I recently got the chance to chat with Miranda Metheny, an American polyglot who has spent time learning a number of languages, such as Spanish, French, and German, as well as lesser well-knowns like Faroese.
Here she talks a bit about her language learning experience, as well as some of the (many) places she has traveled and used her languages.
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?
Miranda Metheny: I grew up in the Heartland of the USA, I studied journalism and languages in university, and now I work as a World Language teacher in Washington, DC.
FTLOL: How did you start learning foreign languages and how long have you been doing it for?
MM: I actually didn’t start learning foreign languages until I was 12. I started studying Spanish in school that year, and I liked it so much that I decided to study Latin as well.
No one else at my school studied two languages, so I was definitely a weirdo. By the time I finished high school, I had studied German, Italian, and Norwegian as well.
I’m 26 now, so I have been learning languages for fourteen years.
FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak now, and are you studying any others at the moment?
MM: When I have to say what languages I ‘speak,’ I usually say English, Spanish, German, Norwegian, and Faroese. At my best in each of those languages, I hit level C1.
I’d like to improve my active knowledge of languages such as French and Italian, and also learn a few completely different ones like Finnish and Czech.
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?
MM: Absolutely. The Germanic and Romance languages both offer certain shortcuts for a native speaker of English, due to English’s complicated heritage. ‘Fancy’ words often come from French or directly from Latin, so words in Spanish can usually be puzzled out if you have a good vocabulary in English.
Simpler, as well as more archaic, words and grammatical forms often come through our Germanic routes or are borrowed from the Scandinavian languages, so that helps me with German and Norwegian.
When languages are related, I find that the advantages of studying them go both directions. It makes acquiring the foreign language easier, but it also deepens and enriches the understanding of the native language.
I’ve dabbled in non-Indo-European languages, and the challenges tend to be greater, but vary by language. For example, Basque pronunciation is fairly straightforward, but the grammar is quite difficult. The Chinese languages present the opposite challenge.
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?
MM: I’m a big fan of paper or digital flashcards for learning new words. Obviously, grammar is important too, but vocabulary is the most fundamental piece of language learning, and the part that’s never completely finished. I still learn new words in English, my native language, weekly!
To become more comfortable understanding and speaking the words at proper conversational speed, nothing beats real-life conversations.
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?
MM: It’s not easy. I have studied multiple languages at once, but never from the ground up. There was always a “new” language I was actively learning basic things in, and then one or more “old” languages I was maintaining or improving. I have found that the more similar the languages are, the harder this can be for me.
For example, when I lived in Norway, I suddenly found I couldn’t speak German anymore. When I tried, Norwegian came out instead. When I lived in the Faroe Islands, my German came back and my Norwegian went into hiding!
With practice, and a little bit of space from the heady early days of first learning Faroese, I learned to switch back and forth between the languages again. But I still find it to be somewhat difficult.
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?
MM: Personally, I have never felt fluent until I have had an immersive experience in a given language. I can learn a lot about the language while at home, memorizing thousands of vocabulary words and gaining a basic understanding of the grammar, but I never felt comfortable using or interpreting the language at speed until I spent significant time interacting with native speakers.
This could theoretically be accomplished without leaving home, either via online connections or by living in a very international area, such as London or New York City, but I think going abroad to the ‘source’ is the best option when feasible.
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?
MM: I have travelled to Costa Rica, Mexico, Curaçao, Japan, Ireland, the UK, Spain, Andorra, France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland.
I think any amount of time abroad can help with your language skills, as long as you spend time interacting with speakers and make an effort. If you ‘preload’ your mind with vocabulary and grammar lessons before you leave home, you can ‘activate’ a surprisingly large amount of the language in only a short amount of time.
When I went to Japan for three weeks, I became quite adroit at asking where trains were going, finding my way around town, and ordering food in my terrible Japanese.
I went to France for two weeks last summer after some private, book-based study of French and was delighted to find that I was able to rent a car, travel in the deep countryside navigating various problems, and even have a long conversation with my Air BnB hostess about American politics, all in French!
Since I’m a language nerd, I’ll admit that it was one of the highlights of my trip.
FTLOL: What was your favorite country to visit so far? What made it so memorable for you?
MM: The Faroe Islands are a place unlike any other. It’s a curiously magical linguistic, cultural, natural, and musical paradise. The people are incredibly welcoming and the landscapes are otherworldly and breathtaking.
I got bitten by the travel bug in high school and still enjoy it greatly, but after living briefly in Bergen, Norway (to me, the world’s most beautiful city) and the Faroe Islands, I realized I’d found what I’d been looking for.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might want to learn a language but who don’t know where to start?
MM: Just start. A language of 10,000 words begins with a single flashcard!
Seriously, though, I meet a lot of people who tell me that they wish they ‘had’ learned Spanish or that they wish they ‘could’ learn languages like me. If you’re capable of learning your native language, you’re capable of learning a second language, too, and it’s never too late.
Just take it one day at a time and try to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.