Today I got the pleasure of speaking with Félix Wang, who you may have come across from his YouTube channel at loki2504. In this polyglot interview, he graciously shared his thoughts on learning multiple languages at the same time (and how to do it, as well how not to do it), his love of Turkey and Bulgaria, and his willingness to chat with random strangers to improve his language skills.
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?
Félix Wang: I am a Belgian-born Taiwanese who shares your love for foreign languages. I used to teach foreign languages and translate technical texts but I am currently working at an insurance company.
FTLOL: How did you start learning foreign languages and how long have you been doing it for?
FW: About 12 years ago, I accidentally started to learn foreign languages and never thought I would. At that time, I had an exchange student in my college from Santo Domingo. It was the burning desire to learn more about Dominican culture and the whole of Latin American folklore that drove me to learn Spanish. It was the first foreign language that I learned on my own.
Afterwards, my ever increasing curiosity towards other cultures and countries led me to adopt a language-learning oriented lifestyle.
FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak now, and are you studying any others at the moment?
FW: I can have a decent conversation in the following languages: Arabic, French, Flemish, Bulgarian, Spanish, Italian, English, Turkish, Teochew, Japanese, Russian, and Mandarin.
I have been learning Russian for about four months and I keep learning it. My goal is to learn it everyday for half an hour for one year. On top of that, I really fell head over heels for the Albanian culture. Last summer, I was in Tirana (the capital city of Albania) and had to communicate in Italian or in a mix of Balkanic languages (Bulgarian and some Serbian) to get my message across. I pretty much succeeded every time when trying to communicate.
There were interesting (older) people who only spoke the local language. I remember when I was out for an evening stroll in the city center I saw a Japanese monument called the “Cloud” pavilion, which was designed by a Japanese architect named Sou Fujimoto.
I could not help but wonder what this thing was (actually everything in Tirana was quite interesting because all its architecture is so unique). As I was approaching the structure, a guard asked me “Japoni”? I shook my head sideways.
However, in Albanian culture, this means “yes” and nodding means “no”! So the guard, who only spoke Albanian, told me in his language that this whole construction was erected by a Japanese architect. It was already 11pm so it was closed but he insisted on letting me in and said something like, “People from your country constructed it, you have to see it” (that’s my guess because I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying).
However, the gestures made it clear. During my short trip to Albania, I felt so welcomed and discovered a new lifestyle: playing basketball at midnight is so common in Tirana during summertime. I felt that I needed to learn to speak Albanian to discover this unique culture in Europe.
FTLOL: Based on your native language, do you find any specific language families to be more challenging to learn than others? If so, what aspects in particular are challenging?
FW: As my native language is French, I found some non-Indo-European languages to be quite challenging. The most challenging language I have ever learned has definitely been Arabic. It has a very complex grammar: you have to read words where you only have the consonants but not the vowels.
Let’s take an example in English so that you can visualize what this means. The sentence “I enjoy playing tennis when I am on holiday”, when you read this sentence in Arabic, it is as you would only see: “I njy plyng tnns whn I m n hldy”.
For beginners, the vowels are marked but in normal texts there are no (short) vowels. So you have to go through all the grammar, especially learning how to conjugate, to understand the logic of the language to know which vowels are between the consonants.
Moreover, learning to read from left to right takes some time. The pronunciation of certain letters is also tougher than in European languages because they do not exist in Europe, like the sounds ع orق (ayn or kaf with a hard “K” sound).
As far as structure is concerned, Turkish was challenging but not hard per se. The logic of the language is based on an SOV (Subject-Object-Verb) pattern which makes it so alien for Westerners who do not have experience with Altaic languages (such as Turkic languages, Korean, or Japanese).
Basically, the word order is upside down. For example, “I go to the grocery store to buy eggs”, which in Turkish is “Yumurtalar almak için bakkala gidiyorum.” If I transcribe the word order it would be, “Eggs to buy grocery to go I”. Getting your brain to think in another order is not easy at first. However, as time went by, I have noticed that it is just a matter of practice.
The last language the I found particularly difficult was Japanese because of the many ways to read individual Kanji characters, but mostly because I can barely use it in my city. There are very few Japanese people here. Therefore, I always lack motivation.
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?
FW: I usually use language courses to build up a solid foundation in the language. However, there is only one criterion I use to define whether a study material is suitable for the early stages: the abundance of dialogues with few grammatical notes.
If I want to develop a feel for the language without delving too much into the grammar, I would go for the Assimil series, but it is not always well structured. Assimil can thus be combined with the Living Language, Teach Yourself, or Colloquial series. I’m using the Colloquial book for Albanian and find it outstandingly well structured!
For motivational purposes, I usually choose songs I like in the language and I will listen to them from time to time to get the little push I need to overcome some difficulties with lack of motivation.
After a year, I will try as much as possible to look for “authentic content” (not intended for learners but for natives) that is adapted for my level: magazines, newspapers, TV shows. I would like to highlight that I learned how to speak natural Turkish by watching soap operas and TV shows because it really differs from what you learn in textbooks.
The ultimate goal is of course to go the the neighborhood of the target language in my city. It can be in a Turkish restaurant, an Arab store, or a Japanese school. I try to start to speak to anyone in the target language.
Of course, the first 15 times, you will be fighting to recall words or phrases you learned, but it is by keeping this process alive that you will eventually become fluent. I think I spoke more than 300 times in Arabic and 500 times in Turkish to be able to express myself in their languages without thinking too much.
If you can, prepare for a trip in the target country, but I would recommend to do it only after at least learning the language on a daily basis for seven months to one year to be able to engage in a conversation once you get there.
When you are in the target country, it is best to avoid speaking English — pretend you do not speak it at all. Try to always go to non-touristy venues to get to know people who do not know English very well so that they will not switch back to it if you struggle.
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?
FW: I did it with two very complex languages (Arabic and Turkish).
I had Arabic classes at my university and did the tasks we were given, but did not try to add personal effort. At the same time, I applied my general technique for Turkish and studied it for about half an hour a day (reading dialogues of Assimil, repeating the recordings of dialogues, etc.).
I divided my time as half an hour everyday for Turkish and the rest (about an hour) for Arabic. That being said, my results in Turkish were much better! Why? Because it was not in a university setting. I had good Turkish friends with whom I regularly interacted in Turkish and got to know the language and culture through the people.
This did not happen for Arabic until I traveled to Antalya, Turkey after a year of studying. I met an Iraqi family at a breakfast lounge and tried to apply all I learned in one year but it was very hard; I gave up and spoke to them in Dutch because they had come from Rotterdam on a holiday to southern Turkey.
Failing once is not a big issue. Giving up is! So I strongly believed I could become proficient in Arabic, but that I was doing something wrong! I had to learn from books but also FROM PEOPLE! I had too little contact with Arabs and that’s why I did not succeed with the Iraqi family.
I went back to Turkey, to Istanbul this time, and was on the lookout for every single opportunity to practice Arabic. I know it seems strange to practice Arabic in a Turkish-speaking country, but the fact is that there were a lot of refugees, rich Gulf Arabs on holidays, and some Algerian traders who came to buy goods to sell back in their own country.
So there were plenty of opportunities to speak the language. This time, it went better, I was able to hold a conversation and noticed some progress.
To sum things up, the most important thing when you are learning multiple languages is to make sure that you can devote time every single day to both of them. The ratio can be 40%-60% or 50%-50%; it all depends on the choice of languages. I would not recommend learning more than two new languages at a time because it is too time consuming and not very bearable.
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?
FW: I do not think that during the early stages going abroad is a “miracle solution”. In fact, it is much easier to build the foundation at home and then go to the country. You will be ready to engage in interesting and meaningful conversations with locals. I usually plan a trip to a new country, start to learn the language at least 7 months before the departure date, and only speak the local language once I am there.
If your city does not have a community speaking your target language then it is harder to get fluent, although you can rely on Skype conversations. The advantages of finding and befriending people from a language community in your city are twofold: you will learn how the language is really spoken in daily life (it is not always like how you are taught in textbooks) and you create a very strong bond between you and the culture of the language.
You will feel that you are a part of this culture, that you become a member of the culture. Fully immersing yourself in your hometown is sometimes possible and very helpful for grasping more than just the linguistic aspects of the culture. Of course, living a few years in a foreign country can make you more fluent as long as you keep speaking the target language and try to do in the target language everything a local would do.
Yes, I have lived three months in Morocco to improve my Arabic but I failed mainly for two reasons. First, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is not spoken in any Arab country in the world; it is only used in news articles, official speeches, and formal settings like in a classroom. So, when I tried to socialize with people, they either spoke with me in French (which is the colonial language of some North African countries) or in Darija.
What is Darija? Is is the local Moroccan dialect of Arabic. Even Arabs in the Middle-East do not understand a word of this dialect. So I needed to learn it from scratch.
Second, very few people made the effort to speak MSA with me in Morocco because this form of Arabic is seen as old fashioned and almost everyone find French more trendy. I noticed that people from the Gulf countries are more likely to switch to MSA rather than clinging on their dialect. So I decided to speak more MSA with Middle-Eastern people when I meet them.
FTLOL: As a follow up from the last question, what countries have you travelled 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?
FW: I traveled to the following countries: the Netherlands, Germany, Albania, Macedonia, Japan, Spain, Czech Republic, Croatia, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Bulgaria, Hungary, the United States, Morocco, Tunisia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Romania, Georgia, and Ukraine.
Definitely, Turkey and Bulgaria are the countries where I learned the most. I was invited so many times to take part in cultural activities in Istanbul. I made many friends and discovered the local culture (faraway from the touristy centers) by chatting with the grocers, asking questions to fisherman busy on the Galata Bridge, nad celebrating local traditions. Turkish people were always eager to tell me more about their heritage, help me with some linguistic issues, and take some time to show me around.
As far as Bulgaria is concerned, the first time I visited the country, I was not so confident with my Bulgarian skills because I had only learnt it for seven months before going. However, I promised myself to avoid speaking English.
The first days were very hard because people speak very fast, some words were still fuzzy for me, and I had to think a long time before uttering some phrases. Nevertheless, after a few days I felt so confident that I ended up speaking several hours with a barman, met some Ukrainian tourists, and spoke a strange mix of Bulgarian and German with them.
This short 8-day experience on the Black Sea coast was so rich; I met incredibly nice people who always praised my knowledge of Bulgarian and even offered me some ice-cream (yeah, I know it was a bit weird).
Last but not least, Japan! As I mentioned before, I have always struggled with Japanese because of the lack of opportunities to speak it in my hometown. But, in July 2016 I had the opportunity to visit a good friend of mine in Japan.
His family took me to Hippo Family Club, which is intended for all language lovers. I was amazed to realize that all the knowledge that I accumulated over a period of one a half years had not disappeared, but was indeed somewhere in the back of my mind.
My mind had to make an effort to retrieve this “Japanese knowledge”, but I managed to communicate efficiently after three days because I felt very comfortable. Never did the Japanese reply in English when I spoke Japanese to them, although my Japanese is far from excellent. This was a real driving factor!
FTLOL: What was your favorite country to visit so far? What made it so memorable for you?
FW: Without a doubt I would say Bulgaria. Few people understand my passion for this country because it is a rather unknown one in the world. It’s a real a pity!
Why did I travel five times and still want to go back to Bulgaria? The first reason is that the people there are incredibly nice with foreigners, especially if you make the effort to learn their language.
Before going, I dreaded a generally assumed misconception about post-communist attitudes: people not so open to foreigners, rude, and absent of good customer service. However, it is all the opposite! Let me illustrate my experience in this wonderful country.
When I first went to a metro counter to buy a metro ticket, an old lady took care of me. Not only did she sell me a ticket, but she added, “How is life going? Do you like it here?“ I never experience that in any other country. Clerks usually do not have a lot of time for small talk at metro counters, but in some metro stations in Sofia they took it easy and enjoyed talking to me.
People in the Black Sea region were very open to chatting with me no matter if it was in a jewellery store or on the street. They are curious to know why I chose to learn Bulgarian and generally would invite me to sit down with them and have a chat.
The human connection really made the difference. I think my experience would have been very different if I had not made any effort to learn the local language.
I was renting a room in the house of a Bulgarian family in Nessebar (a coastal town) and I suddenly fell very sick because I likely ate something questionable from a restaurant. The owner of the house (Nelly) really helped me out and treated me as a family member: she called the neighbor who was a taxi driver to drive me to the local medical center.
The driver did not want me to pay. Moreover, Nelly came along to the hospital to help me and stayed a long time in the waiting room to see if everything was okay. After a few hours, she asked her son to bring me back to my room in her house. I felt so great because people I met the day before helped me so much.
At that time I also realized that the lingua franca in Eastern Europe was not English but Russian. In the same house, we were with Moldavians, Ukrainians, and Kazakh people. All of them communicated in Russian! This never-ending discovering of other realities really made me like this country even more.
On top of all these positive experiences with the Bulgarians, I would like to add that their country is really off the beaten path. Generally speaking, tourists prefer to wander in Western Europe and are afraid of going for something daunting or unknown in Eastern Europe.
Because of the really limited amount of tourists in Bulgaria (except on the seaside), you can fully enjoy the authentic scenes of one of the oldest nations in Europe. Its monuments are really beautiful and its countryside is blissful.
The most beautiful place I have ever been to is called the “Rila Seven Lakes”, where mountains and lakes make a perfect mix to allow you to fully immerse yourself into Bulgarian nature. The views are just stunning!
Another thing I really like in this European country is the influences of many cultures in its food. The food is really Balkanic and has many similarities with Turkish and Greek food. It is delicious!
I was also shocked to see sushi restaurants (called Happy) that have many kinds of sushi that you only find in Bulgaria. Although Bulgaria is a Slavic country, its food does not resemble that of other Slavic countries (except for those south Slavic countries that were also under Ottoman rule for more than 500 years).
We could roughly say that Polish food or Russian food almost have nothing in common with Balkanic Slavic food because of the mix of cultural influences you find there.
In conclusion, this country blew my mind because it is unique, the people are charming once you speak their language, and its nature is breathtaking!
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might want to learn a language but who don’t know where to start?
FW: Yes, of course. You have to get inspired by something or someone! Then take action and work on it EVERY SINGLE DAY.
I would recommend to take a textbook for beginners with lots of daily conversations to get started. If you feel you are not getting anywhere, just keep learning and ignore the fuzzy parts, they will eventually clear up once you gain experience with the language.
Having fun with the language is often neglected in formal settings. At school, we never consider alternative ways to learn a foreign language. It could be learning the lyrics of a song, following fellow YouTubers in your target language, watching TV shows, speaking on Skype, traveling, you name it!