Language as a Hobby
Текст: Alexey Kirillov | 2018-03-12 |
No one will probably argue with the statement that any person should learn at least one language other than their native tongue. However, not a lot of people are able to find motivation to do that. That said, there is a small group of people that have managed to learn more than 10 languages. We had a talk about the phenomenon of multilingualism and various approaches to learning foreign languages with Canadian Steve Kaufmann, one of the most famous polyglots in the world. As of now, he is a fluent speaker of sixteen languages, and is planning to learn several more. We had this conversation with him in Russian.

– Steve, can you tell us what multilingualism is and if there is in fact the need for people to speak as many languages as you do? Do these languages actually help you in your everyday life?

Learning languages is very, very interesting, because every language gives you an opportunity to learn a lot of new things, and not only about this language itself but also about the related countries and cultures. This knowledge is a real treasure in terms of your personal development. Besides, we live in a time when our communication possibilities have expanded greatly. For instance, today we can use Skype or other similar software to make video calls to any place on the planet, and if you happen to speak a lot of languages, then it is, of course, easier to form and maintain relations with interesting people. But most people will not learn a new language every year. This is impossible. So I think that multilingualism is, above all else, a hobby. A very useful one but still a hobby. This is my hobby, while someone else may have a different one.

I was born in Sweden but when I was five we moved to Canada. My parents spoke German and Czech (they were originally from Czechoslovakia) but when we got to Montreal, they said: "Now we're in Canada, so we're going to speak English here." And I think it was the right decision that influenced my attitude to languages. Later I lived for three years in France and learned French. When I was working in the Canadian diplomatic service in the sphere of trade relations between Canada and China, I spent some time in Hong Kong as part of my job, and I learned Chinese. Then I lived in Japan for 9 years and mastered Japanese pretty quickly. This was one of the most important periods of my life that influenced me a lot: I could speak Japanese so I talked to a lot of Japanese businessmen. Because of that, a major Canadian lumber company offered me to work for them, and I committed myself to this industry for 40 years. 30 years ago I founded my own lumber company that became quite successful in the international market. Now, looking back at my own experience, I think that everything in our lives is a matter of two things: opportunities and luck. And the more different things you know, the more opportunities you have in front of you. So it is quite difficult for me to answer your question about the need for so many languages. There is no actual need in that. But if you do know these languages, then the range of your opportunities will be incomparably wider. I can tell you that in my case my knowledge of Japanese, Chinese and French did help me a lot.

At the same time the main international language and the language of business is still English. If a Japanese, a Russian and a Brazilian meet, they don't speak Portuguese, Japanese or Russian, they speak English. So, this language happens to be the most widespread and the most convenient for communication, so that's the language you need to learn before any other. It is very unfair, but it is true. And the smaller your country is, the less your language's possibilities are, and the more likely it is that you will have to learn English. For instance, quite a lot of people in the world speak Russian, so Russian people speak foreign languages less often than, say, Czech people or Dutch people.

But if you are focused on some certain market, like the Chinese market or the Spanish-speaking market, then of course you need to learn the language of that market. It's the only way not only to do business with these countries but also to find friends there and create close and long-lasting relationships.

– And what foreign languages do people prefer to learn in the English-speaking countries?

 This depends on the country, but in general the most popular languages are French, Spanish and German. Mainly this is due to certain common cultural and historical traditions and established economical ties. Of course, there is a lot of talk today about the need to learn Chinese but there are still not as many people who want to do that as you might think.

Kristina Tyryshkina / 123rf

The most widely spoken language in the world, according to Ethnologue (SIL International, 2017) is Putonghua, or Standard Mandarin. 897 million people speak it as a native language. Another 193 million use it as a second language. The second most popular language is English. 371 million people speak it as a native tongue, and 611 million – as a second language. Finally, the third most spoken language is Hindustani, used by 329 and 215 million people respectively.

– I would like to quote Jack Ma, the Chinese entrepreneur who founded AliExpress. This quote is about learning foreign languages, and it really resonates with what you are speaking about. These are his words: "English is a very important language. If you don't speak English, you can't do global business. English helped me a lot. But in fact not everything is about language. Everything is about culture. When we start learning a foreign language, we start to understand this language's culture, see its complexity, and we begin to respect this culture. When we respect the culture, we are also respected. And only then we can work together with those people. When you respect a different culture, when you understand its complexity, friends and partners are easy to find, and you can't do business without them."

When I lived in Japan, I noticed that people who had studied Japanese were generally more successful in the Japanese market than people who didn't speak it. But at the same time I worked with a lot of people who didn't speak Japanese but were also very successful in Japan, because they always did what they promised. So knowing the language is by all means important, but the most important thing in business, I think, is still what you can do and what kind of a person you can be. There are people who speak a lot but cannot do anything. And then there are those who are very careful with words, but they know what they are capable of, and they do exactly that. These are qualities of businessmen, and they have nothing to do with language. But if you can also speak the language of the people you work with, you will be able to understand these people's mindsets and feelings differently, and you'll be able to sympathize with them. It is difficult to explain but it will allow you to have a different level of relationship with these people. Still, it isn't a mandatory condition of business.

Besides that, learning a language does not necessarily mean respecting that language's culture. For example, there are people who speak Japanese but dislike the Japanese culture. And then there are those who don't speak Chinese but respect the Chinese culture. These are not mutually exclusive things but they aren't mutually supportive either. And if we talk about English then this language is basically divorced from its native culture at this point, it exists separately from England or the United States. English is an international instrument, a tool that anyone can use.

But here's what's important: when you learn a foreign language it isn't necessary to try and respect the foreign culture as a whole but it is necessary to look for something attractive and positive in it. Then you will want to become a part of this world, you will want to imitate: to be Russian, French, etc. This is absolutely essential for the successful mastery of any language.

 – Some people think that the language you speak defines your manner of thinking and forms your mindset. For instance, if your language has ten synonyms of the word "success" and only one word that means "failure", then you will act in a completely different manner from someone whose language has more variants of the word "failure"...

I don't think a language influences our way of thinking in any way. Let's say we have a Japanese person and a Chinese person. The Japanese person will be very careful about what they say: "I don't know, I'll try and maybe I'll manage to figure out something." While a Chinese person will say: "No problem, I can do it." But the one who will actually do it will be the Japanese person. Or here is another example: in Canada people who live in Alberta have a slightly different way of thinking than those who live in Newfoundland. The difference is slight but it is still evident, despite them speaking the same language. So this is not the question of language, it's a question of culture. It's the culture that determines everything. I speak 16 languages and can think in Japanese, French or Russian with the same result. But when I learn a foreign language I also learn a foreign culture and hence acquire new ways of thinking. And that is why a person who speaks several languages becomes much more flexible and open-minded.

– One of the most popular arguments why people should learn foreign languages is because they will be able to read the original literature works. This is applicable to Russian as well: the classic Russian literature is famous all over the world, while, for example, Dostoyevsky is one of the most popular authors and his books are among the most often adapted for the screen. What do you think is the importance of reading books in their original language?

Oh, that's just my case! Ten years ago I started learning Russian because I wanted to read the Russian classics in their original language. That was my main motivation. Why do people want to climb Mount Everest? Because it's a challenge. Why do people want to see the Taj Mahal or the Acropolis of Athens? Because they are a part of our lives. And the same can be said about the Russian language. When you read classic Russian literature in its original language, you get a sense of strength: wow, I can read in Russian!

When I was 16 I read Dostoyevsky's 'The Idiot' for the first time. I liked it a lot. But now that I have learned Russian I love Tolstoy most of all. When you read 'Anna Karenina' or 'War and Peace', you feel like you are a participant of those events, these books take you into the world of the 19th century Russia.  You get introduced to people from various strata of the Russian society, you get to know their worldview, you agree or disagree with them, you empathize with them. All that makes you experience unbelievable emotions. Reading in English does not give me the same emotionally rich experience. But besides that I also feel great satisfaction, because I had challenged myself to a difficult task – to learn Russian to such a level as to be able to fluently read Tolstoy within 2 years – and I achieved that goal.

– Health professionals believe that learning foreign languages is very beneficial for brain health. In particular, it helps to delay the development of age-related brain diseases or at least weaken their symptoms. Have you by any chance done any research about this? How exactly do you think learning languages may influence our health?

 I am not an expert in this field so I do not know if learning languages can actually slow down the development of Alzheimer's disease. It might be so but I am not sure. What I am sure of, though, is that learning languages as a hobby gives you something else. A lot of people reach the retirement age and are not sure what to do next, and I think it's very sad. I am 72 now but I always have an important goal ahead of me: to learn languages. Now I'm studying Greek, and after that I'm planning to take on the Middle Eastern languages: Arabic and Farsi. Maybe also Hebrew and Turkish. So I always have something that I want to do. And I do not simply want to do that but I also know that I am capable of doing it. That's also important. And it was the case with Russian too. It was difficult to learn but I knew that it was simply a matter of time. I think that there are a lot of people in Russia who are over 60, and they have never studied English or any other foreign language. But trust me, they still can do it, because their brains are still working. And if you think that learning languages after you have turned 20 is too late, you are mistaken. You can do it. For instance, now I'm learning new languages faster than I did when I was 17. So it is actually a very useful and healthy hobby.

Steve Kaufmann

Steve Kaufmann with polyglot colleagues Olly Richards and Alex Rollings on LangFest-2017.

– It takes most people years to learn only one foreign language. They start studying it at school. Then at a college or university. Then they get a job in some good company and this company sets up a course of this language for them. But in most cases these people still end up not being able to really speak the language. Even if they understand that they need this foreign language, that it won't come amiss. So where should one get the motivation to learn a foreign language?

The situation that you have described is common for all countries I think. Canada is not an exception. For instance, in New Brunswick 30 % of the population are Francophones. But French is studied in English-language schools as well, they have 30-40 minute classes of it every day starting from the first grade. However, a recent study showed that the amount of people who can speak at least intermediate level French after the 12 years of studying it at school is only 0.6%. So the 12 years turn out to be worth nothing.

I think that there are only three key factors that influence learning languages. The first one is your attitude to the language you are learning. If you like this language and really want to learn it, you believe that you can master it and that the method you are using for that will allow you to achieve a high level. Your attitude to the language is the most important thing, it determines 70% of your success. The second factor is the time you spend studying it. When I learn a new language I usually listen to things in it for an hour or an hour and a half every day and also read in it for another 30 minutes. But if you learn a foreign language for only two or three hours a week, it's largely a waste of time. And the third thing. When I listen to the way you speak Russian, I can conclude that you know your native language very well, that you are an intelligent and cultured person. But if you start learning a foreign language and try to speak it, you will no longer come across as a mature and intelligent person. So you should understand that when you start learning another language, you are like a young child. And by the way that is the reason why children learn languages faster: they don't mind sounding or behaving like children. While adults are often shy of that. They don't want to seem silly or stupid or worse than they are. And that really holds them back. So just accept this fact and stop being afraid.

– Languages are different not only in vocabulary but also in many other things. For instance, word order in English is quite strict, while in Russian it can be arbitrary. And every language has a huge number of peculiarities like that. Considering that, it is difficult to imagine that one person's head can contain 15-20 radically different languages at the same time...

The languages that I studied did not present serious problems to me. Except perhaps I had some minor difficulties with Russian, but even then it was mostly because I had less chances to speak Russian than, say, Chinese. I think that if I stay in Russia for a couple of months and speak to Russian people every day, then my level of Russian will noticeably improve.

I think that the ability to master multiple languages is tied to the exceptional capabilities of our brain that people often underestimate. Go ahead and try learning languages, and I'm sure that you will succeed as well.

– On the basis of Hegel's dialectics, Engels outlined the so-called law of the transformation of quantitative changes into qualitative ones. We heat water, increasing its temperature one degree at a time. And water stays water until a certain point when it changes qualitatively, becoming steam. Have you ever noticed anything like that when studying languages?

When we learn something, our brain changes a little. And learning languages is not an exception. The more languages you know, the more changes there are in your brain. So if your brain is only controlled by the Russian language, then wiring it for English will not be so easy. But when your brain already knows Russian, English, French and Chinese, it becomes flexible and open for new languages. Besides, now, while studying Greek, I also go back to Chinese or Russian from time to time. I listen to things in Chinese or Russian and understand that I have started to comprehend these languages more clearly despite having already forgotten some words. But my ability of noticing, hearing and understanding things has become better. That is to say, studying Greek also influences my ability to learn and understand other languages. So I think that the more languages you know, the higher your ability to learn them is, and the easier it is to do that.

– What are some other differences between learning your first foreign language and learning every subsequent one?

 The most important thing is that, having mastered your first foreign language to a fluent level, you will know for sure that you are capable of doing that, so after that you will no longer think of foreign languages as something difficult or impenetrable. Besides, when you learn your first foreign language, you acquire your own understanding of the methodology of studying languages. You analyze the mistakes you have made, you remember your achievements. And due to that experience and the confidence that you have gained, learning your second and subsequent languages becomes easier.

Steve Kaufmann

Steve Kaufmann

Immersing into the Ukrainian culture while learning that country’s language, as well as with his wife while preparing to study Arabic.

– What, in your opinion, should a foreign language teacher's role be today?

When I study a language and, let's say, do not know the ending of some verb, I can easily find it with the help of Google. So the traditional image of teachers as holders of knowledge that they gradually, day after day, give to their students, is not as important today. You can find everything you need by yourselves, not having to wait until the teacher gives it to you. You may need a teacher of maths, science, a golf or tennis coach but you don't need a teacher to learn a language. Learning languages is natural for human brain. So when I'm asked how I would teach a language if I were a teacher, I usually say that I would try to make myself not needed to my students as soon as possible. My task would be simply to form the right attitude to the language and give them a number of habits that would help them to notice what is happening in the language. The role of a teacher may also be directed at encouraging the students, helping them look for interesting content and explain the mistakes that they make.

But we have to admit that this scheme will only work with highly motivated students. And far from all people have the necessary motivation. Unmotivated people will not go online to fill gaps in their knowledge and will not try to sit there and understand language rules by themselves. So a traditional teacher will suit them better, although the efficiency of such learning will probably be very low.

– Tell us about LingQ, the service you have created for learning foreign languages. As I understand, it can be seen as a summation of the experience you have accumulated throughout your life. What are the specific features of this platform?

I don't know where things stand in terms of language learning in Russia, but in Canada it's a serious problem, because we waste too much time on useless learning. It's a serious question for us, because our country has two official languages (English and French) as well as a lot of immigrants who go to our schools. This was a challenge that I wanted to respond to in some way. We tried to make a web resource for learning English but soon decided that this platform should be multilingual. We made a lot of mistakes but I didn't want to drop this idea. So we went on and on with it, and we are still continuing it today. While I had my own business running, I was able to support this idea financially. But now it's another hobby of mine and an important part of my life. I do this with my son, so it's a double pleasure for me.

All the languages I learned for the past ten years – Russian, Polish, Ukrainian and Greek – I learned with our system. So I really believe in its effectiveness, and I have to say we are a bit like Don Quixote here.

 LingQ places emphasis on language practice, particularly reading, listening and vocabulary learning. At the same time you can choose the materials you study. When you're only a beginner you need to pick easy and short materials, gradually moving on to longer and more complex ones. And you can even search all your texts or sound clips online and then simply import them to LingQ thus including them into your language course. The system also has a variety of functions that allow you to work with words, phrases and texts very effectively. But I think that the best way to learn more about LingQ is to access it via the Internet and see it with your own eyes.

Maksym Yemelyanov / 123rf

– In conclusion, I can't help asking you: what advice would you give to people who seriously want to learn at least one foreign language? Maybe something about what they should start with and what they should pay special attention to?

The Russian language has a saying: a good beginning is half of the job. So my main advice would be: you need to start and then you need to continue. The most important thing is to find a way of making it interesting and pleasant for you, to enjoy it, because otherwise you won't want to continue. You need to like the language you are learning, to really want to speak it, to imagine yourself as a member of that language group. You also should take responsibility for your own language education. You don't even need to attend school or language courses. Moreover, you should make yourself believe that you can learn the language. All that is much more important than linguistic talent.   

 The important factor is also how immersed into the language you are. It's up to you how to interact with the language, but you need to surround yourself with it. I pay a lot of attention to listening to native speakers and reading. Some people like listening to songs, watching movies, talking. Choose whatever you like, pick the conversation topics that you're interested in, and devote at least an hour a day to learning the language. Regularity is very important here. You're saying you don't have time for that? That is not true. Every person has a lot of the so-called "dead" time during the day, and we can use that time for something useful. For example, I do the listening exercises while I cook food, or exercise in a gym, or drive.

Steve Kaufmann

Not by language alone: Steve Kaufmann as a player in the Silver Selex ice hockey team (all the players are older than 65).

At the starting stages of learning a language, I recommend listening and reading a lot, and the best way is to read the same text that you have listened to. You will grow your vocabulary by doing this. If you have good vocabulary, then when you start talking to someone you will at least understand what they are saying. And you will have a choice of what to say in reply. This will decrease your level of tension and anxiety. You are speaking Russian with me right now, and I understand almost one hundred per cent of what you are saying. And that is very reassuring to me. When I start speaking Russian myself, it may take me a long time to pick the necessary word and I may end up choosing a wrong one. But that is not important, because I understand you and you understand me. And if we have this basic understanding, then our relationship with this language will definitely grow to be better, more positive. So grow your vocabulary. Words are more important than grammar.

 You must also accept the fact that a lot of things will seem very unclear to you, especially at the beginning. You will try speaking but keep forgetting the words. Don't be frustrated: success is a matter of time, and by that I mean not weeks or even months but years. Mistakes are also a part of learning a language, be ready for them. When you talk to a native speaker, don't be afraid of making mistakes, because mistakes will help you see your problem areas. But for that you need to be very attentive and develop an ability of noticing things. Pay attention to words and phrases, to patterns in sentences. When I'm reading a book in a foreign language and I see a grammatical pattern that I have problems using, I always underline it in the book thus focusing my attention on it. To cope with a problem area, it is not enough that your teacher explains you some rule. The only way of speaking correctly is to consciously notice how words and patterns are actually used in the language, notice it again and again. If you follow these simple rules, you will definitely succeed.