An American in Berlin
You know those crazy people who speak more languages than we have fingers? Jeremy is one of them. I met him in Turkish language school in Istanbul six years ago, and this weekend I visited him in Berlin. He has been a constant source of inspiration for travelling to less-frequented places (think Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and learning languages (Russian, French, and Farsi, to name a few). After working in Central Asia as a researcher, he is now working in Berlin where he co-founded deMifi, a company that sets visitors up with WiFi hotspots. Here he answers some questions on language learning.
How many languages do you speak?
I always find it difficult to answer that question.
I know! It’s the worst.
If it’s being able to communicate with shop keepers, ask directions, and be polite (a pretty low bar), I’d say around 17-22. If it means being able to read a newspaper and get the gist of things, and awkwardly and slowly talking and learning with another person, 12-15. If it’s about being able to interact confidently and fluently (knowing I sometimes make mistakes) and being able to express things that are complex and emotionally meaningful, 6-7. The numbers change based on how in or out of practice I am, and how someone counts a group of languages–for example, Southern Slavic versus Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian.
What set you on the path to learning so many languages?
Unbridled passion for grammar and the luck of having a high school with a very good foreign language program. I attended the flagship IB school in the United States, so we had great language instruction. I took PE over the summer to be able to clear my schedule for languages, and did four years of Spanish and three each of French and German. I think I was the first person at the school to take all three of their language offerings.
Did you have any multilingual role models?
My multilingual role models came from books, either in the form of fictional characters or historical persons. I don’t recall many of them, but I do remember finding some in high school and thinking to myself that I would be able to do what they did.
Do you think some people are “better” at learning languages?
I think that some people have more natural interest (my grammar geekery is a big plus), and some people have a better ear (I’ve also been involved in studying and making music for most of my life). But having a good ear can be learned, and I believe that with the right introduction, even people afraid of grammar can appreciate its structure. I was really into the way English worked before I started studying other languages.
What works for you when you want to learn a language?
I like to learn the grammar of a language first through individual study and with a tutor, and simultaneously fill in all the vocabulary with time intensive, engaged social interactions. Having the tutor allows me to bring back questions from my social learning and ask questions like “Why did they use this verb form in this situation?” That way, I get to see the skeleton and the flesh of a living language.
What doesn’t work?
A large classroom. Because I have developed skills to advance quickly in language study, I will be bored to tears with a group that is only coming to terms with the idea that they native language is not the basis of everyone else’s thought pattern. That said, a small group (2-3) of people that are similarly motivated can be good.
What was hardest language to learn so far? Why?
Kyrgyz, due to a few factors. When I was studying it, and to an extent still today, there were absolutely no materials for foreign language learners and no pedagogy. That meant that the tutors I worked with tried to teach me as they would a native speaker. The first lesson was always on the difference between a subject and predicate. After some communication, they would realize that my needs were different, but were unable to meet those needs. There is only one good translation dictionary for Kyrgyz to Russian, but it is out of date. Also, there is no Russian to Kyrgyz dictionary, so I couldn’t find out what something would be in Kyrgyz. In a country of 5M speakers, there are 5 dialects. To top it off, the city I was living in was primarily russophone, and I had to go out of my way to practice Kyrgyz and find native speakers. Needless to say, my Kyrgyz never got to a very high level.
Thank you so much, Jeremy!
If you want to see Jeremy speak a little Turkish, here is an interview he did at a recent tech conference. And if you missed the first interview in this series with multilingual people, here is Maria talking about the differences between English and her native Spanish.