How to Learn Languages for Work and Travel: An Interview with Alfred Millar

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In my interview with Alfred Millar, he discusses the over 10 languages he has studied or is currently studying, how he found a job that allows him to use foreign languages on a daily basis, and how he is able to travel for short periods each month to places like North Korea, Bhutan, and the United States to learn more about various cultures and peoples.


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?

AM: I’m from the Philippines! I’ve lived in Manila almost all my life and my work has always been related to languages. With the emergence of Manila as a business process outsourcing hub in the last decade or so, many companies are willing to hire you if you are fluent in another language other than Tagalog or English, and the pay is really well.

Needless to say, I took advantage of that! Right now I am reliant on online work, which I believe to be a significant paradigm shift, a game changer if I may say so. The tasks generally involve social media, particularly the administrative and technical aspects of it. I mostly speak Tagalog with family and friends. English is the default language I use online for blogging and interacting on social media. Spanish and Portuguese are primarily used at work.


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

AM: This is always a controversial question. Tagalog is my mother tongue, so there’s no question about that. English is a given if you grow up in the Philippines, although fluency would vary depending on the quality of education you’re exposed to. Regardless, I can say most Filipinos are functional in it.

Spanish was my first foreign language. When self-study and classroom learning didn’t suffice, I decided to take it to the next level and apply for call center jobs, where I got to hone my skills. I learned Brazilian Portuguese through immersion, using Portuñol as a bridge. Portuguese speakers in my first job were scarce and yet around 90% of the clients dealt with on the phone were from Brazil! I studied Italian at university but haven’t got the chance to really use it.

If I am to use my language certificates as a basis, I have: a C2 in English (CPE); a C1 in Spanish (DELE C1), Portuguese (DAPLE), and Italian (PLIDA C1); a B2 in French (DELF B2), German (ÖSD B2), and Mandarin (HSK 4); and an A2 in Korean (TOPIK 2) and Japanese (JLPT N4). But then again, I see these certificates as an estimation of language level, not gospel truth! I’ve just started an online course in Bahasa Indonesia, and I will begin my online postgraduate diploma in Latin at a Welsh university next month.


Alfred Millar Beijing


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

AM: A cousin of mine was learning French back in 2003. ENVY! But I found French a bit too hard with all the nasals and unpronounced letters, so I decided to tackle a language that was phonetically closer to Tagalog and ended up with Spanish. The rest was history.

It started out as a hobby and quickly turned into an obsession. I’ve never stopped learning foreign languages on a daily basis since then, may it be studying grammar, listening to the radio, watching movies, or reading the news! Sometimes I hate being too competitive, but I believe you could use it as a legit motivational tool if you don’t have the passion in the beginning. Sustaining that motivation is a different story altogether.


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

AM: Yes, but I couldn’t really explain why. I really love Brazilian Portuguese and Korean because both of them sound so cute, like toddlers fighting over candy or something. When I was young, I really liked French, until I discovered how hard it was for me to pronounce!

This answer makes it appear as though I have a bias for phonetics. Maybe it is the case, but when I try to make a deeper analysis of my situation, I think the most appropriate answer for this question would be Romance languages. I really find the lexical and grammar overlap too convenient to refuse. I guess this is how I ended up with European languages in the first place, which I find ironic because I’ve only ever been to Europe for a few months!

Had I known that I would be traveling extensively around Asia, I should have decided to study Asian languages earlier instead! Anyway, I think all of them are fun when you are just starting.


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

AM: My personality has affected my language learning style A LOT.

Being an introvert, I am allergic to conversation. I mean, I’m not a snob. Ask me a question and you will get a reply, but I’m not the talkative type who would go out of his way to sustain a conversation.

This is why when I study languages, I tend to excel in its written form because I love reading and writing. I just do! Maybe this is because such activities do not require much socializing.

I somehow regret this because I always end up like a talking textbook, what with the lack of natural conversation involved in my learning style. In this regard, italki has helped me a lot lately. I don’t like conversing face-to-face, but when there is a laptop screen between me and the other person, the inhibitions just go away! Weird, I know.


Alfred Millar Facebook


FTLOL: From what I’ve seen, you travel around the world quite a lot, though many people believe that it’s all but impossible for the average person to travel frequently. Can you give us an over view of how you do it?

AM: This, my friend, is one of the perks of working online. As opposed to the usual desk job where you are tied to your desk from 9 to 5, working freelance gives you freedom in terms of schedule and location independence.

If you want to work just one hour a day, you can do that. If you want to work 24 hours a day, you could also do that, although I don’t really recommend it unless you want to die early. You work, you earn. You don’t work, you don’t earn. As simple as that!

And of course, the other perk is location independence. Because your work is online, you could work anywhere as long as there’s internet. Security measures vary per client, but with the highly advanced technology available nowadays, you are bound to find a way to make things work.

Even though I seem to be on the move most of the time, I just want to dispel any ideas that I’m living a nomadic lifestyle. I’ve tried it. It’s really exhausting, and I don’t find it appealing anymore.

What I’ve been doing lately is taking a day or two off right before or after a weekend once a month to fly off somewhere. So far, I like it better this way. So yeah, thank you, Internet, for being my bread and butter. I’d marry you if I could, but I don’t think it’s legal.


FTLOL: Further to the previous question, where are some of the most interesting or unique places you’ve traveled to?

AM: North Korea and Bhutan! Both countries are quite restrictive as far as prices are concerned because you have to join a tour group. However, I have to say that it was worth it.

Pyongyang amused me a lot because everything I knew about it I knew thanks (or no thanks?) to Western media. I’m not saying that what you’re hearing all along is wrong, but there is obviously a difference between just hearing about it and being able to experience it yourself. Add to the fact that I love Seoul and that I’m always there, so seeing Pyongyang and the stark contrast between the two was really one for the books.

Bhutan was really unique. The country seems to be resisting modernity and life remains simple, but everyone seems so happy so it was a real eye-opener for me, especially after visiting California a few months later where consumerism reigns supreme.

As I said in my blog, I’m not saying that the American perception of happiness is false or any less appealing. What I’m driving at is that our world is just so diverse, and witnessing how different ideologies affect everyday life is plain amazing. Perhaps this is one of the few things I still continue to enjoy when it comes to travel.


Alfred Millar Vientiane


FTLOL: I’m sure that being able to speak the languages you do has helped when travelling to foreign countries. However, do you have any strategies for communicating with people when you don’t speak a mutual language? If so, what do you do in those circumstances?

AM: China used to be my playground when I was just starting to travel around Asia. My Mandarin was non-existent back then, but I survived just like everybody else.

I agree that knowing the local language would enrich your travel experience tenfold, but I don’t believe it to be necessary. We are all human beings, and once upon a time we never really had to speak to communicate.

Body language is essential to finding out if your host or whoever you are with is starting to get annoyed or happy with your presence. Using your fingers to point out what you want is the most common last resort when it comes to ordering food. Nodding your head is universal as a form of agreement, at least in most societies. It’s hard, but it makes you laugh a bit when you reminisce a year or so later.

Recently, though, I usually end up finding a common language between me and the other person, which is always a good thing because it makes communication much easier! Even then, it’s not always a guarantee, especially when you’re trying to buy 可乐 but the saleslady can’t figure out what the heck you want even if she has two dozen cans of it in front of her, all because you’re pronouncing it as kèlè instead of kĕlè. And there you thought you were both speaking Mandarin! Story of my life.


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

AM: Aside from that cousin I was talking about, there was this one classmate of mine at university who was studying European languages. His major was German and his minor was French, and he would read his French handouts instead of listening to the prof while we were in Philosophy class.

I thought he was stupid because what job would you get if you graduated with a degree in German or French, right? Seriously? Of course, the call center boom in Manila would happen years later, and I bet he’s filthy rich now.

One of my greatest regrets in life is forcing myself to study politics instead of transferring to European languages. I still ended up a polyglot anyway, but I rarely use my background in politics nowadays!

When I discovered the joys of language learning, the polyglot pioneers of YouTube played a big role in motivating me not just to post my own multilingual video, but also to go on learning. Back in 2010, there weren’t as many of them as they are now. To name-drop a few: Richard Simcott, Luca Lampariello, Amir Ordabayev, Mario Isla (where is he?!), and even Aaron Posehn (before you disappeared, or maybe you just weren’t that active after your YouTube debut).


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

AM: I think everyone is struggling at some point, but not everyone would like to talk about it. The online polyglot community has grown so large nowadays and most members are really helpful, except for the occasional trolls you’d love to push down a volcano.

Suffice it to say that the ones who would positively motivate you far outnumber the ones who would drag you down. Reach out to them. Exchange notes. Share your own experiences.

I never really thought that the multilingual video I posted half a decade ago would make that much of a difference, but in the end it opened A LOT of doors for me. I still feel weird when some random person contacts me and thanks me for inspiring them to become a polyglot themselves, all because they saw my video. It feels strange thinking that something as simple as a YouTube video you thought you made for yourself could also affect others in a good way, but somehow it does!

Moving on, some would propose a certain method that is supposed to be the most effective, but there is no single sure-fire way to learn a language. Instead, try to filter and adapt the ones you think would be beneficial for you once you factor in other crucial variables, such as your personality, free time, preferred language learning style, and the like.

Also do keep in mind that language learning is not all about fun, but more of a balance between enjoying it and working hard at it, something you could apply to life in general as well.


Alfred Millar San Francisco



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