Today I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Michael Rahbar, an American student currently studying in the Netherlands.
Michael discusses some of his very insightful and brilliant ways to successfully study a foreign language, as well as how traveling abroad has both helped and hindered his language learning, depending on the situation that he was in.
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?
Michael Rahbar: I’m originally a New Yorker, but my parents and I moved to Florida when I was only ten. Also, I’m a first-generation American: my father’s family fled Iran after the Islamic Revolution, and my mother grew up in a Jewish household on Long Island, where they met.
Now I live in the Netherlands where I study International Relations and Italian. I currently devote all of my time to student life, but I most recently worked as a French, German, and Mandarin Chinese tutor at Florida State College.
FTLOL: How did you start learning foreign languages and how long have you been doing it for?
MR: I went to a performing arts high school; my freshman year I took Spanish and I passed with a D–. I hated it.
The class had 35 students (myself included), who were pretty easily distracted and simply weren’t interested in subjects outside of their arts area (again, myself included).
Being an angsty LGBT teen in the age of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” album, which has a ton of German WWII-era artistic influence, I was eager beyond eager to enroll in my high school’s first ever German class the following year.
I was excited and engaged because I loved the language and I had an outstanding teacher. Before I knew it, I was holding conversations in German! It was one of the most memorable feelings growing up. (Note: willpower is key!)
But at that point in time I didn’t know anything about polyglots, I only confidently believed that the more languages you spoke, the more street-cred you’d have.
One day I stumbled on that video that made Tim Doner famous within the community and thought it was so cool seeing someone the same age as me expressing himself in so many ways.
That’s when I realized I could learn languages as a hobby. I was 15 at the time and I’ve been learning ever since, and I don’t plan on ever stopping.
It’s addictive. The thrill of surprising someone by introducing yourself, ordering a meal, or even flirting in their native tongue is among the best of highs.
FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak, and are you studying any others at the moment?
MR: I’m most fluent in German, French, Persian, and of course English.
I’m consistently reviewing languages such as Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, and Russian, but generally I only intensively study one or two languages at a time, otherwise I overload and end up making little progress.
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?
MR: For some reason, I’ve always had trouble with Romance languages and Persian. Strange, heh? Is Persian, or any Romance language for that matter, particularly difficult? Certainly not, regardless of your native tongue. They have simple grammar and relatively easy pronunciation, so what gives?
This brings me to a really important point that Jan van der Aa brought up in one of his videos not too long ago (just this week in fact) that I wholeheartedly agree with: starting a language and not stopping until you’ve reached at least a B1 level is the best way to go.
Growing up, I studied Spanish and Persian on-and-off over the years, picking up the language in fragments. It really confused me later down the road because I’d forget basic grammar rules and end up with unnatural phrases like “¿cómo estás usted?” that were understandable, but ultimately wrong.
When I start a language, I need to make sure that I have realistic long-term goals. I’ve found that my brain will never solidify A1-level vocabulary and grammar on its own. I can’t stop until I’m at least at a B1 level, otherwise it simply isn’t significant enough for my memory to hold on to.
It’s like trying to make a snowball with only a handful of snowflakes.
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?
MR: I adore self-study. As social as I am, I’ve never enjoyed language classes too much since I’ve always had a proclivity for them, and consequently always felt far ahead of the rest of the class.
My favorite textbook series are pretty mainstream: Teach Yourself and Colloquial, but they’re still very informative. Another popular method that I find useful is always keeping lots of lists of vocabulary and reviewing them with flashcard apps.
I want to take a moment to stress here that because we live in a consumer-culture, people are inherently convinced that you get what you pay for. It isn’t this way with languages.
You can find so many resources—good resources—online for absolutely free. This is why I so strongly advise against investing in Rosetta Stone. From my experience, so few people ever achieve proficiency with it.
I remember using it for Persian and after two entire months still being stuck on sentences like “I am driving” or “she is riding a horse.”
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?
MR: I had a conversation about this with my best friend Alex not too long ago. Alex is able to balance school, romance, working out, and keeping countless languages in check all at the same time.
Meanwhile, I’m lucky if I can review 50 words a day and run for 10 minutes before my legs give out. In comparison to Alex, I felt like a potato. What kind of polyglot was I? After a few weeks of self-doubting and shaming I had a realization.
Look, there are people in this world who have the dedication of Cecil Rhodes, who denied himself sex just so he could focus all of his energy on expanding the British Empire, and then there are people like me who get distracted easily, frustrated maybe too often, and procrastinate more than they’d like to.
Both can be polyglots. Dedication can be something that’s forced or something that comes naturally out of interest. Don’t feel bad if you feel like you aren’t making the progress you feel you should be.
What kind of learner are you? What reasons are you learning your language for? And why are you learning this language if you need to fabricate reasons for learning it?
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?
MR: Well that depends on the country for sure. February 2017 will be my sixth month in the Netherlands and I can’t even hold a conversation. Meanwhile, I spent just a few weeks in Turkey and learned Turkish at a rate faster than I had with any other language.
Why? Just about everyone speaks English in the Netherlands, whereas so few people speak English in Turkey.
I think in addition to falling in love with a language, the need to communicate is another driving component.
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?
MR: I’ve been very, very fortunate in regards to my travel opportunities. My grandparents were very limiting on my mother being able to travel, and in turn my parents have always made sure I’ve had the freedoms they didn’t.
I’ve been to 14 countries so far and plan on traveling to Morocco and Luxembourg after my exams at the end of this month. I honestly can’t wait to practice my French and Arabic again.
**Full list is Mexico, Canada, USA, UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, France, Germany, England, the Netherlands, Morocco, and Luxembourg.
FTLOL: What was your favorite country to visit so far? What made it so memorable for you?
MR: My favorite country is undoubtedly Turkey. For two reasons: firstly, I’m a very political person. Let me say that again for the people in the back: I am a very political person.
In 2016, I spent all of my free time volunteering for Bernie Sanders’ Presidential Campaign and when I was in Istanbul, the Turkish election happened to be just weeks away. I was enthralled to find the entire city covered in political banners, enormous posters on the sides of buildings, and vans with megaphones driving up and down every residential road blaring patriotic music.
I remember even getting to join in on a dabke (Arab circle folk dance popular in the Levant) with about 30 people who were all routing for Turkey’s CHP Party.
The second thing which made me fall in love with the country was the hospitality. Everyone says that about every country ever, but I really mean it.
Once when I was in a small village called Güzelce, I went into a tea shop run by a woman named Sevil hoping to get some WiFi. When she found out I was a tourist, she gave me one of the tightest hugs ever, an incredible meal, tea, fantastic conversation, and then も10 in a sneaky handshake which she absolutely refused to take back.
The Turks clamp on and don’t let go until they feel they’ve done all they can. In Turkey, there’s an inexplicable integrity that I’ve never seen anywhere else.
On top of their national pride and integrity, the country is such a beautiful harmony between the conservative Islamic world and the sexy Bohemian West. I love it.
FTLOL: What’s the most interesting thing (or two! or three!) that you’ve experienced while traveling?
MR: Unknowingly eating camel in Oman was quite an experience. It wasn’t Kosher, but it was delicious. If I have the opportunity, I’m definitely trying it again (but don’t tell my rabbi).
Speaking of rabbis, I once Cossack danced with the Chief Rabbinate of Russia on a flight from Moscow. And in Greece I met Conchita Wurst at the top of the Acropolis.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might want to learn a language but who don’t know where to start?
MR: The first step would be to find a language that just gives you chills when you hear it—one in which every word is a delight to roll off of your tongue.
After that, review your knowledge of grammar if you need to. This isn’t the most fun part but it’s necessary. One of the things that really stunned me when I was a tutor was that I’d encounter university students who honestly didn’t know what things like adverbs, pronouns, or conjugations were.
Learning a language the same way you learned your native tongue isn’t only unrealistic, it isn’t pragmatic at all; at some point or another you’re going to have to pick up a textbook and deal with grammatical jargon.
Also, you need dedication. If you don’t have the temperament to ritualize your learning to at least a small extent, well, I wish you the best of luck.
But to anyone reading this, you are more talented than you know! I’ll leave you with one of my favorite motivational quotes.
“Far from a Harvard student, just had the balls to do it.”