Polyglot Interviews: Teddy Nee [Medan Hokkien, Indonesian, English, Chinese, Spanish, Esperanto, Portuguese, French]

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Today I got the chance to talk with Teddy Nee, who came originally from Indonesia to Taiwan to study for a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree, and who has worked in Taiwan for the past three years since then as an IT engineer.

Teddy also shares with us his valuable insight into useful language learning materials, as well as introduces his language learning blog that he set up originally for the purpose of practicing his written English.


FTLOL: Tell us a bit about your background. Where are you from and where do you currently live and work?

Teddy Nee: I was born and raised in Medan, which is the capital city of North Sumatra province in western Indonesia. Medan is located near Singapore and Malaysia.

In 2008, I came to Taiwan to study for a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree, but after graduation I decided to stay because it was easier for foreigners to get a job in Taiwan, and I certainly did not want to miss the chance to do so. Moreover, I was just a fresh graduate seeking my first job.

I got my first job as an IT engineer and that is what I am still doing now. When I am not working, I mostly read and write about language learning, and learn languages.


FTLOL: How did you start learning foreign languages and how long have you been doing it for?

TN: The first language that I learned by myself was Cantonese. I learned it just for fun from my maternal grandmother, who was a native speaker of Cantonese. I learned English, Chinese (Mandarin), and German at school.

English was my first foreign language and I started to learn it at a very young age.

Chinese was second. My parents hired a teacher to give me and my sister private lessons at home when I was a primary school student because at that time, Chinese was not taught at school yet. It was not until the third year of junior high school when Chinese was taught at school.

When I was in my last year of senior high school, the school started to have German courses as well (and again, I did not want to miss the chance to take it). I took the course and learned it only for less than one year.

I came to Taiwan to study in an international program where everything was conducted ONLY in English. Taiwan has diplomatic relations with countries mainly from Central America, the Caribbean, and Oceania, and my lack of knowledge about these countries stimulated my curiosity to explore more about them. At the same time, I saw opportunities to practice various languages.

That is when my language learning journey began! And I am still actively learning languages until today, nine years and counting.


FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak at a good conversational level, and are you studying any others at the moment?

TN: I would not say that I can say just about anything, but I have used several languages online and offline either for speaking or writing, and can have a conversation only in certain target languages. These languages are Medan Hokkien, Indonesian, English, Chinese, Spanish, Esperanto, Portuguese, and French.

When I learn languages, I usually learn a little bit of this and that, never really focusing on only one language. I am improving Afrikaans and Dutch at the moment.


FTLOL: Do you think that your time spent living in Taiwan has helped you learn your languages to a higher level compared to if you never left home?

TN: Definitely, in the sense that I have more chances to have foreign friends where I live or nearby in Taiwan. I can use all of the languages that I know in Taiwan.


FTLOL: Further to the previous question, did you experience any challenges when you first moved to Taiwan, either linguistic or otherwise?

TN: Yes, despite being a Chinese descendant, I actually grew up in a multicultural society, and Chinese descendants in Indonesia no longer speak Chinese (Mandarin). Some still speak Chinese dialects, such as Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese, but these dialects have even developed into their own unique forms, quite indistinguishable from the original ones.

The biggest challenge for me in Taiwan was the language, but other challenges were the lifestyle, mentality, and climate. Overall, I was in a whole new world anyway. I came here to explore a new culture and broaden my mind. I did not have much problem with the food, although there were many foods that I ate and did not even know what they were.


FTLOL: You currently run a website, Nee’s Language Blog. Tell us a bit about how you started it and what you are currently doing with it.

TN: Nee’s Language Blog (NLB) is not my first or second blog. I have made several blogs before, but they were not about language learning. English is not my native language so I have also spent time learning it like many other non-native English speakers. The purpose of NLB was to act as a platform for me to practice English writing, and because I like language learning, I chose it as the topic of the site.

I promote NLB on any possible occasions, and I can say that my writing skills have improved much and that NLB has also helped many people to learn languages. Through NLB, I have also got the opportunities to work on some projects with other bloggers and even companies.

Besides NLB, I have also created similar blogs in other languages and I have recently linked all of them together so they can reach a wider group of readers. I hope to keep on inspiring more people to learn languages.



FTLOL: Is there any particular method you have for learning a language? For example, do you make yourself study for a certain amount of time each day, take language classes, or just talk with native speakers (or do something else entirely)?

TN: I don’t use the same learning method for all languages, and neither do I have a fixed learning schedule. I believe in “practice makes perfect”, so I incorporate my target language into my life. Besides learning actively through reading and writing, I also learn passively by listening, which I can do at my leisure, such as while doing my daily chores, waiting, or even programming.

I don’t care if I don’t use my target languages with native speakers as long as I can use them with someone. This is because my first goal in language learning is to communicate. I don’t mind speaking with an accent because I know that as I use the language more often and listen to native speakers through radio or videos, I will eventually change my accent naturally.


FTLOL: Have there been any language study materials or courses that you’ve personally found to be critical to your learning?

TN: I have so many language learning books and the problem with too many available options is that I become confused. Instead of wasting time thinking about which materials I should use, I always rethink my goal in language learning. I just want to be able to communicate, so I just need to learn phrases for daily conversation that enable me to talk about what is going on in my life.

I like Duolingo because of its gamification model and its phrase grouping based on different situations. If my target language is not in Duolingo, I use Memrise. The problem with Memrise is that users need to input every single letter and punctuation as precisely as in the original text. So, if there is a space before a comma, you need to include that space too in your writing, which is not really important for my learning.

Besides these two, I also like 50 Languages because it groups phrases based on situations and it has downloadable MP3s that I always listen to while I am programming.

I like reading, so I also use my spare time to read everyday. Wikipedia is where I go when I want to learn about something and it is available in multiple languages, so I can switch between languages to read a variety of topics, using Google Translate to translate words that I don’t understand.

Those are the things that I do everyday for my learning. In fact, the key to successful language learning is actually repetition. The more you use a word, the more you will remember it.


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?

TN: I learn multiple languages at once all the time. But “at once” here does not mean that I really learn target language A and target language B at the same time, but rather with some breaks in between. It means that I learn my target languages separately.

I usually have different goals for the languages, depending on how difficult and complicated a language is. For example, I may only want to learn the writing system of a language, or learn basic conversational phrases, or jump straight to higher level reading. It all depends on how related my target language is to the languages that I already know.

You can learn from this that the outcome of learning different languages will also be different.


FTLOL: Do you ever get languages mixed up when speaking them? For example, do you ever find yourself mistakenly using words from one language when in the middle of a conversation in another language?

TN: Yes, it happens and it is natural. It usually happens for similar languages or for languages of the same family, such as Portuguese and Spanish. I have even sometimes created new words. It does not matter if I get laughed at; as long as I am learning something new, I am fine with it.


FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might want to learn a language but who don’t know where to start?

TN: Just do it — how much time you spend with the language is more important than the time spent on thinking about which materials to use. Be flexible, so you can always change your learning method if needed. Language learning is easy once you have gained more experience in it because it has patterns.

You need to know about your strengths and your weakness. If you cannot find a solution, ask someone! It is also best if you can gain insight into the experience already gained by others, and then take from this what is suitable for your own learning style.

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