Via Lingoci: How To Succeed At Learning Languages – Interview With A Polyglot
Last week, I interviewed a guy by the name of Alex Voloza. Incredibly, he has learnt to speak 8 languages fluently. He shared a lot of great advice on language learning, explaining the techniques, principles and strategies that enable people to improve quickly. I hope you find the interview as fascinating as I did. Here it is in full…
Hi Alex, could you start by telling us which languages you speak, and to what level?
Russian is my native language but I also have a near-native level in German, English and Ukrainian. I am conversationally fluent in French, Spanish, Italian and Polish. I have a more basic level in Portuguese, Hebrew, Romanian, Dutch and most Slavic languages.
What has allowed you to learn so many languages? Do you have some sort of special talent?
I think success in languages is much more nurture than nature. When I was at school, I was not good at English. When I was 12, I started working with a university professor who showed me how exciting language learning can be. From then on I spent thousands of hours learning languages at universities, at language courses and by myself. I learned to see the fun part in language learning so I have been more motivated than others to spend all those hours developing my skills. As a language coach, I see students of different nationalities, ages and backgrounds who have more talent than I do. Whatever the case may be, for all of us it boils down to consistent practice multiplied by time.
For people who have just started with a new language and want to improve quickly, what do you recommend?
It is very important to spend time with the language every day. Three hours on a Sunday and then no work during the week will not do the trick. You need to spoon-feed your brain with the language on a daily basis by engaging in different activities, including listening, reading, writing and speaking. Listen to an audio course, repeat phrases you hear, use flash cards for vocabulary, and talk to yourself in the language. There are also many times when you can squeeze practice into your days – for example, when in traffic, when out jogging, or even when you’re doing the dishes.
Take charge of your language learning and remember that there are no shortcuts! Make sure that you have fun learning the language. If you do not like the teacher, the language course, the textbook…you can always change them. Staying motivated and excited about your language project is the key.
What should an intermediate level student focus on to become conversationally fluent in their target language?
The phase when you approach intermediate level and start understanding authentic materials is when the real fun starts. You can start accessing interesting blog articles, vlogs, podcasts, TV series, movies, songs and books. Getting a lot of comprehensible input, or in other words, reading and listening to materials that are relevant and interesting for you and match your level, is as important as ever at the intermediate stage. Reading and listening help you remember new words, subconsciously learn grammar constructions, and they also help improve your speaking skills.
Of course, the best way to improve speaking is to speak…Find a teacher or a conversation partner who you will be able to talk with regularly in your target language. Pay attention to how your teacher or conversation partner is speaking; what words and constructions are they using? Ask questions and take notes. A Skype conversation is a great way to learn a language. Make sure to ask your teacher or conversation partner to use the chat function to send you corrections and explanations. After the class is over, review the notes.
What would you say are the most important factors that determine how quickly one can become fluent?
Nothing can beat motivation, time and effort. If you are not trying hard, you are not going to succeed. If you are not spending a lot of time with the language every day, you cannot reach fluency fast. Of course, you need effective time-management habits to make the most out of the time you have. Earlier, I mentioned using your time when you’re doing other things, for example listening to a podcast whilst doing the dishes. You can also cut down on entertainment and replace it with learning. Better still, combine them both and keep bombarding yourself with fun materials in the target language. And the importance of finding a teacher or partner to speak with regularly cannot be underestimated. Lastly, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Making lots of mistakes and receiving feedback allows you to reach fluency as fast as possible!
It always takes time to improve one’s language skills. How can students maintain their motivation and consistency without the structure of a traditional classroom? And what does your personal motivation stem from?
Everyone has their own reasons to learn a language. As far as I am concerned, I really enjoyed the process of “hacking” languages, taking a language from zero all the way to conversational fluency and sometimes beyond. A vital skill is of course to live in the present, not in the future, and enjoy every day of your language journey, appreciating what you already can do in the language as opposed to where you wish you would be.
Language learning is a marathon, not a sprint. You need strong motivation to stay the course. Things happening at home and at work can easily carry you away from your goals. Sometimes you may believe that you are not making progress and get discouraged. It is important to look back at where you were only a couple of months ago and give yourself credit for making progress.
Most people need accountability systems to keep going. This could be as simple as having a friend who is also learning a language, and supporting each other on your respective missions. Of course, there is a good reason why elite athletes work with coaches even though they are professionals at what they do. A good language teacher will support you, make you accountable and help you stay consistent. Knowing you have a scheduled class/homework, and that there is somebody who cares about your progress, can be crucial.
What do you believe is the biggest myth when it comes to language learning?
There are many myths or, I would rather say, dangerous half-truths surrounding language learning. The most typical include:
- I do not have the money to learn a language
- I have no time to learn a language
- I do not have enough talent to learn a language
These statements are not completely false. Money gives you opportunities and if you can afford to travel or work intensively with a great teacher, you do have an advantage. It is also true that some people learn languages faster than others. Plus, not all lives are made the same: many people have kids and challenging full-time jobs. A fast learner with unlimited funds and a lot of free time will have an edge over someone who learns slower, works a 12-hour job just to get by and raises three small kids.
This being said, the importance of these factors is grossly exaggerated. Some good questions to ask here are: Is this even a competition? Why am I doing it in the first place? If someone can reach a B2 level in five months and I need 3 years to get there, does this mean it is not even worth starting?
A lot more important than these factors is motivation, making the most out of your current conditions and enjoying the process of learning as opposed to being fixed on the outcomes.
Do you think that one has to live “in-country” in order to reach fluency in their target language?
Living in a country where the language is spoken does provide you with lots of learning opportunities. However, these days you can immerse yourself in a language simply through using resources online and having a language partner or tutor. I know so many people who have been living abroad for years and never came even close to mastering a language. At the same time, I know individuals who became proficient without ever being “in-country”.
Which language was the most difficult for you to learn and why?
Definitely Hebrew. It was very different from anything I had ever tackled before. It had a new alphabet, writing from right to left, and vowels are used less in writing. Hebrew grammar, though considered easier than in Arabic, is considerably different from grammar in European languages. You also have fewer “aha” moments when you recognise familiar words from other languages you already know.
One last thing – the majority of the discussion around languages is focused on learning rather than maintenance. For someone like you who speaks multiple languages, how do you manage to maintain them? And how do you avoid mixing them up all the time!?
Language maintenance becomes more and more important for polyglots as they learn new languages. Polyglots who are serious about language maintenance create unique lifestyles to allow them to stay in touch with all their languages on a daily or at least a weekly basis: they look for multilingual jobs, they meet with language partners, and they continue to read and listen to the language.
Personally, I have been traveling around the world for the last two years and that enabled me to practice all my working languages. I adopted an attitude of speaking English, German, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, French, Spanish and Italian whenever I met native speakers.
Initially, I mixed up Spanish and Italian a lot, as well as Spanish and Portuguese. But over time my brain seems to have created separate space for the languages. I still occasionally use Spanish words when speaking Italian or Portuguese but it’s a source of laughter rather than confusion. Perfection is not so important – as long as I can still communicate with and understand people, that is all that matters!
Thanks a lot for your time, Alex. It was a pleasure to meet you.