This week I got the opportunity to talk with Sydney Sauer, a 14-year-old high school student keen to learn as many languages as she can. She also runs the blog, Not Quite Fluent, which is updated regularly to record her language learning journey.
FTLOL: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do? Are you able to speak on a daily basis any of the languages you’re learning?
SS: My name is Sydney, and I’m a high school student from the state of Ohio. Where I live, a lot of English is spoken, but I get to use my Spanish outside of class about once a week when serving at my church or ordering food at my favorite Mexican restaurant.
If I wasn’t so shy about it, I definitely could use my Chinese every day because we have a large population of foreign students here. But I probably only work up the nerve to speak a couple times a month. I’m working on that!
FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak to a high level of competency, and are you studying any others at the moment?
SS: Right now, I can speak English and Spanish at a high level, English being my native language and Spanish being my language of study for two years now.
Even though I’ve dabbled in a lot of languages in the past, Spanish has been the only one that I’ve really learned to conversational fluency. I could also text you in Italian, but not call you. Right now I’m working on Mandarin Chinese, and I’m going slow but steady.
FTLOL: When did you start learning foreign languages? Was there a specific event that triggered your interest in them?
SS: There was definitely a specific event! I’d always loved Spanish in school, but it wasn’t until seventh grade when I got involved with my church’s Hispanic ministry that I started to study it on my own.
A few weeks after starting the Duolingo Spanish course, I noticed the word “polyglot” on someone’s profile. Curious about what it meant, I googled it and a video of Tim Doner speaking 20 languages was the first thing that came up.
I watched it and I was hooked. I wanted to learn as many languages as possible, and I haven’t stopped since then.
FTLOL: Has there been a specific language or group of languages that you have enjoyed learning more than others? If so, why?
SS: I would say that my heart is really with Spanish. I love how it sounds when spoken, and I appreciate that I didn’t have to learn a whole new writing system! Plus, I love food from all across central and South America.
But I think the biggest reason that it’s my favorite is that it has a very prominent place in my life. My family goes to the same Mexican restaurant pretty much every other week, and I use it to talk to the servers there. I have Spanish class every day, and I have friends to talk to that also study Spanish.
I feel like every time I sit down to study Spanish, I am getting something very practical out of it.
FTLOL: How has your personality affected your language study over time?
SS: This is a great question. My mom always says that I am incapable of finishing anything, and I think that plays into my language study very heavily!
I love to make plans, but I don’t always follow through with them. For the first summer of learning languages, I tried to study three or four at a time, but I always gave up after just learning the basics. That’s why my blog is called Not Quite Fluent—because I want to learn every single language every created, but I’ll never be fluent in all of them.
On a more positive side, I’m also very passionate about communication and peace, which has kept me motivated.
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?
SS: I think it all depends on your personality. Some people work best when they know exactly what they want to accomplish that day, but others prefer being spontaneous.
However, no matter what your personality is like, it’s very, very important to have both short term and long term goals. People who just set a long term goal of being fluent without setting any organized time limit will most likely fail.
But on the flip side, having a daily schedule that’s set in stone may frustrate some people and take away their motivation.
FTLOL: What type of resources or methods do you use to learn languages? Do you have any favourites?
SS: For me, the only two books I really need to learn a language are a grammar book and a dictionary. When I first started Italian, I went out and bought a handful of Practice Makes Perfect books with different emphases, but a grammar book and a dictionary were the only two I ever really used.
I really love anything by McGraw Hill or the Practice Makes Perfect series. I’m currently working through Pimsleur (Mandarin Chinese I), but I wouldn’t recommend it.
In terms of method, I like Luca Lampariello’s idea of making a “language core” of all the basics before moving on to something else. The way I accomplish that is by learning the grammar basics like word order and a few tenses, then just diving in with vocabulary.
I see languages like a puzzle; there is a structure to each one, but you can plug in any word into the different parts. After I learn how the language works, it’s vocab, vocab, vocab.
FTLOL: If you’ve ever tried to learn more than one language at a time, how do you do it? Are you able to give equal emphasis to all languages?
SS: Like I said, the summer when I first started learning I flitted around to all different kinds of languages from Cantonese to Esperanto.
But soon I realized that I can’t learn multiple languages at a time to the best of my ability because I just don’t have enough time. If I had two or three hours to dedicate to languages each day, then maybe I would. But right now, I’ve decided to work on a language until I’m conversationally fluent, then start a new one while still maintaining the other.
I did one language this way, Spanish, and it worked really well even though it took a year. Being able to speak Spanish pretty proficiently is worth so much more than speaking three or four at a low level.
Right now I’ve started Chinese, and I won’t move on to my next language (possibly German) until I’m confident in this one. It will take a while, but it will be worth it! But I will say, I’m getting pretty antsy.
FTLOL: Your blog, Not Quite Fluent, is a frequently updated and useful resource of your thoughts on language learning. How and why did you get started with it? Do you write about any particular language learning topics more than others?
SS: Ever since I started studying languages, I’ve loved reading blogs of other people. Six or seven months ago, I thought, why not start my own? I think the appeal for me was having a place to document all my stories.
Since I’m so young, it gives my audience the chance to watch me go from being monolingual to an eventual polyglot. I’ve only been studying languages for two years, and I have a long way to go until I reach my ultimate goals.
So for that reason, I tend to write stories about languages in my life half the time, and language help the other half of the time.
The other reason I started my blog was for motivation. When I get an e-mail from a complete stranger saying that they are really inspired by my blog, it makes me so happy and all the more eager for my next linguistic escapade.
My blog is tiny with not many readers at all, especially compared to some of the blogs that I personally follow. But it has been a really great experience for me to see it grow from zero to something that can inspire people all over the world.
FTLOL: Have there been any specific people who have influenced you in learning languages?
SS: Definitely! In the beginning, it was Timothy Doner. He was relatively close to my age, and his videos were the first time I’d heard the word polyglot mentioned. He really inspired me to try languages, and I’ve watched every video I can possibly find on him!
Since then, I’ve learned about so many other linguists through Facebook and blogs. I really look up to Alex Rawlings, since he is so talented; Lindsay Dow, since I love her blog so much; and Moses McCormick, since he is so fearless about practicing languages.
But really, I look up to anyone who has learned another language!
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might be struggling with learning a foreign language?
SS: I’d say just go for it. Just because something takes time doesn’t mean it’s hard, and just because something’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
I’ve learned that age, gender, and intellect don’t really matter at all when you’re learning a new language. It’s all about motivation and drive. If you are willing to put the time and energy in, you can learn anything you want!
For more on Sydney and her language learning journey, check out her frequently updated blog, Not Quite Fluent.