Luca Toma is an Italian polyglot who spent almost two decades abroad working as a language instructor, with half this time spent in Japan. In this interview, he talks about his unique view on how to better learn languages, as well as his language coaching company for teaching Japanese.
FTLOL: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do for a living? How often are you able to speak foreign languages in your daily life?
LT: I’m Luca from Italy. I come from an area called Salento, at the ‘heel of the boot’. I lived abroad for almost 18 years working as a language instructor in universities (Japan, the UK, and Belgium), and moved back to my own country a few months ago.
I now work as an online language coach, mainly with learners of Japanese (although I sometimes also teach Italian). In addition to language coaching, I also translate Japanese comic books.
I have a lot of foreign friends and most of my clients are from outside Italy, so I get to speak foreign languages almost everyday.
Luca practicing his calligraphy.
FTLOL: Which languages can you currently speak at a good conversational level (or else fluently), and are you studying any others at the moment?
LT: Outside of my mother tongue (Italian), my best languages are Japanese and English. I majored in Japanese Studies and studied both Japanese and Chinese. My Chinese is at a lower level, but I can easily read a newspaper because of the 3000+ characters I know from Japanese.
The other two languages that I speak are Spanish and French, both at a higher intermediate level. But again, I can easily read books in both languages because of their resemblance to Italian.
I’ve also studied some Russian, Czech, and Dutch in the past at a very basic level, but I wouldn’t count them as languages that I can actually ‘speak’.
However, I’m currently working on German and Albanian, two languages that I wish to get fluent in. I chose German because it has always been a challenge for me since I was a child (more on that below), and Albanian because I can clearly see the morning sun rising from behind the mountains of Albania from where I live, and that was enough to spark my interest for their language and culture.
FTLOL: When did you start learning foreign languages? Was there a specific event that triggered your interest in them?
LT: I’d say I started to notice my deep interest for foreign languages when I was a child, the two main triggers being the fascination for being able to convey meaning in another language and the discovery of different scripts.
I had relatives living in Switzerland who used to come to Italy for vacation and speak German to each other most of the time. To my child’s ears, German sounded like an obscure and difficult language to learn. I always wanted to be able to speak it one day.
The other factor that sparked my interest for foreign languages was watching Japanese anime. We were literally bombarded by Japanese anime here in Italy throughout the 1990s.
Anime allowed me to not only discover a totally different culture from my own, but also a very fascinating script. Totally unaware of their meanings, I used to note down Chinese characters and fantasize about how it would be great to understand them one day. I’m glad that dream came true at the end.
FTLOL: Has your personality affected the way you study languages? For example, do you have a specific type of learning style?
LT: Personality was definitely an important factor. However, what I’ve now understood after so many year is a simple and yet often overlooked truth: There is no best method for learning outside your own.
We now know from neuroscience that no two brains are alike, so for me, finding out how my brain likes to learn was the key to my success with languages.
I’m very inquisitive by nature, and that personality trait took me on a long journey in an endless search for effective methods and techniques. I’d get in touch with other members of the online polyglot community and ask for useful tips. I’d meticulously try them out one by one, only to find out how inefficient most of them were for me.
Just a few examples…
Flashcards – I’ve tried to use them many times, but with no results whatsoever. I definitely prefer to (or rather, my brain likes to) learn from context and massive exposure. That’s enough to get the words to stick.
I’ve also noticed that I learn better by listening and reading, and that I can learn grammar by just reading parallel texts in the target language and in one that I already understand.
Now I just focus on strategies that work for me.
Luca with the Great Buddha in Kamakura, Japan.
FTLOL: What type of resources or methods do you use to learn languages? Do you have any preferences?
LT: Once I found out how my brain likes to learn, selecting the right resources was easier.
Assimil is definitely my preferred resource for building my basis in a language. It perfectly fits my learning style, so I can have interesting dialogues both in the target and a known language, as well as audio files to listen to.
In addition to Assimil, I then integrate self-study with weekly meetings on Skype with friends that speak my target language and practice talking about topics I’m interested in.
FLOL: From what I’ve read, you previously lived in Japan for 10 years while studying for a Master’s degree and teaching English and Italian. I’m sure many of our readers would be interested to learn more about your time in Japan. Why did you originally go there, how did you start teaching, and what was it like being at a Japanese university?
LT: I got there thanks to a scholarship that I received from the Japanese Ministry of Education. I was actually able to get it twice! The first time to go and learn Japanese for a year in Hokkaido when I was in my 3rd year of university and the second time as a research student after graduation.
I was conducting a research project on Japanese graphic design, but once in Tokyo I decided to enroll in a Master’s degree program in graphic design and actually create works myself. I was so lucky to pass the entrance exam (the same one Japanese students sit for) and was accepted in the poster design course.
Attending a Japanese university as a regular student was an extremely rich experience for me. For three years, I spent most of my time with other Japanese students, working on different projects, and participating in many activities. I was able to bring my Japanese up to a very high level (since I had to write essays and give presentations) and to understand Japanese culture from within.
Then, at some point, I had the chance to work part-time as an Italian language teacher. It was supposed to be just a way to make a little extra money while studying, but I ended up loving teaching!
So after my Master’s course, I was offered to teach graphic design theory and presentation skills in English at the same university I graduated from, and Italian at another university a few years later.
FTLOL: Can you expand on what your Master’s degree was about? What did your research specifically focus on?
LT: Actually, I got two Master’s degrees. The one I did in Japan was in Japanese graphic design theory and practice. In addition to that, I also got another degree in applied linguistics and Japanese language pedagogy.
In the first one, I focused on traditional decorative motifs in contemporary Japanese poster design, whereas in the second one I researched anxiety in learning Chinese characters . It turned out that some students feel anxious when it comes to learning characters because they don’t know which strategies work best for them.
Obviously, this is a topic which is rarely touched on in classroom instruction.
Ryoanji, a famous rock garden in Kyoto. This is one of the works Luca created for his Master’s course in graphic design.
FTLOL: You also currently have a Japanese language coaching business. Can you tell us a bit about what exactly this entails and how you are able to help people better learn Japanese?
LT: Specifically said, I am certified as a neurolanguage coach. Don’t be scared — I’ll explain what this is.
Neurolanguage coaching is a new approach to language learning based on the latest findings in neuroscience, as well as tools used in coaching. It incorporates these into the learning process for faster and more efficient results.
Every one of us is different in the way we learn, so neurolanguage coaching can be thought of as a totally tailor-made method that adapts to the learning style(s) of each learner. There are no books, only clear and well-defined goals. Unlike traditional teaching, it’s a co-operative interaction where the client sits behind the wheel and the coach is there to guide him or her.
At some point in my career as a teacher, I started to feel a big gap between the way I was learning languages and how they were taught in schools. Seeing students loose their motivation because of exam-related stress and boring drills made me realize I had to stop and work on my own.
I now have a website devoted to Japanese language coaching. You’ll find just a few articles there because I’ve just started building it, but I’m determined to keep adding new and interesting information little by little..
My job is to motivate and help learners of Japanese to overcome various stumbling blocks and to show them that they too can become fluent in this language. On a 1-on-1 basis, I help them identify their main struggles, and then together we define the right goals and strategies in a totally relaxed and cheerful atmosphere.
FTLOL: Have there been any specific people who have influenced you in learning languages?
LT: There actually is one particular person that influenced me: the Italian polyglot Luca Lampariello.
As soon as I discovered his YouTube channel, I contacted him and he actually invited me to go visit him in Paris where he was living at the time. It was the year 2011, and since then we have been good friends.
I have applied Luca’s techniques for learning Spanish and French up to a decent level, but above all, I took the big decision to quit my job as a traditional language teacher and become a language coach.
I can definitely say that Luca was really a huge source of inspiration for me!
Luca with his Japanese students.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might be struggling with learning a foreign language?
LT: If someone is struggling, that means they are not learning according to the way their brain learns best. The secret to a more brain-friendly way of learning is to discover what your preferred learning style is.
We all learn differently and get better results by doing certain activities and not others. Usually this is a totally unconscious process, so my advice is to observe yourself and try to discover which strategies work best for you.
Remember! There is no best method outside your own!