic sentences and greetings, but I try to get to stories, blogs, articles, jokes, and social media quickly, because that’s consumable and very representative of how a language is really used. (Unlike the contrived conversations in lesson books.)
6.) You mention on your site that you one dreamt of becoming a “cosmopolitan citizen of the world”. That is a noble thing in such a global world. How do you find that language learning fits into this?
With the rapid growth of English worldwide, I’m finding that foreign language acquisition is much less important in this regard than how I envisioned it in my younger years. But that doesn’t mean it’s unncessary. There are always those things you can’t do when you don’t speak the language. And there is also the “English tax” — the higher prices that people pay when it’s known that they’re not local. I’ve witnessed it several times over the years when I got very different treatment than an English-only person, simply because I spoke the local language, even if I did it poorly.
7.) Keeping this in mind, I find that your philosophy on a language being a “means, but not an end” is interesting.
Thanks for bringing that up! It’s a point that is very important to me. As I started to find myself in the online language learning community, I began to notice a disturbing trend among learners: many of them seem to be nothing more than collectors. Hoarders. I see them take pride in shelves of books. I observe their self-satisfaction as they list the number of languages they know. They seem to see the language, or the number of languages, as the end itself, the goal to be the language collector with the biggest collection.
But language is a means not an end! It is nothing more than the conveyance medium used to share information with others. I’m not interested in the number of languages anyone speaks. In fact, I cringe any time that topic is raised. I’m far more interested in the stories people can tell me of the new friend they’ve met. The language in which that happens is mostly meaningless.
I am not a collector. My goal with languages is a simple one: increase the total pool of people who could potentially be new friends. Language is merely a means to that end.
8.) Do you think that there is such a thing as a hard language to learn?
There are aspects of different languages which are more or less difficult for different people. One person may have a great ear for accents, but a terrible memory for vocabulary. Another person may be a whiz at declining nouns, but completely unable to roll their R’s. In this way, particular aspects of a language can make it “hard to learn” for people to whom those aspects are difficult.
But I think all of these details have far less of an impact than the simple lack of people with whom to use the language. If you’re in Greece, forced to speak Greek, you will figure out how to do it. But if you’re living in a small suburban home in Kansas, it’s too easy to let those difficult parts of the language dominate your thinking until you give up. So what makes a language hard to learn is the volume of opportunity for you to use it, and the depth of your motivation.
9.) Is having the ability to speak other languages a hobby for you or is it something that you use professionally? Maybe both?
There isn’t much call for foreign language speaking in my line of work, those I have had a few instances when people turned to me when working on localization of web site content or application interfaces. Also, there was one moment when a company where I worked used a piece of open-source software that was written by a Russian. When we had some trouble with the software, I was able to open a dialog with the original developer and get help with our problem. That was exciting for me.
I would say that learning “as a hobby” is a closer description in my case, because I do get pleasure from the learning, and because I’m so fascinated by languages. However, as I’ve said above language is a means to an end for me. My primary motivation is to meeting fascinating new people, to make friends from other places, to learn about their culture, to travel, to visit.
10.) How has being able to communicate in other languages influenced your life?
Skill in other languages has had several unexpected effects on my life. It’s only after learning other languages that I ever learned to see my own native English in a completely objective way. I’ve become a better speaker and writer in English solely as a byproduct of learning Spanish, German, and Russian. I’ve learned to speak more directly and passionately as a result of learning Russian and Italian. In many ways, the way I use English is a byproduct of several other languages.
I’ve also made some amazing and inspiring friends around the world as a result of my ability to speak their languages. I have fond memories of walking with friends through a city park in Uzbekistan reciting tongue-twisters in Russian. And I have made a life-long friend who is like a sister to me, whom I would never have met if not for speaking Italian.
And then there’s the blog. Languages led to my blog, and my blog continues to change my life all the time. I have spent years meeting interesting and inspirational people, people who I consider to be friends, all because they started by sending me an email about my blog. And sometimes,the emails I get life my soul, sometimes on days when I need it the most.
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?
With the exception of a brief effort to learn very basic phrases several years ago I don’t speak Lithuanian, and with so much Lithuanian heritage in my genes, I’d really like to learn the language, travel to Lithuania, and learn more about my family’s roots. If I were to begin that task today, I would start by finding resources online where I could begin reading and listening to content in Lithuanian. Then I would try to spend time in the areas in my city where Lithuanians spend time, and try to get to know some of them in order to start using the language. I might even post an ad on Craigslist looking for someone to spend time speaking with me one evening a week. Anything I can do to get myself speaking and understanding the language.
12.) Is there a topic in linguistics that fascinates you most? If so, which is it?
Most of it fascinates me! I love grammar. I love conjugation. I love syntax. I love slang. But my favorite might be etymology. When I learn that sorriso in Italian and sonrisa in Spanish both mean smile, but sunrise in English means something completely different, my imagination immediately sets off on a wild journey postulating on how that might have come to be. I’m fascinated by languages. The Russian word залетела literally means “she flew into [someplace]”, but today that word is mostly used when a girl gets “knocked up”, which sends my mind down endless avenues wondering who first used it that way and why that meaning had more traction than the literal meaning.
13.) What advice do you have for people who want to learn a second language?
The best advice I could give to anyone learning any foreign language is to stop trying to study it. Language is not a fact. It is not something to be memorized. Language is a skill, and the only way to acquire a skill is by doing. There is no other way. You have to start out being not good, and do it over and over, and eventually get good. You can’t do that by memorizing vocabulary, or by browsing flashcards, or by being incrementally rewarded for meaningless tasks. Decide that you’re going to use the language, then do it. Start simple and build.
14.) With respect to one of your recent blog posts on being an ambassador to your home land, I found this really interesting: “I believe that as travelers we are always representing our origins whether we like it or not, and we also represent where we come from whether it be Dhaka, Dushanbe, La Paz, or Timbuktu.” How do you find that speaking other languages ties into this? Does it at all?
It definitely does, and especially for native English speakers. Perhaps one of the most well-known stereotypes about English speakers is that they think they can go anywhere and get by, just speaking English — and that’s turning out to be more and more true every day, but that’s actually a rather vain way to go through the world. The implications are terrible: “the world is here for me to enjoy, and you must all learn my language if you want the benefit of my travel dollars.” How horrible.
Any attempt at all to speak to someone in their native language can immediately prevent that perception. Even if you do it badly, and end up carrying out the rest of the interaction in English, the implication changes to one where you are a person who respects their culture enough to try, even failing miserably, to speak to them on their terms, rather than on yours.
15.) Closing remarks; feel free to add anything you feel is necessary.
Well, I’ll start by thanking you for the interview, and the excellent questions! In the four years since I started my blog, I’ve been continuously amazed at the interest people have. In all my life, I never imagined people having much interest in the things I have to say, but the online community has proven that untrue. There have been several times when I’ve begun to feel disheartened, and considered just giving up and letting the whole thing go, when out of the blue I’ll receive an email from someone thanking me for the work I put into it, or even just asking me for help. Recently, it’s been months since I wrote anything there, yet I still get new followers almost every day. It’s all very humbling. I’m very fortunate. So rather than use those closing remarks to preach about languages, I just want to extend my sincere thanks to you, and to anyone who takes time to read this. Thank you.
Previous Interviews with Language Lovers
Sam Gendreau an International Affairs student with a Lingholic passion for languages.
See other interviews by me!
More interviews on Backpacking Diplomacy: