Today I had the opportunity to interview Natasha Davis, executive project manager at ChinesePod. We discuss her experience living abroad and learning the Mandarin Chinese language, as well as Japanese, German, and Spanish, and also some of the useful tools she uses to keep her language skills strong.
FTLOL: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do for a living?
ND: My name is Natasha Davis and I was born and raised in Harlem, New York. I am currently an executive project manager at ChinesePod in Tokyo, Japan.
In my role, I must know not only the website, but also our subscribers, as well as the role each team member has in creating an enjoyable ChinesePod experience.
FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak to a good conversational level, and are you studying any others at the moment? Do you ever get a chance to speak these languages in your daily life?
ND: I speak, read, and write both Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. I use a bit of Chinese in the office, and I use Japanese every day, as I live in Japan.
I am also studying Spanish and every now and again I study a bit of German. Growing up in Harlem, Spanish was widely spoken and I regret not studying harder as a kid, but I will keep trying until I am at a conversational level. I am planning a trip to Germany in 2016, so I thought it would be a good idea to know some phrases, as well as a bit of small talk.
FTLOL: When did you start learning foreign languages? Was there a specific event that triggered your interest?
ND: Around the age of 8, I decided I wanted to learn Chinese because of the influence of Chinese businesses and people in my neighborhood in New York City. The spoken and written language is so different from English that it just seemed like a puzzle that I had to solve.
At age 16, I actively began studying the Chinese language after persuading my mom to buy a computer-based language program. It included several Asian languages on it, so I studied a bit of Japanese as well.
FTLOL: How has your personality affected your language study over time?
ND: Actually, I would say my language learning has affected my personality.
Chinese is a straightforward language where you say exactly what you mean. It is very direct and honest. This has helped me to become a bit more outgoing and talkative.
On the flipside, Japanese is subtle and indirect, which is closer to my personality, and perhaps the reason why I have lived in Japan for such a long time (nearly 10 years).
FTLOL: How do you go about studying foreign languages? For example, are there any specific resources that you use? Do you hold yourself to a specific study schedule?
ND: I wish I could stick to a study schedule! To be honest, I use a variety of resources to study. Of course I use ChinesePod, but I also use Hanping Pro flashcards (Chinese), +Babbel (German), and Duolingo (Spanish and German). I’ve also used Rosetta Stone (Japanese and German) in the past.
I am really focused on building my Chinese and Japanese vocabulary at the moment, so I use flashcards regularly on my train commute to and from work. I listen to the Qingwen portion of ChinesePod to keep my listening and grammar up to par.
In addition to those study tools, I have attended language school here in Tokyo, Japan and I have gone to Tianjin, China to study at a university for two years.
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? Has living abroad helped you to learn the languages that you know?
ND: I am a HUGE supporter of studying abroad. The main reason why I live in Asia is because I knew it would definitely help me gain a natural, working level of communication in both Mandarin and Japanese.
I also hope I will be able to take a short-term Spanish course in South America in the future. Language learning is not about memorizing canned responses, it is human communication, which should include experiencing cultures, traditions, mannerisms, and the basic way of living in other countries.
Natasha trekking around Tian’anmen Square in Beijing
FTLOL: What have been some of the most difficult aspects for you of learning a new language? What have you found easy? Can you provide us with any examples?
ND: As a shy person, speaking to others is not always easy for me. My friends look to me to translate all the time, but I still have a serious fear of making mistakes even though I know that is a part of the learning process. I am still working on it!
The easiest thing about language learning is mobility. You can take your study tools on your computer/smartphone/tablet with you wherever you go, so there is no reason not to keep up with your studies.
FTLOL: Have there been any specific people who have influenced you in learning languages?
ND: Condoleezza Rice has always been an influence to me. Not just because of her history in the White House, but also because she is an accomplished pianist and speaks four languages (Russian, French, Spanish, and Czech).
FTLOL: What advice would you have for people who might be struggling with learning a foreign language?
ND: Language learning is a process. You will have moments where you feel you are advancing quite quickly, and you will also have moments where you feel you are at an absolute standstill.
Always keep going because with every step forward, you know more than you did when you started. Do not push yourself too hard. Give your brain a rest and start again later.
Most importantly, use what you know with others. The whole reason why you are studying is for communication with others. Join groups, make new friends, travel… If learning languages is your passion, then do not hesitate to use every possible resource at your disposal.
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