The How and Why of Language Learning: An Interview with Luca Lampariello

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I recently got the chance to speak with Luca Lampariello, a well-known polyglot and one of the leading online faces promoting foreign language learning. He has been involved with many projects and events in recent years, such as the organization of language workshops in different parts of Europe. In this interview, Luca shares some of the experiences he has gained while learning 13 languages.

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

LL: I am from Rome, and I currently live here in this wonderful city. I have a degree in electronic engineering, but I have been working as a language coach on­line for the last five years.

As for where I work, well, I can pretty much work everywhere since I work on­line, and when I am in Rome my apartment is basically my office.

 

FTLOL: How did you get interested in learning languages and how many do you currently speak?

LL: I got interested in foreign languages when I was 10. I have to thank my grandmother for that, since one day during a hot summer, she took me aside and asked me “do you want to learn a bit of Latin and French?”

She didn’t know it, but she had planted an important seed in my head. I speak 13 languages to various degrees of fluency.

 

FTLOL: How have you managed to learn so many languages in your life so far? Do you have any special techniques or personal methods that you use?

LL: I have a method which has allowed me to learn a lot of languages in the last 20 years, although I must say that what really counted towards my success was neither a particular method nor talent. It was, first and foremost, my burning desire to learn and understand the world.

 

FTLOL: Are there any particular materials or courses that you find useful when learning a language?

LL: I love ASSIMIL to start learning a language, but I like saying that the best resources we have to learn languages are and will always be other human beings.

 

FTLOL: If you’ve ever tried to learn more than one language at once, how did you organize your time? Are you able to give them all equal attention?

LL: Yes, I started learning Mandarin Chinese and Portuguese at the same time in 2008. I made sure I dedicated 80% of my time to the most difficult language, which was Mandarin Chinese, and 20% to Portuguese.

If you want to learn two languages at once, it is absolutely paramount that you are sure of your decision and then learn how to manage your time and energy accordingly.

 

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?

LL: It can happen. The situation where it happens most frequently is when I am switching from one language to the other in the same conversation. Normally if I speak for long time in a language and with one person, that doesn’t happen.

 

FTLOL: Given that your first language is Italian, do you find any specific language families to be more difficult to learn than others? If so, what aspects in particular are challenging?

LL: I consider every foreign language as “distant” or “close” from my mother tongue. Some languages are surely more “distant” for me as an Italian than others.

Normally, when a language has a completely new feature that doesn’t exist in Italian, it poses difficulties. For example, cases in Slavic languages. Or tones in Chinese.

But the aspect which I find the most challenging for me is when a language has a different syntax, that is, a completely different way of structuring sentences. A glaring example of this is Japanese: I find it very challenging to think “backwards” as the Japanese do.

 

FTLOL: When I attended elementary and high school in Western Canada, children generally took French or Spanish (and sometimes German) classes as part of the school curriculum; however, they rarely were able to speak very well even after years and years of study in the classroom. What are your thoughts on learning a language strictly in the classroom rather than from immersing yourself in the cultural aspects of the speakers for the language you’re studying?

LL: I think that the problem is not where people learn, but how they learn. In school, students learn more about the language instead of just learning the language. Learning a language is a skill that you develop, and you develop it by doing it, not talking about it or analysing it.

Just to give you an example, people are taught grammar rules, but they don’t learn how to extract and understand grammar patterns through use and examples. This is how the brain learns and fundamentally students are taught to proceed the wrong way. You learn grammar from language and not the other way around.

The second key factor is that in school, competition replaces cooperation, which is a key element in learning. Students feel judged by teachers and compare their “performance” with other students. This has a disastrous psychological impact on the way they develop language.

Third, students just don’t see the point in learning a foreign language at school. They either choose a language course because they heard “it is cool to learn language X” or they just do it because they know they “have to” learn some foreign language at school.

The first two above points don’t exactly help clarify the reasons for learning nor help students boost their motivation.

 

FTLOL: Further to the previous question, how useful is it to go to a foreign country to learn a language? Can you achieve a similar level of fluency without leaving your home town?

LL: This is only apparently a simple question and it would require a long answer.

Let’s say for the sake of simplicity that once again where you are counts less in the long run compared with how you learn. Of course living in a ­particular country is a huge advantage, but this is true only if you are willing to learn the local language.

I know and know of people who have been living in a country for 40 years and speak the local language very poorly, and others who have only travelled around for a bit and speak foreign languages extremely well.

Nowadays you can literally surround yourself with any language and create a “bubble” around you. Living in­ a country will only boost your skills, but you have to be willing to make that happen. Going to a country alone won’t do much unless you are ready to throw yourself out there and learn.

 

FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who may want to start learning a foreign language, but who might not know where to start?

LL: The first piece of advice is to think why they want to learn a given language. That is key, because if you only have vague reasons as to why you have started your journey, you will not know where to go and you will get lost sooner or later.

The second piece of advice is to find good language materials to start with. The third is to figure out a way to learn and use language materials that you find enjoyable and efficient.

The fourth is use the language as much as you can, and the fifth is to never forget that learning a language is an act of love and of communication, and human beings play a paramount role in the way you will develop your language skills.

 

FTLOL: What’s next for you? Do you plan on learning any more languages, or will you work to further develop some of the ones you’ve already learned or are learning?

LL: I normally like learning languages to a very high level, but unfortunately that requires time and it is no exaggeration that time is a luxury.

The more languages you have under your belt and the more challenging it gets to maintain and improve them. I am learning Hungarian at the moment while improving all the other languages that I know.

To me, numbers are irrelevant. What counts is that I use the languages that I know to have a better life. But I like saying that languages are like ladies. It is not I who choose them, it is the other way around, and I am pretty sure there will be other languages on my existential path.

You can learn more about Luca at his blog, The Polyglot Dream.

 

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