Today I got the chance to talk with Philipp Haug, a language learner who lives in Stuttgart, Germany, and who has lived in a number of countries in order to learn and practice languages. Among other methods, Philipp especially advocates the use of social media to improve your language skills, so read on to find out how he does it!
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?
Philipp Haug: I’m from Stuttgart, Germany and I try to live in a new country every year for a few months. Currently I’m back in my hometown to finish university. I do an office job with Mercedes-Benz and also do part-time jobs as an actor for the German crime TV Series “SOKO Stuttgart”, as well as work as a stagehand for an event technology organization, setting up stages for various events, usually concerts for bands and musicians.
FTLOL: How did you start learning foreign languages and how long have you been doing it for?
PH: I started learning English in high school in Year 5 at the age of 10, followed by French in Year 7. Languages were always my best subjects, so I decided to add Spanish in Year 9. Italian was the first language I started studying by myself in 2011.
I began using YouTube for language classes and inspiration, which is when I discovered many great polyglots such as Richard Simcott, Luca Lampariello, Emanuele Marini and Timothy Doner. After seeing their videos where they speak a multitude of languages, I decided that one of my goals in life would be to become a polyglot myself.
FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak now, and are you studying any others at the moment?
PH: Currently I speak English, German, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. I’m studying Arabic at the moment and I’ve been taking Mandarin Chinese courses for one semester in 2013. I plan to learn an additional language over the course of my life to speak a total of 10, but I have yet to decide which one that will be.
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?
PH: For most of my life I’ve been focusing on the Indo-European language family; it is only now that I’m delving into other ones, like the Afro-Asiatic and Sino-Tibetan language families. I would say that Mandarin Chinese, within the Sino-Tibetan family, is particularly challenging, owing to the absence of an alphabet and to the fact that one has to memorize characters.
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?
PH: Indeed there is, and based on people’s reactions, I’m led to believe that it’s quite an extraordinary one. I consider myself an advocate of using Facebook as a language learning instrument, which has garnered comments such as “How can anyone learn anything from Facebook ?!“.
Yet, the way I see it, Facebook is a tool, like our hands are, which we can use to either build or create something, or to destroy. Sure, one can spend hours on Facebook, pointlessly scrolling down and consuming loads of trivial information, or one can use it more beneficially. Thus, it occurred to me that there might be a way to use Facebook’s News Feed to my advantage.
In 2011, as I started learning Italian, I would randomly make the acquaintance of Italian friends on said social media service, and took to highlighting their posts as “See First”, in order to make them appear at the top of my News Feed.
After a short while, the majority of posts Facebook was showing me were in Italian, focusing my online interactions on speakers of that language. This way, I was (news-) “feeding” myself posts and new words in Italian, googling their meaning, and instantly using them in conversations with these people, thus “passively” learning the language with just a slight effort, all whilst having a great deal of fun.
Later I used the same technique with Portuguese, so nowadays I half-jokingly state that I owe it to Facebook that I speak these two languages.
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?
PH: I think learning several languages at the same time is a great idea if you stick to languages within the same language family. For instance, one can study several romance languages whilst using one’s knowledge in one language to improve another, as many words are very similar for example in Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. This way one can focus on various languages and still put almost the same emphasis on all of them.
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?
PH: I think that living abroad for a while is something you should really save your money up for as it is definitely a worthwhile investment. For the last few years, I lived in a new country each year, always choosing the country based on the language I was studying.
I am convinced that my skills would be far less solid if I hadn’t traveled that much, especially in regards to the culture of the countries and peoples where the language is spoken. Being familiar with the culture(s) of the language you study can greatly aid you in embracing the language itself.
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?
PH: I have travelled most of Europe and visited China, Turkey, and Morocco. Moreover, I have lived in the following countries: Spain, the UK, Russia, Italy, the US, Portugal, and Egypt, always staying up to six months.
Generally, it obviously is better to stay in a country for as long as possible in order to have an opportunity to practice more intensively, but then again, I’d rather have a short trip than no trip at all.
FTLOL: What was your favorite country to visit so far? What made it so memorable for you?
PH: Each country has its own charms, its good sides and bad sides, so usually I don’t single one country out. However, if I had to pick, it would be Egypt, because it was quite a spontaneous decision that I wasn’t able to prepare for very well.
I faced interesting and tough situations, such as being kicked out of my apartment on the second day of arrival and having to find accommodation without knowing the country, its language, or the script, thus rendering me completely illiterate.
Or prolonging my visa in the ever chaotic Mogamma, a government building in Cairo. Or attempting to gain free entry at historical sites by stating that I am from Mansoura (Egyptians will understand). The list goes on….
Ultimately, it was really the people that made my time in Egypt so memorable, as they are some of the friendliest folks I have ever had the pleasure to meet, and it is due to their hospitality and help that I managed to overcome many of these situations.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might want to learn a language but who don’t know where to start?
After reaching a certain level, it is imperative to start watching movies in your new language whilst making use of subtitles. Also, I’ll seize the opportunity to emphasize once more the importance of social media in order to learn a language.