I’ve followed Donovan Nagel online for several years now, and he constantly seems to be traveling to some really interesting places, such as Sri Lanka, Qatar, or Egypt, as well as learning new languages along the way. In this interview, we talk about how he started learning languages, about his travels, and about his language learning company, Talk in Arabic.
FTLOL: Tell us a bit about your background in studying foreign languages. How long have you been doing it for?
DN: The first foreign language I studied was actually Mandarin back in school. I did a compulsory 5 years of it (I hated it at the time even though I did very well at it), but it wasn’t until college when I got into Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek that languages became a huge passion for me.
So if I exclude Mandarin in my younger years, it’s been about 13 years now of actively pursuing new languages and about 12 of those years spent traveling around the world.
I finished my MA in Applied Linguistics back in 2010 too as I wanted to look in depth at how first and second languages are learned, which has really helped me make sense of and articulate my own experiences.
These days I try to pick up a new language each year and move to the country where it’s spoken.
FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak, and are you studying any others at the moment?
DN: I speak Egyptian Arabic better than any other. Far from perfect of course, but it’s the one language I never have to reactivate even if I don’t speak it for a long time. This is because it’s the only language I’ve stuck with continually for the past 12 years.
To a lesser extent I also speak Levantine Arabic and understand other dialects like Iraqi, Sudanese, and Saudi Hijazi, though I usually reply in Egyptian when I talk to people who speak those dialects.
I speak Korean, Irish, and Russian quite well also (Russian is currently my most active language after Arabic since I use it quite often to communicate with Russian friends who don’t speak English).
I’m fairly proficient in French and Italian (usually takes a bit of activation time when I travel there). I took Tahitian French immersion classes back home and have lived in Italy several times, so I can “get by” quite well in them, but since I don’t have a huge interest in Romance languages I’ve never pursued them beyond functional proficiency.
I read and write Koine Greek, Ancient Hebrew, and Classical Arabic fluently too as I studied each of them for 3 years.
I’ve lived in both Georgia and Turkey studying those languages, so I also have a basic proficiency in them.
I’m currently working on Moroccan Arabic for 2015 (much harder than the other dialects for me), and will start an entirely new language in the coming year.
FTLOL: Over the past few years, I’ve followed you on your blog while you moved from the Middle East, to Korea, to Russia, and to several places in between. What were you doing in these places?
DN: It varies.
In Korea I taught while studying Korean, I did Irish language immersion in the Irish Gaeltacht, and I taught in Turkey and Georgia while studying those languages.
In 2014 I worked for one of the wealthiest families in Russia as a private teacher, which enabled me to learn Russian (rapidly, since my job required it).
I also do a lot of travel to other places where I usually try to settle for a while if possible.
These days, I frequently travel through the Middle East to work on my blog and my online Arabic project, TalkInArabic.com (mostly Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, and UAE).
FTLOL: Do you think that living in a foreign country is essential for becoming fluent in a language? Are there any other options?
DN: Not necessarily, but I’m a firm believer in the vital importance of cultural assimilation to really learn a language (and culture) properly.
While Skype and so on (facilitated by great sites like italki) are great for taking online lessons and conversation practice, there’s just so much you can’t learn unless you’re there in person.
I look at all the languages I’ve learned and attempted to learn both at home and abroad and I can see how much better and faster I picked up languages when I was living in a host community abroad as opposed to just studying at home. There are so many cultural nuances you can never pick up unless you’re there.
Speaking a language is one thing, but really knowing it well takes a lot of time and lot of acculturation.
The second best option of course is to find migrant communities at home to connect with, but not everybody has this option.
FTLOL: Have there been any language learning materials or courses that you’ve personally found to be critical to your language learning?
DN: I’m not sure if I’d use the word ‘critical’ for any resource.
The only thing that’s critical for me is being able to speak with native speakers, so I guess in one sense you could say that italki (for facilitating Skype lessons) has been immensely helpful when I had no other way of connecting with people.
I have listed some of my absolute favorite resources for Arabic here, here, and here. The resources I found helpful for Irish are listed here. Talk to Me in Korean is an extremely useful source of material for Korean. For Russian, I used Glossika quite a lot and found that excellent. For most languages, Memrise is excellent as a vocab trainer and I’ve used that a lot over the last couple of years.
FTLOL: If you’ve ever tried to learn more than one language at a time, how do you organize your time? Are you able to give equal emphasis to all languages? Do you ever get languages mixed up when speaking?
DN: I don’t do this anymore for the simple fact that it’s much better to focus on one language at a time.
We’re wired to be able to multitask so it’s not impossible, but the way I see it is that learning two languages at a time means both of them are going to take twice as long to learn (due to divided time and focus).
My own view is that it’s better to spend time focused on one thing, learn it extremely well and then move on to the next. So unless I really needed to learn a few languages simultaneously, I wouldn’t choose to do it.
Of course, what this means is that the language I’m currently learning becomes my ‘activated’ language and the others go into hibernation until I decide to get back into them again.
I do occasionally throw in Arabic words by accident when I’m speaking Russian. It’s not a problem though – just more of a funny slip of the tongue when it happens.
FTLOL: You have created quite a large online presence for yourself as a language learner, both with your blog, The Mezzofani Guild, and with your YouTube channel, on which you share useful information and ideas about learning languages. Why did you decide to create these online mediums and has there been anything you’ve learned from maintaining them over the years?
DN: I started my language learning blog about 5 years ago simply as a hobby and a way of sharing my experiences and conclusions from my research in Second Language Acquisition.
There was no initial intention of building up a large following, but The Mezzofanti Guild has grown a lot organically over the years. People have taken an interest in what I do and say, and in my love for Arabic and the Middle East especially.
My real passion is getting people to look at language learning holistically – it’s not just about memorizing phrases or grammar rules, nor is it about finding secret ‘hacks’ to get fluent quickly.
I try to emphasize the cultural and social aspect of what I do in everything I write.
The Mezzofanti Guild has enabled me to get to know so many interesting people from all over the world (I even get people approaching me when I’m traveling because they recognize me from following my blog, which is a real buzz).
FTLOL: You’ve also created a really unique language website, Talk in Arabic, that teaches Arabic to its subscribers through video and audio lessons. I found it especially interesting in that it doesn’t only teach Modern Standard Arabic or even focus only a single dialect of Arabic. Instead, your lessons cover various dialects spoken in multiple Middle Eastern regions, such as Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Sudan, and Tunisia. How did you get the idea for this website and how long have you been running it?
DN: I started learning Arabic well over a decade ago and wanted to learn a spoken dialect at the time (initially Iraqi and later Egyptian). Back then, there were almost no resources for these spoken dialects available anywhere.
Fast forward many years when all these great sites and new technology are available for so many languages and the problem of Arabic dialects having no resources is still there!
So I decided a long time ago that I’d like to provide a central resource to fix this problem for all spoken varieties of Arabic, getting away from Modern Standard Arabic (a literary language taught in most courses that nobody anywhere speaks as a native language).
TalkInArabic.com is a new resource (it’s been up for about 10 months or so) so there’s still a lot of work to do, but we have hundreds of bite-size modules and audio lessons, as well as HD video material in 8 different dialects.
FTLOL: Further to the previous question, have you experienced any challenges with producing such a wide array of content for multiple dialects? If so, how have you overcome them?
DN: Of course.
When you’re dealing with native Arabic speakers from 8 different countries, it’s a real lesson in people management.
A ton of work goes into making sure grammatical concepts are understood by the Arabic speakers, content is correctly produced, edited, and uploaded to the site. I work locally with people on the HD video and audio, which means I need to travel around the Middle East a lot to get it done.
There’s a lot of management involved. It’s also forced me to improve my knowledge of the other Arabic dialects, which is great for me because it means I’m forced to continually learn in order to get work done.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might be struggling to learn a foreign language?
DN: It really depends on what you’re struggling with specifically.
My general advice to everybody is to stop treating languages like a set of rules that need to be memorized and get back to the very basics of ‘listen and repeat’.
Stop asking questions about why this works that way and why that works this way (you’ll figure that out over time).
Just open your ears, acculturate yourself by spending as much time as possible around people, and repeat what they say exactly how and when they say it.
Don’t be in a hurry to be fluent (you’ll frustrate yourself). Just enjoy the process. It’s slow and not always easy, but it can be enjoyable if you take the pressure off yourself.
Of course, I’m happy to help as well and offer tons of useful content on my blog. Just head over here and sign up.