I recently got the opportunity to talk with Alfredo Ramirez, a polyglot living in Houston, Texas. He’s spent the last eight years focusing on a number of languages, including Farsi, Turkish, Mandarin, and Urdu.
In his interview, he even explains how learning Urdu literally saved his life when he needed a kidney transplant.
Read below to learn more about Alfredo’s story, and make sure to read to the end to see a video of Alfredo speaking in Farsi!
For the Love of Languages: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from, where do you live, and what do you do for a living?
Alfredo Ramirez: I was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, but I came to America as a young child. I’ve been living in Houston, Texas ever since then.
Regarding my occupation, I was working as a Karate professor for many years, but due to having kidney disease, I had to leave the studio before my surgery. I’m currently looking for a new career. Possibly one where I can use my languages.
FTLOL: How did you start learning foreign languages and how long have you been doing it for?
AR: To be quite honest, this whole language journey happened out of pure coincidence and luck. I never really intended it to go anywhere when I first started learning Persian.
Before Persian, I had taken mandatory French classes in high school, but I didn’t learn a thing. I just made the grade like most students did. Back then I didn’t have any interest in languages or foreign cultures.
Things changed when I asked a Persian friend of mine to teach me his language, to which he inquired why would I want to learn Persian out of all languages. I told him that I was interested in one of our classmates, but he said that I didn’t have a chance with her. In the end, he was right, but I don’t regret anything.
We would get together once a week to study at an Iranian café and I would practice what I learned with the owner and her customers.
I started making progress and people would feel so overjoyed when I would attempt to speak Persian. Its like that ignited something in me and I started going on YouTube to see other people that have also learned languages.
That’s when I stumbled upon the legendary Moses, aka Laoshu. He was my mentor and watching his channel was like me going to school. Not only did I learn a lot from him, but I also saw that he learned many languages.
That’s when I thought, if he can do it, then so can I. Then after that I moved on to other languages. I’ve been learning languages in general for about eight years now and hoping to continue for more years to come.
FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak now, and are you studying any others at the moment?
AR: English, Spanish, Persian (Farsi), Turkish, and French. I can speak, read, and write all these languages, but of course to varying degrees.
My current projects are both Mandarin Chinese and Urdu, which I am studying actively, but learning a language is a never-ending process so I also work on my other languages when time permits.
FTLOL: Do you find any specific language families to be more challenging to learn than others? If so, what aspects in particular are challenging?
AR: Personally, I feel that every language/language family has features that make it both a challenge, yet relatively easy.
Let’s take the Turkic language family for example. At first, a language such as Turkish or Azerbaijani seems so difficult. However, after spending some time learning that language, you come to see that Turkish is very regular and logical with few exceptions. It’s just a matter of getting used to a different pattern of arranging your thoughts.
Then you have the Romance languages, which include my mother tongue: Spanish. Of course as a Spanish speaker there’s a great advantage, but when I decided to pick up French I noticed its not that simple.
Relying too much on Spanish vocabulary, grammar, and gender can be a great downfall. On top of that, French isn’t that regular or phonetic of a language like Turkish is, so in that regard a language from my own language family can be much more challenging than one from a completely different and distant group.
FTLOL: Is there any particular method you have for learning a new language or any particular resources you like to use? For example, do you make yourself study with language books for a certain amount of time each day, take language classes, talk with native speakers, or do something else entirely?
AR: I wouldn’t say that I have a particular method. I’m always open to new ideas and thoughts.
In any case, I’m a big fan of the Teach Yourself series. I use that along with TV shows, music, and online language exchanges. Furthermore, when you learn less commonly studied languages such as some of the ones on my list, you take whatever resources come your way since they’re more scarce compared with resources for popular languages.
While working with my course books, I like to focus more on the dialogues. I never do any of the fill in the blank exercises or other similar things.
My thoughts regarding classes are that they’re not bad; they definitely can help you if that’s more your style of learning. I’ve taken classes before, but I’ve found out that I prefer to learn on my own at home and by getting in touch with the language community.
Often times when you go to class, you don’t think for yourself. You let the teacher do the thinking for you. By that I mean that the teacher or institution devises a language plan for the semester and you learn according to that. You don’t learn the language based on your needs and learning style.
On top of that, if there’s somebody that doesn’t understand the concepts as well as you or the other students, then the teacher will often dwell on that concept until that student has understood it, further slowing down the learning process.
Personally, I think the best resource and method is a native speaker and the corresponding community. You can work on your books as much as you want and you certainly will learn, but if you don’t practice with natives or get out into their community, your skills will only so far.
If you immerse yourself in their community, you will have plenty of opportunities to practice speaking your target language, but also you will learn many things that you only learn by living among the people. Slang, expressions, body language, and cultural details that otherwise will not be covered in books.
FTLOL: If you’ve ever tried to learn more than one language at once, how did you organize your time? Were you able to give equal emphasis to all of the languages?
AR: Oh man, do I have much to say in regards to this! Yes, I have on several occasions.
I remember when I first started to learn Persian, shortly thereafter by the suggestion of an acquaintance I started to learn Arabic. I was very new to the language learning world and couldn’t balance the two, so I ended up dropping Arabic.
Then two years ago, I was learning Bulgarian, Hindi, and Urdu. By that time, I had found out how I prefer to learn, but I became disinterested in Bulgarian because we don’t have a large community here in Houston.
Then I just fell in love with Urdu, so I also dropped Hindi and decided to leave it at just reading and writing and to instead focus on Urdu.
I usually like to learn a language for about two years before adding another language because I like to have a good foundation first. It’s hard to learn more than one language at the same time, especially if you have others to maintain, as well as a personal life.
So when I add another language, most of my language learning time goes towards that new language. The remaining language learning time is left for maintaining my previous languages by doing Skype language exchanges, watching movies or television, and listening to music.
If I feel any of my previous languages start to slip or if I have motivation for actively studying one of them for something such as a trip, then I’ll work on it extensively. It’s all about priorities. Which languages are your priority?
We would love to be at high and educated levels for all of our languages, but the truth is that its not a realistic expectation. You have to choose which are your needs, passions, and priorities and which are just languages that you learn to fill that void of curiosity that you have.
FTLOL: Do you think that it is better to go to a foreign country to learn a language, or can you achieve a similar level of fluency without leaving your home town? Have you ever lived abroad to learn a language?
AR: I’ll start from the end of this section. No, I haven’t lived abroad to learn a language. It’s not a luxury that I or many others have.
However, I am very fortunate to live in one of the most diverse cities in America: Houston. We have people from all over the world living here, so it’s not hard to immerse yourself in their communities. I think that you can achieve a high level of fluency by immersing yourself in those communities. It’s the next best thing to living abroad.
I haven’t gone to Iran yet, but I’ve learned so much just by immersing myself in the Iranian community here. Slang, proverbs, regional jokes, the names of different foods, and the most simple and essential things to live your live through that language — and even body language!
Like I said, I haven’t lived abroad to learn a language, but I suspect that by living abroad that immersion experience will be even more detailed and useful. For example, even though I can be immersed in a culture here, I won’t ever be required to pay my bills in Mandarin or Farsi. Something like paying the bills or calling the electrician to fix your air conditioner are also part of the language. I can study those area specific terms if I really want to, but will I need them here? Probably not.
FTLOL: As a follow up from the last question, what countries have you traveled to, and have you found that simply travelling for a short period of time (e.g., several days to several weeks) can also improve your language skills?
AR: Other than America, I have been to Mexico, El Salvador, Turkey, Georgia, France, and the Netherlands. Can traveling for a short time improve your language skills? Yes and no….
One time that I went to Turkey, I learned so much because first of all, I didn’t travel with other people. However, I had to constantly switch from Turkish to English the other times that I went because I had friends that didn’t speak Turkish.
The last time I went, I hung out with my friend and her family for a week. This really helped me improve because I was in a Turkish-only setting and I learned a lot of vocabulary for things around the house. The following week, we went on a tour of the Black Sea region. I was the only foreigner in a bus full of Turks with a tour being conducted in Turkish, so that also was a great learning experience.
Now, for the reason that I say “no” as far as traveling helping to improve your language skills, upon returning home, if you don’t maintain what you learned and add to it, then you will lose what you gained shortly thereafter.
Language is something that you must constantly maintain fresh on your mind; otherwise, you will lose much of it. Of course, if you start studying that language again, things will come back since you already have a foundation in it, but why let your knowledge slip away?
FTLOL: What was your favorite country to visit so far? What made it so memorable for you?
AR: I’d have to say it’s the country that I have traveled the most extensively to thus far in life: Turkey. The people have made it the most memorable for me. Turkish hospitality is something that we should all learn from.
Respect for elders, their sense of humor, family values, the love for life, and warm personalities. Turks remind me so much of my own culture in so many ways that I instantly feel a connection to them.
On top of that, I have made so many friends throughout the years. Some of those I see every time that I go to Turkey and maintain our friendships even after returning to America.
I really hope that the situation in Turkey improves. When you have so many positive memories, it’s no longer just news, it’s something that affects you on a personal level.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might want to learn a language but who don’t know where to start?
AR: I’d say first and foremost, observe and notice what language’s culture really attracts you. If you’re learning a language for a higher salary or other superficial reasons, you will learn that language, but not to the extent of somebody who loves the language, the culture, and the people.
It will feel like a chore, whereas if you have an interest then it will be pleasurable and you will be motivated to learn more and more.
Other than that, the best advice is to go on YouTube and check out videos of the most well established polyglots, as well as to go on language forums. We’re spoiled with the amount of knowledge easily accessible at our fingertips these days. So let’s take advantage of that!
FTLOL: Do you feel that languages have changed your life in any way? If so, how?
AR: Without a doubt! Languages have changed my life for the better in countless ways. In fact, I’ll go as far to say that languages have saved my life.
I’ve met so many great and influential people in my life because of languages. My best friend, girlfriends, and many other great people. They have taken me to far away lands that I otherwise would probably not have seen.
Languages have also influenced career choices, or at least influenced the kind of career that I’m looking for. Nothing else in life has come close to bringing me this much happiness, richness, and color to my life.
Like I said, languages even saved my life. As I mentioned at the beginning of this interview, I have kidney disease. Throughout the years, my condition started advancing further to the point that I was on dialysis and needed a kidney transplant.
I was feeling bloated and sluggish from the condition. Dialysis helped me a lot, but it wasn’t the answer to my problems. I wrote on my Facebook account that I was in need of a donor, if anybody was willing to help, let me know, or to otherwise at least share my message. Asking somebody to give me part of their body is a huge demand that many are not willing to do.
It’s something that I can understand, but I had a friend that I had met at an Urdu language meetup. I would go to this language meetup every time and so would he. He would help me with my studies and after the group disbanded we still remained in touch.
Never in my wildest dreams would I think he would be the person to save my life, but he did. He saw my Facebook status and immediately volunteered to help me. In less than a year, we were in the surgery room. Thanks to languages I’m alive and have a new brother.
Click here to learn more about the Houston Polyglot Cafe Language Exchange meetup that Alfredo helps to organize (and to attend yourself if you live in the area!)
Check out a video of Alfredo’s Farsi/Persian skills that he made for a contest back in 2012.