Today I got the chance to talk with Sebastián Alarcón, who has experience learning a very wide rage of languages, everything from Turkish, to Irish, English, to Mandarin, to Guaraní. He shares with us here a bit about his language learning journey to date.
FTLOL: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from, where do you live, and what do you do for a living?
SA: Hi, everyone! Thanks for the introduction. It’s an honor to be here. I’m from Mexico and I have been living in Mexico City since I was born.
Currently, I’m doing some translation, as well as being an interpreter for various purposes, and I’m pursuing a postgraduate degree so as to study abroad.
FTLOL: How did you start learning foreign languages and how long have you been doing it for?
SA: I must say that without a subject during high school called “Greco-Latin etymologies,” my language living experience wouldn’t have had such a big start.
In previous years, I’d been studying English, but merely as a mandatory subject. Even though in the sixth grade at Basic School my English became so good that I learned it through “osmosis,” I didn’t quite like how English was taught; nevertheless, it has been useful in many situations, but the fact that English is mandatory took the charm away from this language.
Everything changed in 2006 during the FIFA Football World Cup in Germany when Italy became the champion. In a church near from my house, Italian classes were given, so I enrolled them, but just after two or three weeks, I quit.
However, it was there that I saw that my aunt had an old audio course on some LPs. I asked her to lend me them and she converted the tracks into audio cassette. Every time I had spare time during classes, I asked for a recorder to play those cassettes and I learned.
I studied in a religious school and the orders ruling this school came from Italy. Many priests had already travelled there, so I practiced my incipient Italian with them.
There also happened to be a Contest of Investigation intended for private schools in many fields, and doing a sort of thesis was mandatory. I decided to delve into languages and my topic was “Phonological Similarities and Differences between Spanish and other Romance Languages,” in which I didn’t focus on grammar but on phonology.
It was not a walk in the park, as I originally wanted to work on the Latin alphabet, but studying more than 50 languages was too ambitious at that level.
Ultimately, I won first place and I discovered that languages would be part of my life.
FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak now, and are you studying any others at the moment?
SA: I don’t say I can speak languages, I just say I can convey myself at 10 upper-B1 levels – Spanish, Italian, English, Basque, Esperanto, Catalan, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, and French.
In addition, I have four languages in construction (i.e., at the A2-level) – Dutch, Persian, German, and Serbo-Croatian.
I also have seven languages on ice – Georgian, Hebrew, Turkish, Korean, Arabic, Latin, and Irish Gaelic.
I’m currently using Duolingo to boost my vocabulary in three languages, Irish Gaelic, Turkish, and Hebrew, as well as studying another two, Ukrainian and Guaraní (more specifically, Jopará, a sort of pidgin between Guaraní and Spanish, and popular in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay).
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?
SA: Books are essential for my learning as I tend to be rather analytical when it comes to language. I’m a kinesthetic learner, that is to say that I tend to transcribe grammar rules and examples using different colours to highlight the different parts of the sentence (I use red ink to point out negation, for example).
I tend to pick out language courses with audio files since for me it’s difficult to imitate by myself with no native speakers the natural flow of the language. I think that the problem of language books printed in English is the inability of transmit how to effectively pronounce the sounds (English is a language which is full of diphthongs).
If I find audio files, I immediately put the mp3 onto my phone and with the book in PDF format there I start to learn. I do the exercises and I correct myself.
One must in my language learning process is to speak languages with native speakers as soon as I find one. I try to speak as much as I can, I beg for corrections, and I gain experience that is later a reinforcement of motivation if I need some.
So, I sometimes stare at foreign people and I start to figure out which language they are speaking, like a radio transmission.
Every year there’s a fair called Fair of the Friend Cultures in Mexico City where diplomatic missions in Mexico set their booths up to show their products, information, and food. This is like my Disneyland, as in a matter of three to four hours I can practice more than 10 languages.
I always came home excited: “Wow, I can’t believe it. I just practiced four languages”. Now I can say that I’m living my dream.
I’m also using bilingual books to learn a language or to boost it. When I was in China, I bought a book of Putin’s discourses in Russian for Chinese learners. I’m now doing it the other way, using Russian to refresh my Chinese.
My weak point, and I don’t mind admitting it, is sometimes remembering all the vocabulary. For that reason, I decided to use Duolingo, and the results positive. Nevertheless, I still have a long way to go.
From my ninth language (Portuguese), I stopped attending language classes, and my language learning has since then been just from my house.
My preferred resources are Assimil, Routledge, or Living Language as they can balance well the four abilities, and they introduce culture, something that is very advantageous. You can flabbergast the person you’re speaking to by showing them you have knowledge of their culture.
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?
SA: As I said before, I’m using Duolingo to learn/refresh five languages. I rotate them in different combinations. Example: Mondays – Irish and Turkish, Tuesdays – Ukrainian and Hebrew, Wednesdays – Hebrew and Irish, Thursdays – Turkish and Ukrainian, Fridays – Ukrainian and Irish, Saturdays – Turkish and Hebrew, and I learn Guaraní everyday.
Outside of Duolingo, I rotate languages as well: for example, Monday is for Arabic, Tuesday is for Georgian, Wednesday is for Irish, and Thursday is for Persian. I try to give every language a space of one hour.
Now I’m focusing on polishing up my Russian, so I’m trying to do some exercises with Russian grammar.
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?
SA: Sometimes going to other countries is difficult due to lack of money. And as Luca Lampariello says in his videos, doing so enables you to pass from B to C. Otherwise, it is harder and it requires a long time and effort. Arriving at a B2 level is easy to do at home. Just arriving at C is the big milestone.
Going back to the question, here is an example: I know many “mojados” (“wetback” in Mexican Spanish; a slang term for people going illegally into the US) who speak no English even when they come back. These people live in their niche and they barely learn English.
And vice versa. Many people have been able to learn languages without going to the country. Living in cities clearly helps you because the chances of meeting a foreigner increases, and if you look for chances, you find them.
As for me, I haven’t had the opportunity to live abroad for many reasons. But I’m pursuing more chances to fulfill this goal. If studying for a master’s degree becomes real, then I will try to efficiently use my time to master Dutch, or maybe Irish.
In some cases, living abroad is easy (mainly in Europe), but Mexico has a disadvantage in this are. We have the US in the north, and Guatemala and Belize in the south. That’s it. You have to take a plane to go there. For that reason, you must use creativity.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might want to learn a language but who don’t know where to start?
- Don’t be afraid of looking ridiculous. That is the difference between a master and a beginner. If you are not willing to make mistakes, you won’t learn. Period.
- Make sure you are using the Internet: join fora, ask for Facebook groups, and look for downloadable books.
- Watch YouTube videos. They are usually an inspiration for all of us (even for advanced learners).
- Be willing to learn outside. Be proactive.
- If you want to start, do it. Make the first step.
- Don’t lose courage if you are not making progress. That means you hit a plateau. You just have to go on.
- Don’t let other people discourage you or your choice of X language.
- Finally, lose fear or shyness of talking to strangers. Good things come outside your comfort zone.