How to Learn a Foreign Language: An Interview with Doug Barr

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In this interview, Doug Barr kindly shares his experience using a form of ASL to work with deafblind individuals, as well as his interest in Aboriginal languages. He also provides some solid advice for how to make progress in a language, as well as what’s going on when your language learning plateaus.


doug barr imageFTLOL: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do for a living? Are you able to speak any of the languages you know at your work?

DB: I work as an “intervenor,” which is a specialized community support worker supporting deafblind individuals. I was born in Victoria, British Columbia [Canada] and now live in Vancouver, British Columbia [Canada].  We use a limited version of ASL or contact sign at work, modified because the body shifts, spacialization, and use of eye gaze that are parts of ASL grammar are too small and too fast for our clients to perceive. I also use a few phrases of Tagalog, Hindi, and Mandarin with my co-workers who speak those languages. Most communication between staff is in English, although some of us do try to sign our conversations so that the clients feel more included and have more idea what’s going on.


FTLOL: Which languages can you currently speak at a good conversational level (or else fluently), and are you studying any others at the moment?

DB: I’m fluent or near-fluent in French, Spanish, and Scottish Gaelic. I can speak Portuguese conversationally (although depending on the accent, reading is sometimes easier than understanding speech) and I have conversational ASL, as well as a low conversational ability in Japanese. I also have the grammar of several other languages without being able to converse in them much because I don’t have the vocabulary; some of those are Hawaiian, Cantonese, Tagalog, Turkish, Arabic (MSA and Egyptian), and Halkomelem.


FTLOL: When did you start learning foreign languages? Was there a specific event that triggered your interest in them?

DB: I’ve been interested in languages since I was very little — basically, since I became aware that not everyone in the world spoke English. At around age 10, I came downstairs announcing to my parents that I had grammatically parsed the Black Speech inscription on the One Ring in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and then proved it, which along with many other things caused them to joke that I was possibly a changeling.


FTLOL: Has there been a specific language or group of languages that you have enjoyed learning more than others? If so, why?

DB: I have tended to gravitate to Indigenous languages to some extent because of the very different worldviews that they encode, and because I’m attracted to languages with complex morphology, particularly polysynthetic languages. I also tend to be more interested in non-Indo-European languages with interesting structures. Besides structural/intellectual interest, I’m drawn to many Indigenous languages because they are so critically endangered.


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

DB: I have fairly serious ADHD, and although that isn’t a personality trait, it is definitely something that affects my learning style, in that traditional dry sit-down methods of instruction are difficult for me to maintain. In terms of personality per se, I’m very much a communicator, and diversity and respect for differences are core values of mine, so that does push me to learn languages; in fact, if I’m around people speaking a different language for any sizable amount of time, I experience an almost OCD-like “brain itch” compulsion to learn at least a little of their language.


FTLOL: Do you think it’s important for language learners to be organized in the way that they learn a language, or can they be fairly haphazard in their approach, such as just studying here and there whenever they feel like it or have time?

DB: Other than the basic principle of “little and often” (i.e., 10 minutes of study every day will be more effective than 70 minutes once a week), I think in general some level of organization is better, but what that will look like is too dependent on the individual learner’s raw talent, skill at learning languages, general abilities/disabilities (e.g., the ADHD mentioned above), and so on to permit a general one-size-fits-all approach.


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

DB: I use whatever comes to hand; obviously the Internet is now an important component of that. I personally — because I’m also an occasional language teacher of Scottish Gaelic — often push people in the direction of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), or at least that portion of the IPA that’s relevant to the language that they’re studying, because it’s one way to help people get the right phonemes early on. I also really like the Language Hunting Method because it’s worked well for me to teach Gaelic indirectly without grammar in a way that prevents the brain from just storing canned responses in the hopper without integrating them (which is all well and good until someone fails to respond to your conversational gambit the way the person on page 37 of your textbook responds).


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

DB: I tend not to simultaneously learn two closely-related languages at once because I sometimes find that words or structures in one language will “bleed over” into the other and cause confusion. I’ve experienced a little of that lately in learning Arabic and Turkish at the same time — the languages are unrelated but Turkish has a huge number of Arabic loanwords. Other than that, I’ve never had any difficulty.


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

DB: I adore Dr. Mario Pei’s rather breezy books about it, and perhaps Tolkien in the sense that he created languages and an amazing mythical world using actual languages as source material.


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

DB: Again, “little and often.” Also, go into this knowing that you’re likely to make at least one egregious, offensive, or hysterically funny mistake, and just do it anyway. I think one of the reasons children learn better than adults is that they tend to take themselves less seriously and aren’t afraid of making mistakes or looking stupid. Be aware, too, that language-learning is not a steady climb: there are periods of rising ability followed by “plateau” periods where your brain is integrating what you’ve learned. Sometimes during this integration phase you’ll make mistakes that you didn’t used to make; it’s as if your brain is working on the new information and has temporarily boxed up the previous information and can’t get to it for the moment. So it may feel like you’ve stopped learning, or even that you’re regressing a little, but what’s actually happening is that your brain is sorting out what you’ve learned and you’ll be back to visible progress soon enough.



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