Today I got the chance to interview Ed Blankenship, a PhD student in Iranian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). For more than 10 years, he’s studied a wide range of foreign languages, and has also recently returned from a research trip to Georgia and the Netherlands. He has kindly answered my questions below, but I’ve also included a video at the end of this interview that he also made on his own YouTube channel to answer questions about his language learning journey.
FTLOL: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into learning foreign languages.
EB: I was raised in a rural, monolingual community. We had some immigrants, but not many, and the local governments were passing laws for legal monolingualism (meaning that the government doesn’t have to offer translation services).
I always had an interest in the world. I was obsessed with world geography and I used to tell my mom I wanted to work for the UN. When my older sisters started learning French in high school, I wanted to as well, but I had to wait.
Eventually in 8th grade, I got the opportunity to study Spanish and I jumped on it. From there I started learning French, Brazilian Portuguese, German, Russian, Chinese, and more. I sort of just took off and started studying whatever I found to be interesting or could get my hands on a book for.
FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak to a good conversational level, and are you studying any others at the moment?
EB: On a good conversational level, I’d definitely say I speak English, Spanish, French, and Arabic.
I’ve been studying Persian (mostly Afghan and Tajik dialects) for 3 years, but my focus has been generally linguistic, so my conversational skills are still a bit slow; I understand the majority of things I hear, but I just answer slowly.
After dusting off cobwebs and getting back into the groove, I think I’d hold my own just fine in Brazilian Portuguese and German as well (I’d definitely put myself at an intermediate level in them, I just don’t get to use them very often.)
My Dutch isn’t bad, but I’m better at reading and writing than speaking.
As for other languages, I’m always studying more. The two modern Iranian languages I’m focusing on right now are Pashto and Ossetian (though I want to get into Balochi and Shughni soon). I’ve also been working on Swedish for fun, and Russian, Hungarian, and Finnish for research.
But I’m always playing with something. I need to get back to Chinese soon, and I’ve been studying some Japanese grammar. I’ve also taken a liking for Serbian and Macedonian lately, so maybe they’ll pick up in the near future. I also just recently decided I want to learn Cornish, but I’m not sure how much time I have for that.
These are also just the modern languages. I’m studying some dead Iranian languages and have just begun Classical Greek (again).
FTLOL: How has your personality affected your language study over time?
EB: It’s been a help and a hindrance really. I have this need to try everything and to experiment, so I’ve played with most of the world’s major languages and I’ve touched most of the major language families.
This helps for a broader understanding of the theoretical workings of language, but it keeps me from settling on one or two to focus on.
Also, I love talking. I can be shy when I first meet people, but once I’m comfortable, I love to talk, so I get good practice (though that shyness can be a hindrance at first as well).
FTLOL: As a current PhD student focusing on Iranian Philology at UCLA in Los Angeles, I’ve seen that you just returned from research trips to Leiden and Tbilisi this summer. Can you tell us a bit about your current research?
EB: Research is an ever-growing and ever-changing thing. As I continue in my studies, I’m sure my research will shift.
When I entered my PhD program last year, my intent was to work on the development of modern Eastern Iranian languages, particularly Pashto and Ossetian. I’m interested in how language contact has affected the development of Iranian languages, particularly in the Eastern Iranian world and in Eastern Iranian languages.
This summer I studied Ossetian with a linguist and a native-speaking teacher at the Scientific Research Centre for Georgian-Ossetian Relations at Tblisi State University.
In July, I took a break and hopped to the Netherlands to participate in the University of Leiden’s Summer School in Languages and Linguistics, where I took some courses in Avestan, Avestan Poetics, Uralic Languages, and Armenian for Iranian Studies. Then I return to Georgia for the month of August to keep studying.
All of these things play smaller roles in my overall research looking at language contact in Eastern Iranian Languages (which I can obviously explain in more detail for those interested).
Currently, it looks like the trajectory of my PhD is more on Eastern Middle Iranian languages, with a focus on their development (both from Old Iranian to New Iranian).
FTLOL: From what I’ve read and watched on YouTube, it appears that you have quite a solid academic background in language study, both for your research and for languages that you just found interesting along the way. Have you found academic study of languages to be specifically helpful for the learning process in any ways?
EB: I think academic study has affected how I approach my individual studies. In the classroom setting, you can observe various methods of language acquisition and you can learn good study habits. If you’re aware of what you’re doing, you can take these things and apply them to your own study.
In more recent years, studying dead languages and sitting alongside theoretical linguists and Indo-Europeanists has given me a new perspective in my language study.
Before, I always worked from the modern languages moving from conversation backwards towards historical narratives and classical literature; now, I sometimes find myself learning and remembering a new word because I know it’s historical etymon.
Exposure to certain linguistic features in a classroom sometimes makes approaching the same feature (found in another language) easier outside of a classroom.
FTLOL: Conversely, have you found language study from an academic perspective to be hindering to your language learning in any way?
EB: Often the goals of academic study and personal study are quite different.
For example, when I studied Spanish and French and some of my earlier languages, I really just wanted to speak. I just wanted to be able to talk to everyone. So my conversational skills are quite advanced.
However, my study of Persian has always been linguistically oriented; I read and write Persian fairly well, and I have an excellent understanding of grammar and historical developments, but my conversational skills are lacking.
The same goes for other languages (like the “contact languages” in my research); for example, I know Turkish (and general Turkic) grammar decently well, but my conversational skills are the equivalent of half a semester of Turkish!
Academic study can sometimes hinder one’s practical skills in a language. However, this isn’t always true. I academically studied French and Arabic during my Bachelor’s degree, but I have advanced conversational skills in both.
I think it really just depends on your goals, as well as where your focus is during the course of your study.
FTLOL: Have there been any language learning materials or courses that you’ve personally found to be critical to your language learning?
EB: People always ask about books and resources, or if a particular series (like Pimsleur or Teach Yourself) is better than the others. Personally, I don’t like being restricted.
I use a wide variety of resources, particularly digital resources. I think this comes from growing up in a lower socio-economic environment (in laymen’s terms: poor); since I couldn’t buy every language book I wanted, I constantly checked books out from the library, scanned resources, used websites and YouTube, and downloaded PDFs that I could find online.
I now have a fairly extensive digital library of language resources, as well as my own growing library of books that I have purchased and received throughout the years.
However, I do find it easier if you use one primary book (or site), simply for the sake of structure, that you then supplement with other resources.
The other thing that I recommend to everyone is the power of music (or really, any audio resource). From my own experience, listening to music (or watching movies or YouTube) in another language greatly benefits one’s learning.
It exposes you to the sounds of the language and helps you develop an ear for what the language should sound like. Even if you don’t understand the song, you will slowly start to find where the words break and begin to piece it together (though, to be honest, this can take years).
As you come into contact with new words and phrases, they might not seem so new because you’ve actually heard them before in that song or that movie you previously heard or watched.
FTLOL: Have there been any specific people who have had a great impact on you or who have influenced your language learning journey?
EB: I’m not sure if I can think of anyone that has influenced me as “a language learner,” but I can think of quite a few people that have supported me and encouraged me and given me great advice throughout my journey.
- My First Spanish Teacher: She introduced me to the power of music in my learning, as well as taught me how to really make myself approach a language like a native and not as a translator (something I’ll explain later).
- My Aunt: My aunt has always encouraged me and helped to provide me with opportunities to travel and study (both in the US and abroad). She’s also been my biggest cheerleader these past few years in graduate school, since many people from my hometown don’t understand the value of pursuing a terminal degree. She also listens to me when I just talk for an hour about my studies or research (even if she doesn’t understand it all).
- My French & Arabic Advisors in Undergrad: When I had family problems, my advisors in undergrad were there for me on a personal level and on an academic level. They were patient with me and helped me continue studying even when I was struggling with things outside the classroom.
- My French Advisor (again): My French advisor used to sit me down and give me talks on what grad school would be like. She really helped prepare me (and still helps prepare me) for how to interact in academia.
- My MA Adviser: My adviser during my MA at Harvard really introduced me to the Iranian World. I had been studying Persian and Pashto, but I hadn’t really gone beyond that. He taught me Middle Persian, Classical Armenian, and Zoroastrianism. He really helped me shape my research interests for my PhD and showed me all the possibilities that I have studying Iranian languages.
- My Mom: I always tell people that my mom talked me out of being a classical cellist because she didn’t want me to be a starving musician. While there are days that I miss playing, if it hadn’t been that advice, I would have never studied languages on a professional level. I loved languages and spent all my free time with them, but I didn’t make them my career until later, and part of that is because of her. Like my aunt, she has also listened to a number of rants, and has asked me to draw maps and diagrams for her, so she can support me in what I do.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might be struggling to start learning a foreign language?
EB: My first advice is this: don’t worry about “difficulty.” Something that really frustrates me is how people always want to discuss what’s the hardest or easiest language to learn.
Firstly, I believe that difficulty is completely subjective. Language difficulty depends on one’s native language, as well as what one’s background and experience in language study and other languages is.
Secondly, I don’t think language study should be dependent on ease or difficulty. Language study, to me, should be about desire and motivation. If there’s a language you want to study, study it!
Too many times have I heard that I should study Chinese because it’s useful for business, or that I should use my languages for government purposes. Language learning, like many serious decisions in life, is a very personal thing.
You should study the language you want to learn for your own reasons. If your reasons are career-driven, that’s fine, but no one should judge you for choosing to learn Hindi because you like Bollywood, or Hungarian because you think it sounds pretty. It’s your study, your choice.
Thirdly (really, “secondly” Part 2), language difficulty can be completely erased through motivation. If you love what you’re doing and studying, it won’t feel like a chore.
Yes, there may be hard days, but overall, it will be enjoyable, and thus, worth the effort. Is studying Avestan easy? Most people don’t think so. But do I do it? Heck, yes! Why? Because I love it and I find it fascinating.
My second piece of advice has to do with work. Language learning will take time and effort. I don’t understand half of these books out there promising that you can learn Chinese in a month. I find it preposterous.
Yes, language learning can be done quickly, but that’s usually if you spend your whole day, every day working on it. When you’re an adult with a career and can only put in an hour or two a few nights a week, it’s going to take more time.
But don’t let that discourage you. It can be done; you just need to have patience and perseverance.
Also, find the study method(s) and work ethic that works for you. Just like the books that promise to teach you a language in a month, there are also lots of books and methods (or sometimes “hacks”) that promise to increase your learning speed.
I’m not saying these don’t work, but everyone learns differently. Some methods work for some people and different methods work for others. So find what works for you, and do it.
My final piece of advice is something that my first Spanish teacher taught me.
I approached her one day and asked how I could really make the most of my study and learn to speak Spanish really fluently. She told me to approach my language learning the way a native speaker would.
Now, it’s physically impossible to go back in time and be born into a family that speaks another language and to slowly acquire vocabulary and grammar the same way a native speaker acquires their first language.
However, what we can do is approach language learning in the most direct way possible. What people often do, especially when using tools like flashcards, is to translate in their head, meaning that they will learn the word “manzana” and remember it as “apple,” but then “apple” is the word that actual triggers the image or taste in their mind.
So rather than connecting a word in your target language to a word in your native language (and then to the actual item in question), connect the word in the target language to the original item.
In the case of flash cards, this means putting a picture of an apple on the back of the card, rather than just the word “apple.” This can also be done with grammar; rather than learning to translate a verb or a phrase word-for-word into your target language (or from your target language to your native one), learn expressions instead.
I don’t just mean idiomatic or colloquial expressions, but also how to construct expressions of time and complex ideas. This will allow you to gain an ear like a native speaker’s and acquire that intuition of what sounds right and what sounds wrong.
Taking this approach with grammar (not that grammar shouldn’t be traditionally studied) can take a bit longer, but it can drastically improve one’s speaking skills and one’s fluency in the long run.
FTLOL: What’s next for you in terms of language study or for your academic career?
EB: Next for me is much more studying. This year I’m working my way through Old Persian and a lot of history (history of the Achaemenids, the Arsacids, and Ancient China).
I’m working on Ancient Greek and modern Russian for my research. I’m also keeping up with my Modern Persian, Ossetian, and Pashto. Earlier this year I took up Hungarian and Gujarati and Mandarin (again) for my research, and I’m hoping to work on them in the (little) free time that I have.
In the coming years, I’ll be getting back to Avestan and diving into other Eastern Iranian languages, and who knows what else (probably Sanskrit and Classical Chinese).
Academically and in the long term, I want to be a professor. I’ve always said that, and I also want to write language textbooks for the Iranian language family.
Besides that I’m not too picky. I just really love sharing my studies with people and teaching others what I’ve been so fortunate and lucky to learn in my life.
Non-academically, I’m also trying to get back to blogging and YouTube. I have my blog (polyglotted.tumblr.com) and I own my URL (polyglotted.com). I have YouTube, but I haven’t touched it since July (2015), and I’m not sure I’ll be going back to it.
I think I might be transitioning into the world of podcasting (I’m more of a talker than anything visual), but I’m also so busy with school that all of these outside projects tend to move slowly. Hopefully, people will be patient and enjoy my content as it comes out.
Check out Ed’s video from his YouTube channel talking more about his experience learning foreign languages.