Today I got the opportunity to speak with Cristóbal del Castillo Camus, a museum historian living in Chile. He discusses his experience learning English as a child, both at home and in the United States, as well as his more recent interests in Polish, Croatian, and Hungarian.
FTLOL: Tell our readers a bit about your background. Where are you from and where do you currently live and work? Do you get to use foreign languages on a daily basis?
CDCC: My name is Cristóbal, I am 29 years old, and I am from Santiago, Chile. Right now, I am still living in Santiago and I work as a historian at a local museum, that is to say, I am in charge of investigating, reviewing, and proofreading anything related to the museum or objects within it.
In my field, I specialize in cultural heritage and 20th century Central European and South American History (especially regarding discourse analysis, totalitarian and authoritarian governments, and in creating awareness out of them).
I am also starting to be a Spanish as a Foreign Language teacher online and hoping to go into grad school soon. I also run my language learning blog, Krzysiek.cl.
Despite most of my work at my full time job being carried out in Spanish, I also have to lead guided tours in English for foreign delegations, and it has become a really nice surprise for the guests since I often greet them in their local language before switching to English. I have even managed to speak Polish.
FTLOL: How did you get interested in learning languages and how many do you currently speak?
CDCC: That’s a hard question. I had a speech problem while growing up, so I had to see a speech therapist during my childhood.
However, I was always fascinated with foreign cultures. Probably because when I was a child, Chile was opening itself to the world after a tough period. I remember I had some French self-teaching material from my dad and I would try to come up with weird phrases.
However, the most determinant stage of my life when I discovered I really liked languages was when I lived abroad with my family in the US in 1998-1999. I only knew the very basics of English and I had to go to an English-speaking school.
Sure, I knew how to make reservations or buy things, but maths or science in English? No.
The first two months were tough and I had to be in the English as a Foreign Language module for most of my classes, but I got used to the rhythm of the language and by the end of the fall semester, I was in regular classes and I met many good people.
I met people from different parts of the world and I discovered that not everyone was like me, yet we are similar in certain ways. The problem was coming back to Chile, where the society (especially at high school) wasn’t that accepting of foreign cultures. I was even called a traitor by a school counselor because I liked English!
Good thing that at university those things didn’t happen. I somehow reconnected with languages, especially when I lived in the US once again, got into community college and signed myself up for foreign language classes.
There, I met many people, especially people from Poland who loved Spanish, and there I found my love for Polish (which grew even more after I started traveling on my own).
Now, I feel myself comfortable in Spanish, English, and Polish. I have been actively learning it for about 2 years, with the help of a teacher I got in touch with through Facebook. I used to be fluent in French and studied German in the past, but I am not comfortable in those languages anymore.
FTLOL: Do you have any special techniques or personal methods that you use to learn foreign languages? Are there any particular materials or courses that you find useful?
CDCC: I am an old-school person. Classes with an actual teacher are fundamental for me in order to make big progress. It gives me a sense of strong discipline and responsibility, which is really helpful when you are absent-minded and thinking about 1000 things at the same time.
However, it is quite important to practice your languages in an outside setting: online tandems, being exposed to media in the language, having friends from around the world, and lots and lots of practice.
You may use the best systems in the world, you may have the best teachers, or go to the best institute near you, but if you don’t motivate yourself to make a language part of your routine or your life, you’ll quickly forget it.
FTLOL: If you’ve ever tried to learn more than one language at once, how did you organize your time? Are you able to give them all equal attention?
CDCC: Yes, and it wasn’t a good thing. I am absent-minded, so I tend to distract myself very easily.
I tried learning German and French at the same time. German was the affected one in that case. I was about to be fluent in French and I decided to work on it even more than German.
Now, my biggest advice if you want to learn more than one language at once is first of all, you have to be comfortable with one of them.
Thus, you can do more independent or non-formal study with one and create the ground framework for the other. It will spare you a headache.
Now that I am more comfortable with Polish, I have just started thinking about what languages to learn next: Croatian and Hungarian. I took in account my personal interests, my possibilities to practice the languages, and resources available.
It was a good thing that I know many people who speak those languages and who are willing to help me (also, the Internet communities of those languages are actually big and friendly, just like the one for Polish speakers!).
FTLOL: Based on your native language, do you find any specific language families to be more difficult to learn than others? If so, what aspects in particular are challenging?
CDCC: I would dare to say non-Indo-European languages, like Finno-Ugric or Turkic ones, because you have to really understand the logic of their grammar. They are completely different from what I am used to seeing or hearing in the languages I have been exposed to.
I have heard though that rules are quite straightforward, and once you learn the grammar properly, it won’t be a nuisance.
I remember when I was in Hungary; I was surprised by how few loan words they used from other languages. Most words are adapted from other Hungarian words. For example, the word for pub is söröző since sör means beer (I have a really funny anecdote with that word!).
FTLOL: I’ve read through your blog on several occasions and found some very interesting information on there, ranging from language resource recommendations to maximizing your study time to learning languages online. What was your original intention when starting the blog, and where do you plan to take it in the future?
CDCC: First of all, it took me about a year or so to discover that my field for blogging was language learning. I tried having personal interest blogs from time to time, but I never felt committed or my enthusiasm would soon wain.
I started my language learning blog in March 2015 with the purpose of becoming a new voice for language learning, especially with Polish learning.
I have followed many language learning blogs for a while and connected with some bloggers too. However, my biggest concern was that my part of the world, the Southern Cone of South America, wasn’t considered or that there weren’t many (if not any) language bloggers from this part of the world.
When it came to Polish learning blogs, it was even worse. Most of the blogs were written from an English, Spanish, or Mexican experience, which are quite different from my experience, and I felt their interests were quite different from mine.
This was great motivation, and with some support from the Digital Language Collective, I started to build up a name of my own for language learning. It was really cool to go one day to a language festival and be recognized by some of my blog followers.
FTLOL: Do you think it’s necessary to go to a foreign country to learn a language? Can you achieve a high level of fluency without actually leaving your home town?
CDCC: In my experience, living in the US did make a difference with my fluency. It helped me in many ways, and now I can talk practically about any subject in English.
Despite only being in Poland during vacation, I mostly stayed with friends and their families or in residential neighbourhoods, which pushed me to use Polish in everyday contexts.
I cannot guarantee you that you will reach a high level of fluency without leaving your hometown because there are many factors involved with it. However, I think it might be possible if you really want it.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who may want to start learning a foreign language, but who might not know where to start?
CDCC: My biggest advice is to look for your true motivations: music, culture, people, art, literature, you name it. Passion is the most important thing to consider and it can highly boost your language learning.
Then, start by making yourself realistic goals. Consider your time available, that you have other responsibilities (at work, home, with friends, etc.), and the resources you have available (coming from a country in which the only foreign language available at universities or bookshops is English, most of the time we had to rely on downloads). Most can be easily found if you look.
Also, don’t panic if you spend one day learning one word instead of 40 or 50. Maybe you learned how to use that word in all of its contexts. Language learning isn’t a competition; it is about learning and understanding a culture, as well as yourself.
FTLOL: What’s next for you? Do you plan on learning any more languages, or will you work to further develop some of the ones you’ve already learned or are learning?
CDCC: My first and second priority for language learning is Polish. I really want to reach a working fluency in that language and eventually work or study for a while in Poland because the country seems quite okay for me and I would love to have a change of environment.
I’ve already also committed myself to start learning Croatian and Hungarian. I was in Hungary recently, where I met many people from Croatia and I realized I could understand a lot of Croatian thanks to Polish.
That motivated me to consider it as a language I would love to be acquainted with and that I would have no problem finding people with whom to practice.
With Hungarian, things are different. I am quite sure I won’t be really good in the language, but I became strongly interested after being in Hungary and not while being there.
Despite often learning basic phrases from friends or on the street, I often forgot them when needed to ask my friends to speak Hungarian or simply speak English.
However, when being at home, I started remembering things I had heard or read on the street or in shops, things my friends would teach me or even the music I would hear on TV, radio, or in public places.
The language always sounded very nice to me and now it sounded even more attractive since I could remember words. I managed to get some material and now I feel ready to take a new challenge. It will be a really slow, but no hurry, and I think I can enjoy it.
Also, I would love to take on Hebrew in the long term. I started doing tandems with Hebrew speakers that are learning Spanish and I’ve found their language fascinating and how well they also speak Spanish.
For more information on Cristóbal and his ideas on language learning, you can follow through to his website at www.krzysiek.cl.