Today I got the opportunity to chat with Teng Scott Vang to learn more about his journey learning foreign languages in the United States. Like many of us, he’s dabbled in more than just a few of them and he shares his experience here.
FTLOL: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do for a living? Are you able to speak any of the languages you know at your work?
TSV: My name is Teng Scott Vang and I’m from Saint Paul, Minnesota.
I currently work at a bank and am a part time property manager. I don’t speak the languages I know at work; however, there are many opportunities to pick up new ones, as well as opportunities to build off from the bits and pieces of some languages I’m already familiar with.
FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak and are you studying any others at the moment?
TSV: English and Hmong are my native languages, and I speak in two dialects of Hmong. Other than those, the language I’m most familiar with is Mandarin Chinese, and I can dabble enough in Spanish, Cantonese, and Japanese to have basic conversations and pick up new things as I encounter them naturally outside of study. There are many others I have played with but I do not consider them to be serious study yet.
FTLOL: When did you start learning foreign languages? Was there a specific event that triggered your interest in them?
TSV: In high school I took a year’s worth of Spanish classes and in my freshman year of college I took two semesters of Spanish. I did very well in those classes, but at the time I did not have a language learning mindset yet and never efficiently utilized my resources there.
Coincidentally at that same time, I did get a lot of experience as a point of contact for communicating with many Hispanic employees who had limited English skills during my time working as an assistant for a staffing agency. Spanish was the only exposure to learning a foreign language I had ever encountered. The thought of language learning still seemed mysterious and difficult.
Toward the end of my first year of college, I joined a Japanese language club and made some friends with Japanese students who were studying abroad from Akita International University. I stayed after school with them several times per week and picked up bits of Japanese from their lessons.
During this time, I also picked up a copy of Pimsleur’s Japanese, which I listened to when I was home and that helped a lot with immediately engaging in conversation and understanding things as the students were teaching me. I was surprised at the progress I was making. After that year, most of the Japanese students went back home or graduated.
When I came back for my sophomore year, my college was introducing a new Mandarin Chinese program. I saw it and registered because it was a five credit course that I could use to fulfill my general education requirements. I had no intention of really learning much since the Chinese language was mysterious to me.
However, my limited exposure to Japanese writing had me interested in dissecting and better understanding those mysterious Kanji characters. Writing in Chinese sounded like it would be kind of neat. I had no idea what I was going to be in for!
I also joined the Arabic language club as well. This is when I started to realize I could develop a knack for studying languages.
FTLOL: Has there been a specific language or group of languages that you have enjoyed learning more than others? If so, why?
TSV: I would have to say that I had the most interesting time learning Mandarin and that it’s been my favorite language to learn.
As I mentioned earlier, I randomly signed up for the class not expecting much, but my time learning Mandarin really broadened my horizons. I picked up what my teacher taught fairly quickly. I realized how similar Chinese was with my own native tongue, Hmong, being that my ancestors only a few generations ago were from Southwestern China (something that most young Hmong Americans are oblivious to).
From there on, not only was it about just learning Chinese, but it sparked an interest in finding out more about the history and culture of my people, and then learning about everything and everyone across the Chinese speaking world.
It was quite eye opening and I remember my teacher always telling me that I was the most enthusiastic student she had ever had. I was learning fast and starting to tutor my peers after school with whatever help they needed.
After that year, I graduated from my college and experienced a two year hiatus from any progress. I did not have any close friends who spoke Mandarin. Some of my close friends who learned with me went on to travel abroad. I mostly retained everything by continuing to learn from my fascination about the Chinese world online.
Also, the online friends I had made from China and the polyglot community kept me going. After those two years, I went back to my old college and saw that the Chinese language program was still going on. I offered to be a volunteer tutor just to get myself immersed around the language learning environment again. I made new friends again by meeting the other Chinese tutors and had a great time helping new students learn.
Teaching from my perspective of being a non-native speaker seemed to be a great help to many of the new students in grasping an understanding of new things.
FTLOL: How has your personality affected your language study over time?
TSV: I have always been more of a quiet and reserved person in social settings, but with language learning I go out of my way to have conversations with native speakers.
I usually get so excited that I connect very well and make new friends, as the native speakers themselves are usually very intrigued as well. What I’ve learned I want to share with others who need help and so that is also exciting for me.
These are probably the most rewarding experiences of language learning for me and the thrill I get makes me want to keep studying.
FTLOL: Do you think it’s important for language learners to be organized in the way that they learn a language, or can they be fairly haphazard in their approach, such as just studying here and there whenever they feel like it?
TSV: I think that it is important to be organized when you want to make progress toward achieving a goal for something you strongly desire.
All your energy will be focused on understanding new things and you will run into obstacles and overcome them to increase your knowledge even further, compared with a more casual or passive approach to picking up a language.
Any prolonged period of time that I was not regularly setting aside time to strictly focus on studying, I never really felt any growth.
FTLOL: What type of resources or methods do you use to learn languages? Do you have any favorites?
Ideally, I would prefer a classroom with a native speaking teacher, but that is not always doable. So on my own, I like to familiarize myself with the phonology of each language first. I find that helps with pronunciation and speaking right away as I pick up new words because I don’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out how I should make the new sounds.
Any resource that can get me going with audio is fine. Even free resources from places like FSI or BBC’s Intro to Languages are good to begin getting exposure to languages. Ultimately, I would prefer to have a native speaker for every language I study but that can be hard to find and even impossible without some traveling.
I like to start with everyday conversational phrases so I can start greeting, asking questions, listening, and responding to commands right away and build upon those. If I want to start speaking fast, I find the repetitive listening/speaking method that Pimsleur uses to be very helpful when supplemented with a more comprehensive resource for reading and writing.
FTLOL: If you’ve ever tried to learn more than one language at a time, how do you do it? Are you able to give equal emphasis to all languages?
TSV: I have never studied more than two to three languages at a time, which I find to be manageable. Just set the time slot for each with a goal of what you want to work on, whether it is a certain amount of new vocabulary you want to get down or new expressions, grammer, etc.
Just keep it consistent and there will be progress. In your free time, when you are not studying, immerse yourself in media and entertainment in the language you are learning.
You MUST immerse yourself as if you are “going native” in the tongue you want to speak. This is where language learning is most enjoyable as you delve into the world of other cultures and gain new perspectives on the world.
FTLOL: Have there been any specific people who have influenced you in learning languages?
TSV: Mostly people in the online polyglot community. Steve Kaufman was probably one of the first polyglots I regularly followed, but it wasn’t until I met Moses McCormick (Laoshu) that I really interacted with another learner, and from him, I met other people who were very serious about language study; we all just attracted one another.
Seeing them grow in their studies and all the things that everyone has to share has kept me interested when other priorities in life start to get in the way of studying.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might be struggling to learn a foreign language?
TSV: I would have to say just stay consistent and take new words and ideas as they’re taught to you. When learning new vocabulary or grammar, even if you can’t really grasp their meanings at first, just USE them anyway and before you know it, they will be a part of you and you’ll have jumped over another hurdle.
Language learning is just learning how to communicate, so just use what you learn and take every opportunity to SPEAK!