Introduction: Meet John Fotheringham. Currently residing in Los Angeles, John has spent considerable time writing and working on his website while learning new languages. His website, LanguageMastery.com, focuses mostly on helping adult learners in language acquisition although language learners of all levels will find his articles interesting and thought-provoking. Focusing mainly on several East Asian languages, John, has also dabbled in few others as well. He promotes self-guided immersion as a method for language learning and implores his readers to be masters of their own language goals. John also shares life lessons on his website that he has learned. For more on John, please check out his site concept here. 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 bit about you.
My name is John Fotheringham and I’m a “languaholic”. I am originally from Seattle, but have spent most of the past 10 years living abroad (Japan, Bangladesh, and Taiwan). I now reside in Los Angeles where I split my time between writing, learning, and taking care of my 5-year-old nephew.
2.) What languages do you speak and to what capacity?
I speak, read, and write Japanese and Mandarin Chinese at and advanced level, and have dabbled in Spanish, French, Russian, and Korean as well. Given my current locale, I plan to focus most on learning Spanish and Korean this year.
3.) Define communication. How do you think it applies?
To me, communication is simply the ability to understand (and be understood by) others. Spoken and written language obviously plays a major role in this, but so does body language, cultural cues, and unspoken/unwritten expectations. Adult learners often underestimate how much they are able to get across even day 1 in a new language.
4.) How would you define language?
Language is a complex set of oral sounds, hand signals, and written symbols used by animals to communicate information, feelings, ideas, needs, wants, warnings, admonitions, etc.
5.) I’ve read in your website that your approach to linguistics is mastery. I really find this concept quite fascinating as it applies really well to many different aspects of language learning. Can you tell us more about your approach to language learning? Additionally,
why is it important to govern the words that you already know?
Though my site is titled “Language Mastery”, it’s important to first point out that I have a very loose definition of mastery in a language: “The ability to use a language for your communicative purposes.” It does not mean knowing every single word in a language, or making zero mistakes in pronunciation, grammar, or spelling. Even native speakers stumble. The goal should be acquiring enough to understand—and be understood by—native speakers. My approach to language learning is rather simple (though not necessarily “easy”): spend as much time everyday as I can listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Many language learners make the mistake of spending all their time on input only, just listening and reading, never applying (and testing) what they’ve learned in actual two-way output (speaking and writing).
6.) In line with the last question, I enjoyed reading about your self-guided immersion philosophy.“Languages cannot be taught” as you put it. Why do you think it is more practical than traditional language learning?
Traditional language learning methods treat languages as an academic subject that can be learned the same way as geography or mathematics (i.e. force feeding facts into one’s “declarative memory”). The problem with this is that language is much more like a sport that can only be learned through action. Trying to learn a language in a traditional academic way is like trying to learn how to play soccer through a book instead of just going out on the field.
7.) In this process, you mention in your timeline how you learned about why people fail so much when it comes to learning a new language. I find this to be an interesting conversation piece, as consequently, I find that the problem which you mention is also why people do not always gain things from traveling. There is sometimes a lack of engagement. Can you tell us more about your thoughts on this?
There is indeed a lot of similarity between travel and language learning. You will only have a transcendent experience abroad if you jump in with both feet and fully engage in the culture, language, geography, history, etc. Many people spend thousands of dollars to travel or even move abroad only to spend the majority of their time in insulated expat bubbles, waiting away their access to authentic immersion opportunities. On the flip side, we can use modern technology to create an immersion environment no matter where in the world we happen to live. If you don’t have access to native speakers nearby, just get on Skype or one of the myriad language exchange sites. Change the display language on your computer and smartphone. Stream foreign language TV shows and movies online. Listen to podcasts during your commute. Label items in your home and office. The options are endless if you are motivated to learn.
8.) Do you think that there is such a thing as a hard language to learn?
Depending on one’s native language, each new language presents certain advantages and disadvantages. Native speakers of Japanese, for example, have a difficult time learning the sounds of English since it presents so many new sounds not found in their native tongue. On the other hand, they excel with Spanish pronunciation given the similarity of sounds. But no matter the challenges, I don’t believe any language is “difficult”. You just have to get sufficient exposure and practice. The difficult part is staying the course and putting in the time day in and day out.
9.) Is having the ability to speak other languages a hobby for you or is it something that you use professionally? Maybe both?
Both. I no longer work as a translator or language teacher, but language ability is still intricately woven into my professional and social life.
10.) How has being able to communicate in other languages influenced your life?
Speaking foreign languages has opened up many doors that would otherwise have remained shut. This has been just as true for my professional life as for my personal life. While you can travel and do business abroad without a foreign language, you will forever be stuck on the tip of the cultural iceberg. Foreign languages give you the linguistic scuba gear you need to go far below the surface. Or as Frank Smith once said: “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”
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?
Spanish. I’ve already learned a little, but not enough to say yet that “I speak Spanish”. If I didn’t have my uncle duties to attend to, I would get on a plane to Argentina today. But for now, I’m going to leverage the myriad immersion opportunities I have here in Los Angeles and online, doing my best to get as much exposure and practice as I can throughout my day.
12.) Is there a topic in linguistics that fascinates you most? If so, which is it?
I really enjoy comparative and historical linguistics. It has very little to do with actually acquiring languages, but I find it fascinating to compare the syntax, morphology, and phonology of different languages, and see how the evolved and mixed over time.
13.) What advice do you have for people who want to learn a second language?
Just start. You don’t need a lot of money and time. You don’t need expensive classes or materials. You just need sufficient motivation to learn and interest in the culture.
14.) As a fellow lover of life’s important lessons, I ask you, which is a favorite life lesson that you have learned from language learning?
The most important life lesson I’ve picked up through language learning is the critical difference between “studying” and “learning”. While study has its place, real learning only happens when you go out and try to apply the lessons you’ve “studied” in the real world. You quickly realize what actually works, and what’s just theory. You see the myriad exceptions to the rules you’ve been taught. You learn which rules can be bent, and which can be broken.
15.) Closing remarks; feel free to add anything you feel is necessary.
You don’t need to have a gift for languages and you are never too old to start. You don’t need to attend expensive classes or read boring textbooks. You just need the drive to learn and to spend enough time doing the right things (listening, speaking, reading, and writing). Everything else falls into place on its own.
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