Today I got the chance to talk with André Pinto, a current student in Portugal studying for a graduate degree in linguistics. He has experience learning Spanish, Japanese, English, Mandarin, French, Italian, Cantonese, and Hindi, and of course can speak his native Portuguese. He shares with us here a bit about his language learning journey to date.
FTLOL: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from, where do you live, and what do you do for a living?
AP: My name is André Pinto and I am 23 years old. I am from Portugal, currently living in the capital, Lisbon. I majored in Asian Studies at the University of Lisbon, where I am currently taking an MA in Linguistics. I work as a freelance translator and a teacher of Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.
FTLOL: How did you start learning foreign languages and how long have you been doing it for?
AP: The first language that I learnt was English, at the age of eight. Although I took English classes at elementary school, I felt like I was not really benefiting from formal education. It was thanks to subtitled TV shows (because we usually do not dub in Portugal), such as The Simpsons, that I became able to hold a conversation in English around the time I was twelve.
However, it was Japanese that paved the way for my broader interest in foreign language learning. When I was 16, I was an avid consumer of Japanese manga, novels (translations), and music. I learnt Hiragana and Katakana by heart when I was still a high school student, but that was about it.
I would say my language journey began five years ago, in 2011, when I graduated high school. When it was time to pick a major, I took a bold step and applied for a BA in Asian Studies (an area that was rather unheard of at the time).
FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak now, and are you studying any others at the moment?
AP: Besides Portuguese (European), which is my mother tongue, I can speak (and read/write) in English, Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese (Traditional 繁體字). My French is not as fluent as any of these languages, but I use the language on a daily basis to read the news, books, or academic essays. The same applies to my unimpressive Italian.
As for new languages, I am currently learning Hindi and Cantonese. I have also learnt a bit of Dutch in the past, because my grandparents and my mother lived in the Netherlands in the 70’s. However, I am nowhere near fluent.
As for my wishlist, I am having a torrid love affair with Thai, of which I intend to learn the basics before travelling to Thailand.
But, to be honest, what I am really aiming for is near-native proficiency in Japanese. I have passed the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and I am currently working hard on my Kanji in order to pass Level 2 of the Japanese Kanji Aptitude Test.
FTLOL: Is there any particular method you have for learning a new language or any particular resources you like to use? For example, do you make yourself study with language books for a certain amount of time each day, take language classes, talk with native speakers, or do something else entirely?
AP: I have taken language classes in the past, usually in order to earn credentials as a qualified speaker of the language. I especially enjoyed Hindi classes at the University of Lisbon, with professor Shiv Kumar Singh, a strict yet dynamic teacher whose teaching methods I find particularly efficient.
Having that said, I am mostly self-taught. I usually pick up one or two textbooks, which I complement with a descriptive grammar (Routledge is a must!). I try to balance my skills (speaking, listening, writing, reading) as best as I can, by spending a lot of time doing listening practice.
Many self-taught learners find themselves in a situation where they have a good command of the written language, but have a hard time understanding oral input. And such an imbalance can really affect your overall performance when communicating with native speakers.
In languages such as Japanese, where my level of proficiency is higher, I do a lot of reading, mostly novels and essays, but also news and blogs. Sometimes I use shadowing techniques to improve my pronunciation and prosody. I also listen to the radio and watch TV shows.
It is especially important to receive as much native input as possible. While textbook audio is suitable for the first steps, I think it is impossible to achieve near-native fluency without mastering the spoken language as it is used by the people who speak it, both in formal and informal contexts.
Through extensive reading and listening, it becomes easier to grasp little subtleties such as idioms, slang, and phonological phenomena in general.
FTLOL: If you’ve ever tried to learn more than one language at once, how did you organize your time? Were you able to give equal emphasis to all of the languages?
AP: I personally feel that dividing my time equally between two languages would only slow down my progress on both, so I always stick to one major language, to which I may add one or two minor languages.
As an Asian Studies undergraduate (2011-2014), I learnt Japanese and Mandarin Chinese basically at the same time. However, I did notice that one of the languages would always take the majority of my time.
My 2nd year of college was mostly dedicated to Chinese. However, in my 3rd year I was an exchange student at Waseda University (Tokyo). From that time onward, I have always split my time between Japanese (usually 75% of my time) and other languages I wish to maintain (mostly Mandarin) or expand (Cantonese and Hindi).
FTLOL: Do you think that it is better to go to a foreign country to learn a language, or can you achieve a similar level of fluency without leaving your home town? Have you ever lived abroad to learn a language?
AP: When aiming for near-native fluency, I would say it is vital to immerse oneself in the language. To do so, you can consider moving to a country where the language is spoken.
However, for most people, that is simply not possible. So, I would recommend that everyone engage with local immigrant communities that speak the language you wish to learn. You should also surround yourself with audio content and publications targeted to native speakers in order to create an environment where you are constantly exposed to the language.
I have studied at Waseda University, in Tokyo (Japan), where my main goal was to improve my overall skills in Japanese. Most classes were extremely useful. I am particularly grateful to professor Nakagawa Chieko, who taught me how to correctly reproduce the Tokyo pitch accent (not even mentioned on many textbooks).
Nevertheless, it was thanks to everyday interactions that my Japanese became more fluent. I enjoyed the time I spent talking to other university students, professors, and friends. But I also benefited a lot from the sweet chit-chats I had with a very nice grandma that worked as a clerk in a convenience store.
I would say the biggest difference between studying Japanese in Japan and here in Lisbon is the fact that in Tokyo I was surrounded by native oral input and Kanji 24/7.
I would definitely say that life abroad is worth a try. But do not feel discouraged if you do not have such a chance. With persistence and the right amount of effort, it is equally possible to become fluent in a language without living in an area where it is widely spoken.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might want to learn a language but who don’t know where to start?
AP: I have three simple pieces of advice which may be useful for new language learners.
First, start speaking to native speakers from day 1. Start with basic greetings and move on to more elaborate conversations when your lexicon and grammar enable you to do so. It is as important to spend time listening as it is to practice pronunciation or reading.
Second, do not be afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes are your best friends. Mistakes tell you exactly what you must work on in order to become a more proficient speaker.
Lastly, keep in mind that language learning is not a race where the goal is to reach the end. (spoiler alert: there is never an end!!) Learning a language is like going on a roadtrip: it is the journey and the fun that matter, not the final destination.
FTLOL: How has your personality affected your language study over time?
AP: I would say being an extrovert played a really positive role on my language learning. Many spontaneous interactions that I shared with absolute strangers in China, Japan, or Italy would have not been possible if I had trouble speaking to other people.
But my language study has also been negatively influenced by some aspects of my personality. For instance, I have always been very hasty. For that reason, I sometimes become very frustrated when I am not able to express myself as well as I intend. But thanks to many kind friends, I have gradually become more tolerant of my own mistakes and shortcomings.
When I started learning Japanese, I wanted to master all Joyo Kanji (常用漢字) as fast as possible. But I soon realized I had many years ahead of me before I could master all the character readings in Japanese.
Now I believe consistency and steady progress are far more important than speedy results.