Introduction: Ellen is a grammar freak, a former freelance writer, and a founder and principal of Syntaxis, a communication skills training firm based in New York City. She has a B.A. in German from Harvard and an M.A. in comparative literature from UCLA. Ellen lives with her husband, Brandt Johnson, in a wildly polylingual apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and can often be found walking or running around the city listening to language lessons. She began a language quest in 2009 to learn as much as she can about the languages spoken in New York City. Definitely check out her website when you get a chance. She has an interesting overview and breakdown of the languages that she’s studied including some resources. Her website can be viewed here. Additionally, if you are interested in reading interviews from other language lovers and localization professionals please check out this series.
1.) Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about you.
I am a writer in New York City. For my entire adult life I have made my living either as a writer or as a teacher of writing. Language is magical for me.
Since 2001, my husband and I have had a communication skills training company, Syntaxis, through which we run seminars for corporate clients in presentation skills, email etiquette, business writing, and grammar.
Those classes are all in and about English, but I studied three different foreign languages in school. Over the years, those skills slowly slipped away, and my life focused increasingly around English.
Five years ago, after thinking very carefully about what subjects interested me most, I finally returned to foreign language study and have been obsessed with it ever since. My daily life now revolves around words more than ever before. When I am not teaching a Syntaxis class, I am working on foreign languages.
2.) What languages do you speak and to what capacity?
Always a painful question for me, because I am a perfectionist type obsessed with grammar. My skills naturally wax and wane depending on what I am using and studying. I have achieved quite a high level in German, Spanish, and French, but I make too many mistakes for my tastes, especially right now, because I haven’t done much with those in the past few months. I have tested very high in Italian and would do fine if I were stranded in Italy with no English speakers around, but I would require at least a warmup week or two to converse smoothly. I know quite a lot of Portuguese, but my oral skills are way weaker than my reading skills at present. I know things about a dozen other languages besides that, but that knowledge is highly fragmented, and the ones mentioned here are the only five where I believe I would currently be able to operate without major handicaps were I to be stranded in a foreign country with no recourse to English.
3.) Define communication. How do you think it applies?
Gosh.[Long pause for thinking.] [More pausing, plus some squirming.]
In human life, the conveyance of meaning from one person to another, mostly but not exclusively through words.
4.) How would you define language?
Language draws on a pool of mutually agreed upon signs and symbols, for ideas both concrete and abstract, so that we don’t have to sit around playing charades all day long to convey ideas such as the need to go the bathroom or a desire for an egg-and-cheese omelet. (Plus a few other more complex ideas, too!)
5.) What is your approach to linguistics?
I am no linguist. I seriously would like to know more about linguistics, but I am not drawn enough to it as a field in comparison with language-learning itself. I investigated linguistics as a major in college and realized it just wasn’t a match for my brain. The jargon and academic texts of linguistics do not resonate for me, at least not so far, and I have been around for more than a few years now. I am very untheoretical. I like to get right down in the ditches and just start shoveling words.
6.) You are currently working on a project to learn the languages of New York? Can you explain this to us? How is your progress coming along? Have you made any cool discoveries through it?
In the summer of 2009, I decided I wanted to spend a year studying a bunch of very different languages spoken around New York, to see how far I could get in a short period of time. I wanted exposure to my first non-Western languages, and I adore New York, so I thought exploring the city through language would be cool. City as urban language lab—that was the idea!
I expected to be done by the summer of 2010, but I was completely seduced. I kept adding languages, all the way through last fall, when I hit my 17th language. Typically I spent three months per language, and I studied them serially, one at a time. Most of them are languages spoken by large numbers of New Yorkers (Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Hindi, Polish, etc.), but some of them are languages that I considered more important to its past than its present: Dutch, Irish, and Yiddish.
I roamed around the city a lot, visited interesting shops, volunteered at different organizations in exchange for learning opportunities, and came across worlds in New York that I had never realized were here. I blogged about those adventures, and the languages themselves, and the products I used, too.
Increasingly these days I am turning my attention to product reviews. I am interested in finding and recommending the best products for other learners, as well as refreshing and reinforcing my own knowledge. There are many products whose performance does not live up to their hyperbolic marketing campaigns, and many underexposed products that people should know more about.
7.) In this process, which language has been the most exciting for you to learn? Was there one that just came naturally to you?
I loved loved loved Italian. I knew no Italian when I started except maybe a few menu words, and I couldn’t stop studying for three months straight. I would sometimes sit there the entire day going from one study resource to another. Hours and hours and hours. In three months I went from zero knowledge to testing quite high on Alta Language Services tests in oral and written skills. I don’t know how scientific their results are, but I scored higher in Italian after only three months of self-study than I did in languages I had studied for years.
8.) Do you think that there is such a thing as a hard language to learn?
Absolutely. If the gap between your native or other languages and the new target language is very significant, how could it not be hard? All right, let me restate that: for me it’s hard. I can’t account for everyone out there!
Korean word order, for example, is very challenging for me. Before this project I really didn’t realize how many languages did not follow the subject-verb-object word order I was accustomed to in English. My brain is really wed to that order, and it is not a simple matter to quickly produce a different sequence in a foreign language.
However, who said things were supposed to be easy? Serious language skills require a great deal of work.
Fortunately, things that hurt are often good for you, and they bring their own kinds of pleasures and rewards. Language learning can be frustrating, but when that is balanced with the joy of new abilities and the opening of new worlds, you won’t mind so much. I happen to laugh at myself a lot, and that helps.
Another, more practical issue: one thing that can make a particular language really hard is a lack of study materials. Rarely studied languages, for instance, or languages that are mostly oral—those can be tough, unless you just go live where they are spoken.
9.) Is having the ability to speak other languages a hobby for you or is it something that you use professionally? Maybe both?
As the years pass, my foreign-language obsession is merging more and more with my business work through Syntaxis. At the very least, it makes me a better teacher in English, as I have many non-native speakers in my business writing seminars. I have a growing understanding of the direct causes of their mistakes in English. Studying languages also makes me more knowledgeable about world cultures, and people from other parts of the world appreciate when Americans are not indifferent to other ways of speaking and thinking.
I am considering more and more these days how people can use foreign languages in their professional lives—how to promote that skill and deploy it to make a better living, or a kind of living that will be more rewarding to them. I firmly believe that skills in any language are profoundly valuable, but that you sometimes have to be a bit entrepreneurial to extract that value. Better grammar, better writing, better speaking—in your own language and in other languages—can open doors to many opportunities. I think this fundamental truth is not enough appreciated in the world. It is a message I try to convey in my teaching on a regular basis.
10.) How has being able to communicate in other languages influenced your life?
It makes me extremely happy. I see lost tourists around New York City all the time, and I am often able to help them in their native languages. My brain just loves switching around from English to other languages. I don’t know why, but I appreciate it—very, very profoundly. I also love when previously tuned-out signs suddenly come into focus and become truly visible to me. I mean, I can see signs all over New York all the time in foreign languages, but when I look again and for the first time know what they are saying, it is a massive source of pleasure.
I feel much more like a citizen of the world than I did five years ago. I have more friends in other countries and from other countries. It’s a great feeling.
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?
This is an extremely painful question. You are making me choose? Agh!
Chinese or Arabic.
Yes, I know that is two.
I do have some beginner’s skills in each, but if I could snap my fingers and speak one, I guess I would currently pick…Arabic. If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said Chinese.
I am fickle.
12.) Is there a topic in linguistics that fascinates you most? If so, which is it?
May I take the liberty of changing “linguistics” to “language-learning”? I want to promote the idea of self-study. Too many people feel too dependent on classes—which are marvelous, wonderful, amazing vehicles for learning—but there is so much that can be learned independently, and I would love to see more high-quality products available, and a culture that values the acquisition of these skills.
If people wait around until they have enough time to take a class every Tuesday and Thursday night from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., they in many cases just won’t get around to learning a language at all.
I would love to lecture regularly to retired people, to encourage them to take up language studies. It would enhance their travels, keep their minds active, and remind them that anything is possible at any age. If they get to a point where they stop being able to travel, they could have Skype pals around the world and be connected in a way that was never possible before.
So yes, I want to pursue autodidacticism in language learning.
13.) What advice do you have for people who want to learn a second language?
Order a language product online right this second and start using it immediately. If it is electronic, you can download it and begin as soon as you stop reading this sentence! Or sign up for a class online, now. If you have to wait for a language book to arrive or your new class to start, you can in the meantime go to a free website, such as Memrise, and start studying on your own. Or you can do a free Pimsleur audio lesson in a whole bunch of languages on the Pimsleur website. Now. There are so many free resources online. Within 15 minutes of reading this sentence, you could acquire a little French or Russian or even Chinese! Nothing and no one can stop you!
With the internet and Skype and Skype-like tools, you can learn anywhere, any time, at any age. Much of success in life comes from ignoring naysayers at appropriate moments, so if you are surrounded by people who tell you that you are too old or that there is no practical benefit to studying Basque or Hebrew or Swahili, just put on a big pair of noise-canceling headsets and start listening to a language lesson instead.
14.) Closing remarks; feel free to add anything you feel is necessary.
My website is designed to help people pick learning tools that suit them. I have a searchable database of hundreds of product reviews for the 17 languages I have studied to date, and I am constantly adding new products to it. Just select a language and browse through the resources to see what might appeal to you. If you don’t like something, I encourage you to try something else. Everyone is different.
Also, when I am studying a language, I use several different products at once. That way if I get lost in one, I can turn to another for a bit until I regain my bearing. It’s like having a few teachers hanging out in your living room helping you figure out something magical and beautiful that until that very moment was totally hidden from view!
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