Fresh off the press and some classics
Linguist Interview with Kieran Maynard

Linguist Interview with Kieran Maynard

Introduction: Kieran is a passionate language learner and student of linguistics. He has spent the last few years of his life gaining extended experience in writing, editing, and translation and is particularly passionate about East Asian culture. His has an extensive résumé, and he is eager to continue helping others to reach their language-learning goals as he continues to study new languages. You can check out Kieran’s language tips and follow his journey on his website here, and see more from this series Interviews with Linguists series here. Stay tuned for future interviews with language lovers and localization professionals.

 

1.) Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about you.

My name is Kieran Maynard and I grew up in Atlanta. I studied abroad for about a year each in Fukuoka,

Japan and Shanghai.

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2.) What languages do you speak and to what capacity?

I speak Japanese and Mandarin fluently; Korean and Spanish I am learning and could probably “get by”

as a traveler. I know basic Esperanto, and a little Cantonese and Indonesian, and I’ve dabbled around in

Moroccan Arabic, Turkish, Hindi, French, and lots of other languages.

 

3.) Define communication. How do you think it applies?

Communication is meaningful exchange between sentient beings, which can be an exchange of

information, emotion, meaning, whatever. In the practical sense, between people communication is

trying to understand by listening and looking for information and signals another person gives, and

striving to be understood through the same means.

 

4.) How would you define language?

I follow Dr. William Kretzschmar, my teacher at the University of Georiga. Language is a “complex

system,” meaning a system that develops spontaneously wherever humans strive to communicate

using vocal sounds or hand signs. It’s not “chaotic,” because the patterns that form in language repeat

themselves very often and total breakdown is rare, but it’s not “linear,” because language is clearly

hugely variable and changing all the time. In layman’s terms, a language is the collection of patterns

of sounds/signs that humans use to exchange information and/or express themselves. I use the

intentionally vague expression “express themselves” because I think language is used for more than just

exchanging information, but also to “perform” or “express” oneself, be it an expression of one’s class,

gender, culture, or whatnot.

 

5.) What is your approach to linguistics?

Linguistics was my major in college. I chose linguistics because I thought it would help me learn

languages. Turns out, linguistics can help you learn languages, but that’s not the point of most of

linguistics. I have friends who just love languages as languages. They love rare sounds and rare

grammatical patterns, and learn languages like Icelandic, Swahili and ASL. Sometimes I shared their

excitement, but when I was studying in college I was really impatient to be “good at” a few foreign

languages (first Japanese and then Mandarin) and didn’t want to “waste my time” studying stuff like

Old English. My interests landed me in translation studies, which was somewhere between comparative

literature and linguistics, so I wrote a lot of “linguistically inspired” translation studies papers. Now that

I can speak several languages I find linguistics more and more interesting and I’d considering studying

it again in grad school. I think an introduction to linguistics is very helpful for people who study foreign

languages. It’s kind of like a road map or an instruction manual for languages. You can get by without it,

but things will be easier if you just study some linguistics so you won’t get hung up on small changes and

you will see connections between words in different languages, and won’t be mystified wondering how

chair and chaise are related.

 

6.) Is having the ability to speak other languages a hobby for you or is it something that you use

professionally? Maybe both?

Definitely both. I don’t consider learning languages a hobby any more, since I have probably spent more

time and energy studying languages than anything else in the past five years. I considering learning

languages essential preparation for the kind of cosmopolitan life I want to lead. Since learning Japanese

in Japan I have continually adjusted my life for better studying, meaning eating and sleeping better,

listening to lectures and radio programs and dialogues instead of English music, watching only foreign

language TV shows, and so on. This kind of dedication to a goal was something my life was lacking on

a personal level, and has brought me a great deal of satisfaction. I have made some money tutoring

Chinese, and I may work as a translator. I didn’t learn languages to make money, but I hope to use them

in everything I do, including work.

 

7.) How has being able to communicate in other languages influenced your life?

In specifics, in far too many ways to list here. I’ve met so many friends, eaten so much good food, and

seen and been so many places to which I was led by my pursuit of language study. How many times have

I read something in another language that made me think or live differently, that I may never have read

in English? Learning languages has helped me be more self-conscious, in a good way. I realized I was a

know-it-all and didn’t listen as much as I think I should, and didn’t try as hard as I should to understand

what others say and solicit their input. When you study a language, you have to do those things if you

want good input for yourself, and you can’t be sarcastic or hurtful even if you want to because you

don’t know how (unless you are very good), so learning Japanese taught me to listen better and try to

understand before seeking to be understood. Of course, I’m still working on this aspect of my character.

 

8.) Do you think that there is such a thing as a hard language to learn?

Basically, no. In practice, some languages would probably be very hard to learn. For example, if you

wanted to learn the language of an aboriginal Brazilian tribe with a lot of rare grammatical structures,

that would be really hard, mostly because of the lack of materials. No TV shows or textbooks or native

speakers to talk to or ask questions. There might be grammatical structures or words that have never

been observed in other languages. This would be really difficult and pioneering work, and probably best

attempted by professional linguists, though people who want to study languages like this definitely

should, and there are people like James Michael Campbell, who studies many aboriginal languages in

Taiwan, most of which are on the verge of extinction. When people say that “Russian” or “Arabic” or

“Chinese” is one of the most difficult languages to learn, that strikes me as absurd. How could the most

widespread languages in the word be the hardest to learn? All languages are hard to learn. We learn

our native language(s) early in life and adding new languages is time-consuming. If a language is closely

related to a language you know well, it might be easier to learn, for you. For me, Cantonese is much

more approachable now that I speak Mandarin, but what makes Cantonese “harder” than Mandarin is

not really a linguistic difference (in fact Cantonese pronunciations of Chinese words are often closer to

those in Japanese and Korean than those of Mandarin) but a relative lack of materials. But Cantonese

is still (probably) the easiest non-Mandarin Chinese topolect to learn (for non-Mandarin speakers),

because at least there are lots of materials available online, and native speakers are not hard to find.

I am trying to learn some Sichuanese, which is quite close to Mandarin, but I have to rely entirely on

native speaker teachers/tutors since there aren’t any materials as far as I can find.

 

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9.) 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?

I’d really like to speak Korean and Spanish, because I meet Korean people everywhere I go, and I’d like

to know more about Korean culture and read their literature, and Spanish goes without saying since I

live in the USA. I’d like to speak Indonesian and Cantonese to expand my understanding of the South

China Sea region. If you mean “what language would you like to speak if you could suddenly speak it

without doing any work” I’d probably pick Tibetan or Dzongkha or Navajo or something, since I probably

won’t ever learn these languages because of various difficulties (finding tutors, books, etc.). As for

languages I might really learn but haven’t studied much or at all, I’d say Hindi, Farsi, Arabic, and Turkish,

to better understand another part of the world.

I approach new languages by first looking at the pronunciation (phonetics and phonology), the writing

system, and a frequency list. If it’s a language like Turkish for which my Mac has Text to Speech support,

I will have the computer read some things off Wikipedia (usually about notable writers in that language

that I might want to read), collect some phrases for the most common words and make audio cards

with Anki and the Awesome TTS plugin, look for audio materials with transcripts and subtitles, get a

Lonely Planet phrasebook and flip through that, find some bilingual side-by-side books and grammar

books (usually I can some stuff online), get on italki and find a tutor, etc. So far I’ve only studied widely

spoken languages so I don’t have trouble finding materials like these, and the Mac TTS software is really

amazing. Even languages like Thai and Cantonese are built into the system these days.

I used to think I should only study one language at a time, but after reading an article by Dr. Arguelles

I now think the opposite. For any language I am interested in I like to make a few Anki cards and a tiny

deck just to “get started,” first with the writing system (like I’ve done with Russian, Arabic and Hindi),

then with some high frequency words as used in phrases (or sentences from the Tatoeba database).

That way I have something I can build on if I start to get really interested in a language I haven’t focused

on before. I always have one language that is my priority at any given time. Last month that was

Japanese because of a test I took, and now it’s back to Korean at least until the end of the year. I’m

getting impatient with my slow progress in Spanish so I may work on that.

 

10.) Is there a topic in linguistics that fascinates you most? If so, which is it?

I’m most fascinated by the study of speech. Dr. Kretzchmar has written a book called The Linguistics of

Speech (2009) and I was lucky to be among the first students to hear him lecture using the book after it

was published. The main way that he analyzes language differently than do scholars of the “generativist”

persuasion is as a “complex system” rather than a “linear” one. Using computers and statistics we can

now study speech in or close to its full complexity. To me this is far more interesting than studying

example sentences on paper made up by a linguist somewhere. It’s fascinating to study real speech

as it is spoken, and use statistical analysis to see which sounds, which words, and which patterns are

the most common. This is also hugely important for literature. Some clever netizens in China made a

list of the twenty most common words in Song dynasty poetry, and by simple combining these words

according to the demands of the meter anyone can create beautiful, “authentic” Song poetry! Linguistics

is on the verge of Einstein-level breakthroughs, while the public is still using the “Classical” Greek and

Latin approach to languages. For example, most lay people still think there is a “right” and “wrong” way

to speak their language, that their language is on the decline and the way people spoke in the past was

more “proper,” that you can (or can only) really learn languages through books and language classes,

etc.

 

11.) What advice do you have for people who want to learn a second language?

Listen and repeat, and use Spaced Repetition Software (SRS, like Anki). Most of the problems learners

have, like bad pronunciation and improper use of grammatical forms and words, are due to a dearth of

listening experience and a failure to adapt their own speech. They think too much and listen too little.

People are smart, and want to think their way through grammatical patterns, but learning a language

is more like learning piano than learning chemistry. You need to listen and listen and listen to native

speech, and adjust your speech to match the natives. Match their intonation, enunciation, word use—

everything. Speaking fluently is about having internalized all the basics—words, patterns, sounds—so

that your brain recalls them automatically when you need them. The answer is always more input, and

audio input is the best. Use audiobooks, TV shows with target language subtitles, TTS software—use it

all. And use SRS software to memorize phrases, with TTS audio. It’s far faster and more effective than

diving into native speech head first or wading in the baby pool of tepid language courses.

 

12.) Do you have any closing remarks; feel free to add anything you feel is necessary.

I will borrow a phrase by Steve Kaufmann: “Language learning isn’t that big of a deal.” It’s not glamorous

or cool or only for geniuses—it’s something humans have been doing for (at least) a few thousand

years, and now is the best time in all of human history for language study. Want to learn Persian or

North Korean? You can find materials and native speaker tutors on the internet (well, I don’t know

about North Korean tutors…). Even Native American, Brazilian and Taiwanese aboriginal languages have

textbooks written about them somewhere, and you can probably get someone to scan and email it to

you. Wikipedia has an enormous supply of free multilingual materials, and chances are your computer

can read it aloud in a close-to-native accent, which you can easily record as an MP3 in Anki and review

on your phone in your spare time… Just do it!

 

Reach Kieran on Twitter @KieranMaynard

 

This has been an interview in the series Interviews with Linguists. Read all of them here!

 

Previous Interviews with Linguists

Aryn from Driftwood and Daydreams, learn about how she defines communication and its impact on her life. 

 

See other interviews by me!

More interviews on Backpacking Diplomacy:

Interview with The Guy on his new ebook Frequent Flyer miles

Ed Wu from Where the hell is that Taiwan guy? Traveling around in a funny suit.

Dave, who biked from Alaska to Argentina

Charles Richard, leading director of In the Mind of the Maker documentary

Savannah Grace, the girl who grew her boobs in China

Richard Arthur, writer of I of the Sun

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