A Polyglot’s Advice on How to Effectively Learn Languages: An Interview with Christopher Huff

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Today I got a chance to talk with Christopher Huff, who recently returned this year from teaching English and living in Beijing. We discuss his ideas on how to overcome various challenges when approaching language learning, including some of his own previous challenges. He provides suggestions for many great resources that can be used when studying a language.

 

FTLOL: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into learning foreign languages.

CH: I’m Chris Huff, a webcomic artist, blogger, and language fan from the United States. I run a comic and blog at LanguageFan.com.

I first got into languages when I was 15 and had fallen for one of my classmates from Romania. I asked her how I could win her hand and she said, in an attempt to blow me off, “Well you could learn Romanian.” Oblivious to her sarcasm, I hurried to the bookstore with my dad and bought the Teach Yourself Romanian book and a dictionary. My feelings for her faded soon after that, but my love for languages just kept growing and growing.

Around that time, I also discovered Esperanto and the greater polyglot community (still in its fledgling stages) on some online forums like Unilang, which I credit for my initial confidence that anyone can learn a language and that there were others like me who loved studying them.

FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak to a good conversational level, and are you studying any others at the moment?

CH: I can speak French, Mandarin, German, Esperanto, and Spanish to good conversational levels. I’m always studying different languages, and for me it’s a hobby and an enjoyable activity above all else.

At the moment I am studying the five above, plus dabbling in Greek, Swedish, Turkish, and some others in my free time.

FTLOL: You recently came back from a year living in Beijing. What were you doing there and do you feel that living abroad helped improve your language abilities? If so, how?

CH: I moved abroad with the intention of starting a new life. While my initial plan of living my remaining days in China has changed, I realize now that I did start a brand-new life by moving there in the first place.

While in Beijing I self-studied Mandarin and worked at an English language training center for school-aged students. Living abroad helped my language abilities immensely, but not in the way that most people would think.

Of course I benefited from being around Mandarin speakers every day, but in reality my greatest benefit came from the confidence boost of living on my own in a foreign country and overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of my goal on a daily basis.

Applying those lessons to my learning process has been a huge step forward and I recommend moving abroad to anyone who is interested in a country or its languages or both. However, if you are looking to make friends or have a full and fulfilling life in a new country, be sure you know at least some of the language before you arrive, or you will spend a considerable amount of time with the ex-pat community or alone entirely.

christopher huff

Christopher Huff in a taxi in Japan

 

FTLOL: How has your personality affected your language study over time?

CH: In my younger days with lower self-esteem, I used to just glance over a language book as a passing fancy, not believing that I could ever really learn or use it myself. I still feel this way about some languages. But experience brings you successes and failures, and you learn from both of them.

Over time, I have also grown more introspective and not as insistent on constant social interaction. This has benefited my language study in a big way, and I’m happier to study vocabulary these days as well, whereas before I hated it.

I also have a tendency to go through phases of frenzied interest in certain things — a quick scan of my web browser bookmarks bears this out. This also shows through in language wanderlust, a condition I suffer from routinely where an inability to hunker down and focus on one language leads to studying many at once or several in rapid succession.

I wrote a blog post with several practical tips to overcome this. I believe the process of using foreign languages can show you a lot about your personality that you would never know otherwise. For instance I have realized how much I enjoy making people laugh as a huge element of friendship through my apparent failure to do so in other languages starting out.

If you move to a country where you don’t know the language at all, you spend a lot of time in your own head noticing very small things about your environment and contemplating your place in it. It’s just another one of those benefits of language learning that doesn’t make the hot “buzz” lists on the Internet.

FTLOL: What type of materials or methods do you use to learn languages? Do you have any favourites?

CH: Spaced repetition software, for all that people routinely worship it, bores me to death. My all-time favorite method has to be the Goldlist method, which I introduced in a short animated video.

What I like about it, aside from the obvious fact that it works, is that it focuses on long-term memory and ultimately makes vocabulary learning enjoyable for me. I also get in some good meditative time when I use it.

Prior to learning about any specific methods or even connecting with the polyglot community, I enjoyed looking through the grammar of a language after learning to pronounce it and working on it one piece at a time. I can still remember, in my stubbornness, refusing to move forward in Spanish when I was 17 until I understood, say, the subjunctive.

As a very visual learner, and someone who enjoys reading and writing more than listening or speaking, I don’t make use of audio courses, and find it hard to relate to those who do. I think if a language has rules of pronunciation, which they all do as far as I know, they can be learned and applied at the outset as a foundation.

FTLOL: If you’ve ever tried to learn more than one language at a time, how do you organize your time between learning multiple languages? Are you able to give equal emphasis to all languages?

CH: I’ve never focused on just one language for a period of more than a few months. So this is a big question for me.

I don’t believe I can ever give equal emphasis to all of them, because in my opinion this would require in equal level for all of them, which is nearly impossible. Even if some of your languages are very close to each other in level, one will still be slightly better or fuller.

I think making routines can really assist in a polyglot’s time management. Also, I use an app called Rare Candy to keep track of how much time I spend on each language that I want to study. The app treats your time on certain tasks, which you clock in the app, as leveling up in an RPG game.

This way I can see very clearly that, for instance, I have studied Mandarin for 22 hours in the past two weeks, and given German only 8. And if this is the ratio you want, that’s great. If not, you can easily switch to better use your time.

FTLOL: Further to the previous question, are you able to keep multiple languages separate in your head, or do you find that words from one language can sometimes slip out when you’re speaking another one? If so, do you have any techniques to minimize this problem?

CH: I normally don’t have trouble with this, as long as I am already speaking the language in the conversation.

For instance, if I haven’t spoken for a few minutes, and suddenly a conversation begins in French, I might answer their question in Mandarin by accident. So only at the beginning do I need that strength of focus to remember this is a French conversation.

For me, the answer to remembering a word in one language but not the other has been circumlocution. At a certain level you can find ways of speaking around holes in your vocabulary and avoid unwanted mixtures.

FTLOL: Have there been any language learning materials or courses that you’ve personally found to be critical to your language learning?

CH: I never use audio courses for pronunciation, and I think with quality sound samples on Forvo or YouTube, and the IPA phonology available on Wikipedia, you can improve your accent for free.

I credit my German accent almost entirely to a YouTube channel called Magauchsein that does candid interviews on the streets of München with bilingual subtitles.

You may also love to get a feel for the sound and cadence of a language by searching for Let’s play + the name of the language on YouTube for videos of normal people using the language to commentate themselves playing video games. I would say that the Goldlist method used with a solid source of vocabulary is critical, as well as the Teach Yourself series, since it was so fundamental in the beginning for me.

Any course or material that can whittle things down for you as a beginner I can happily recommend; for instance, something that gives you just the most common reading for a kanji in Japanese, or something that explains a grammar rule in Russian or Turkish in its simplest forms without extremely rare exceptions even mentioned at all.

FTLOL: Have there been any specific people who have influenced you in learning languages?

CH: Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings are both huge sources of inspiration, and having spent time with them at polyglot gatherings for the past two years, I’m happy to say they are also dear friends.

In the end, anyone I meet in whom I can sense the same passion for studying languages that I have becomes a new influence for me.

christopher huff and richard simcott

Christopher Huff and Richard Simcott

 

FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might be struggling with learning a foreign language?

CH: Sure! If there’s something holding you back, you have to identify the problem first of all, and make sure solving it fits into your goals with the language.

And remember, unless you’re in contact with a never-before-seen indigenous language, someone has definitely been through the problem you’re enduring before and has come out on top.

So don’t feel alone in the face of it! Some things that are big struggles can be broken apart into manageable hurdles. I mean, they split up climbing Everest into several chunks with camps at different altitudes on purpose — there’s no other way to reach the top!

And just like climbing, everything is harder by yourself. Above all, don’t get discouraged and keep on pushing!

 

Find out more information about Christopher at his website here.

 

 

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