I recently got the chance to speak with Irina Pravet, a Romanian Canadian living abroad in Finland who has learned a number of foreign languages through a combination of attending school, learning them on her own, and by interacting with native speakers. Here she shares her experiences learning six languages, as well as her TED talk that she gave in Finland in 2015 about how to learn the hardest language in the world.
FTLOL: Tell our readers a bit about your background. Where are you from and where do you currently live and work?
IP: Starting with a hard question right off the bat! Well, I was born in Romania, I grew up in Canada (first Montreal, then Toronto, the latter I consider to be my hometown). Today I live in Helsinki, Finland after having bounced around a few other places in between.
My identity is pretty plural and hard to pin down, yet wherever I am, I try to live life fully, learn the language, live the culture, and use my experiences to grow past my comfort zone.
FTLOL: How did you get interested in learning languages and how many do you currently speak?
IP: Languages have always been a part of my life. I was born when Romania was still a communist country, so languages seemed like the currency to a better life.
My parents are both multilingual, my paternal grandmother worked as a translator and spoke five languages, my other grandparents also encouraged my parents to learn languages. We had Italian vinyl records around the house when I was growing up (even though I don’t speak Italian). Different languages were just part of the world I grew up learning about.
Today I’d say I’m fluent in 4 languages – Romanian, English, French, and Finnish. I also have a lot of passive knowledge in Spanish and German, which I hope to activate and improve at some point.
FTLOL: How have you managed to learn so many languages in your life so far? Do you have any special techniques or personal methods that you use?
IP: I pay attention, I stay persistent, and I get really frustrated when I can’t express myself.
I used to tell people I was just in the right place at the right time growing up, but as an adult it took more than that because there’s always a choice to speak English. I guess the desire to really connect with people on a deeper level has always been my underlying motivation.
I also fall in love with sounds that are unfamiliar to me. I listen to people speaking a language I can’t speak and instead of being intimidated, I think to myself: I want to be able to make those sounds and understand what they mean!
I believe language learning is a big exercise in mindfulness. You learn when you’re open and aware. So I aim to find fun and enjoyable ways to learn and be open to picking up new things.
I don’t have any crafty methods. I just make a commitment to a language (seriously, I’m not much of a dabbler – usually I need a very concrete reason for learning it) and then I make it fun and engaging.
FTLOL: Are there any particular materials or courses that you find useful when learning a language?
IP: Not really. I follow my curiosity and leave what’s of no interest to me. For example, I am dabbling (for the first time in years!) with Danish at the moment – it’s been about a week. I use Duolinguo, but I find the sentences a bit boring and repetitive. I have some TV shows I watch in Danish with Finnish subtitles (Rita, Hjørdis) and I’ve asked some Danish friends for music recommendations.
Because Danish writing and speaking are so different, I try to first immerse myself in the sounds of the language in natural speech or song. I find this much more engaging and motivating for me than beginner content.
I sent my friend a short recording of me introducing myself in Danish on WhatsApp the other day – it was terrifying. I like to keep things exciting.
I guess the next step would be to get a beginner textbook and start stringing more sentences together.
FTLOL: If you’ve ever tried to learn more than one language at once, how did you organize your time? Are you able to give them all equal attention?
IP: In high school I took German and Spanish at the same time for two years. It was tough to keep them separate in my head since I’d be thinking “Yo soy” in German and “Ich bin” in Spanish.
I ended up dropping German and focusing on Spanish. While my Spanish got a lot more fluent after five years, I continued to listen to German music and find fun ways of maintaining my German, so by the time I went to Germany a few summers later, I hadn’t lost much.
FTLOL: Do you ever get languages mixed up when speaking them? For example, do you ever find yourself mistakenly using words from one language when in the middle of a conversations in another language?
IP: Yes, this happens to me a lot. It usually happens with languages that are pretty rusty, like German and Spanish, but sometimes I start to mix Finnish into my German because it’s so much more used these days.
I think we not only need to practice speaking a language to improve it, but we also need to practice quickly switching between languages to give our brains that exercise. I see a lot of polyglots doing this at the events we attend, when the group language changes, someone always needs to close their eyes and kind of steer their brain towards the language they want to switch into.
It takes some focus to happen fast. If not, I find the transition can be made easier by listening to music or talking to myself beforehand so it’s easier to converse.
FTLOL: When I attended elementary and high school in Western Canada, children generally took French or Spanish (and sometimes German) classes as part of the school curriculum; however, they rarely were able to speak very well even after years and years of study in the classroom. Since you’re also from Canada, did you experience this? What are your thoughts on learning a language strictly in the classroom rather than from immersing yourself in the cultural aspects of the speakers for the language you’re studying?
IP: Good question! I think part of the problem is that not everyone who’s forced to take these classes actually want to learn the language. I think our efforts need to go above and beyond the classroom and we need to get really engaged and excited about what we’re learning.
Unlike other school subjects, a language doesn’t only get learned, it also needs to be spoken, like a skill. So while school can help us develop the foundations we need to successfully speak the language, it’s really about what we do with that knowledge on our own time (and the classroom is optional, in my opinion).
As far as my personal experience, I learned French in a French school in Montreal so I can’t really compare the experiences. We all spoke French in the classroom and French at recess and French on the weekends at birthday parties and playdates.
Once I moved to Toronto and eventually went to a bilingual school, we spoke only French in the classroom and then English together. It was tough (if not impossible) to maintain the same level of comfort in the language because English was very much the dominant language. So yes, I’m a big supporter of learning and using a language outside the classroom.
FTLOL: Further to the previous question, how useful is it to go to a foreign country to learn a language? Can you achieve a similar level of fluency without leaving your hometown?
IP: I’ve mostly learned languages for the sake of using them while travelling. That’s not to say you can’t create your own learning environment at home, but then you actually need to create something to get a decent amount of exposure to the language, and that takes extra effort.
It all depends on your motivation and your passion for what you’re doing. Of course you also need to interact with people who speak the language to help shape your progress and so you can self-correct along the way.
I don’t think it’s about the actual foreign country, but more about the environment and contact you can have with the language. However you choose to do that is up to you.
FTLOL: I recently learned that you once gave a TED Talk. Can you expand upon what it was about? Did it have a language theme?
IP: In 2015, I spoke at TEDxOtaniemi on the theme of “Can you learn the hardest language in the world?” I focused my talk on the Finnish language, though it could apply to any language you might deem difficult, and addressed the psychological barriers I’ve seen get in people’s ways when they set out to learning.
I wanted to start a conversation about these barriers in an attempt to bring them to light and encourage more people to embark on the journey of learning a language (however hard they might think it is) because ultimately, much of the difficulty is in our heads.
You can find the talk here.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who may want to start learning a foreign language, but who might not know where to start?
IP: I’ll quote the timeless words of Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss.”
Start with whatever it is what fascinates you most about the language and make the learning journey as fun and as engaging as possible, on your own terms. Take it one day at a time. This simple approach will lead you much further than you’ve ever thought possible.
FTLOL: What’s next for you? Do you plan on learning any more languages, or will you work to further develop some of the ones you’ve already learned or are learning? Are you planning any more talks, TED or otherwise?
IP: Next up, I’m focusing my energy on www.irinapravet.com where I write, coach, and create products related to personal growth, learning languages, and truly living new cultures.
I’ve been dabbling with Danish for a week so I don’t want to make any bold claims, but my language learning also serves as experiments to help me better understand people who are just starting out with languages since I haven’t learned any new ones in a little while.
I’d really like to find more uses for my French, Spanish, and German and get them to a level where I’d feel comfortable speaking without constant stops and hesitations. But only the future will tell where all of this goes!
If your interested in learning more about Irina and the services she provides, you can check out her site, Language Catalyst.
You can also watch her TED Talk below.