I recently got the chance to interview a former colleague of mine that I worked with when I lived in Taiwan last year, who goes by the name Meng-Fang Wu [吳孟芳]. Here he shares some information about living in both Korea and Taiwan, as well as his experience learning languages while abroad.
FTLOL: Tell us a bit about your background. Where are you from and where do you currently live and work?
MFW: I’m from Baltimore, Maryland, and I currently live and work in Taipei, Taiwan [as a translator].
FTLOL: How did you start learning foreign languages and how long have you been doing it for?
MFW: I’ve been interested in foreign languages since I was in elementary school. When I was in second or third grade, our school would have designated days where we would learn about foreign countries and their cultures and languages.
On one of those days we learned about China. I was fascinated by how different the Chinese writing system is from English, and ever since then I’ve been very interested in East Asian languages. Unfortunately, my elementary school and middle school didn’t have a foreign languages program, so I didn’t actually start learning foreign languages until my first year of high school, which was 12 years ago.
FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak, and are you studying any others at the moment?
MFW: I can speak Chinese, French, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish. I’ve been very interested in Swedish for a while and have started studying basic vocabulary but haven’t really begun studying in depth yet.
I’ve also been studying some Italian lately, but the grammar and vocabulary are similar to Spanish and French so it’s a very different process from studying a completely new language.
FTLOL: You’ve told me before that you’ve spent time living in Korea, and now Taiwan. Have living in these places helped you learn your languages to a higher level compared to if you never left home?
MFW: I think living abroad and being completely (or almost completely) immersed in a language can provide two benefits.
First, it can help you learn faster. Second, it can help you improve your speaking skills. But I think it’s only possible to reap these benefits if you make an effort. I’ve known a lot of people who have gone abroad for work or study and only made friends with other foreigners, and when they came back, they complained that they barely learned anything.
If you want to actually be immersed in the culture and language of the country you’re living in, you have to make an effort to use the language as much as possible and make friends with people from that country. Otherwise, it’s almost no different from being home.
I think this can be especially difficult for people from English-speaking countries. English is such a global language now that you can get by using English almost anywhere. Personally, I refuse to speak to people in English so that I can spend as much time speaking the local language as possible. If I didn’t, I would probably be speaking English all the time.
FTLOL: Further to the previous question, did you experience any challenges when you first moved to these countries, either linguistic or otherwise?
MFW: Of course! When I went to Korea, I had only studied Korean for one year in college. When I moved to Taiwan, I had self-studied [Mandarin] Chinese for two years. In both cases, I had a pretty solid foundation to build on, but of course there was a lot of everyday (and not-so-everyday) vocabulary that I was lacking, and even more importantly, I had had limited opportunities to practice speaking and listening in real time.
I think a lot of friends that I made when I first moved to both Taiwan and Korea thought that I had a really excellent grasp of the language, but I was actually just nodding, smiling, listening for keywords, and laughing when everyone else laughed. This was especially true in situations that required more specialized vocabulary, like going to the bank, or setting up a cell phone plan, or apartment hunting.
I would often have to explain words that I didn’t know using vocabulary that I didn’t know. For example, if I didn’t know the word for sink, I would have to say “that thing in the bathroom that you use to wash your hands”.
But the important thing is that I refused to use English. So when I said “that thing in the bathroom that you use to wash your hands” in Chinese, the person I was talking to said, “Oh, sink!” in Chinese, and then I knew the word for sink in Chinese. And I wasn’t associating it with the English word for sink; I was associating it directly with Chinese. I think this makes a big difference.
FTLOL: Have there been any language study materials or courses that you’ve personally found to be critical to your learning?
MFW: I’m not a big fan of classroom-based or textbook learning because it doesn’t fit my learning style or pace.
I did a lot of language practice by watching television shows, looking at social media, using online chat websites like SharedTalk and Chaberi, and talking to friends. I think using authentic sources like these helps you to learn more useful, colloquial, and natural vocabulary and grammar than do textbooks. Textbooks often contain outdated or unnatural phrases that people don’t really use in real life.
Also, learning this way lets you study at your own pace, so you don’t have to worry about having to catch up to everyone else or being bored while everyone else catches up. It also lets your tailor your language learning to fit your learning style.
If you’re a visual learner, look at social media or use online chat websites. If you’re an auditory learner, watch TV shows or listen to news or radio. If you’re a kinesthetic learner, download apps that have games or flashcards for learning new vocabulary and grammar, like Duolingo.
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)?
MFW: I guess I basically covered this in my previous response, but the majority of my language learning involved watching television shows, looking at social media (like Facebook and Twitter), using online chat websites like SharedTalk (a language-exchange website that lets you chat with native speakers of a wide range of languages) and Chaberi (a chat website for Japanese people), and talking to friends.
Just like anything else in life, you’ll get as much out of language learning as you put in. If you study one hour a week, you’re not going to learn very quickly or retain very much. I try to spend as much time as I can practicing every day.
For example, I listen to radio while I work, or watch a TV show on my lunch break, or read an article or a book on the subway on my way home. I also take yoga classes, which are taught almost exclusively in Chinese, and have a learned a lot of very useful vocabulary as a result. If you can find any opportunity to mix language learning with a hobby or a passion, I think that can greatly increase motivation and retention.
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?
MFW: I learned Spanish and French at the same time, and also Japanese and Korean. I didn’t have much trouble organizing my time because I learned all of those languages in school, so my time was basically organized for me.
Now that I spend the majority of my time speaking Chinese, I do make an effort to keep practicing the other languages that I’ve studied, but I don’t have a set schedule or method. If I see or hear about something interesting in one of those languages, I read it or watch it. If I meet someone who can speak one of those languages, I try to practice with them as much as possible.
Basically, I just take any opportunity I can to practice.
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 conversations in another language?
MFW: This is actually one of the questions that I get asked most frequently. I don’t think I’ve ever had this problem.
The only time I accidentally use the wrong language is when I’ve just woken up in the morning. Sometimes if I’ve been dreaming in another language, I speak that language when I wake up instead of the one that I’m supposed to. It takes me a few minutes to realize where I am and who I’m talking to.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might want to learn a language but who don’t know where to start?
MFW: Like I said before, try to identify your learning style and then find the appropriate resources. There are so many amazing apps and websites available now that there’s no excuse not to learn a language if you really want to.
If you’re not sure what your learning style is, try spending a week using only visual materials, a week using only auditory materials, and a week using only kinesthetic materials. You’ll probably find that one way in particular seems to resonate most with you, and you’ll remember the words easier and the grammar will make more sense.
From there, you can start searching for more materials of that type. The most important thing is to make language learning something you enjoy doing, and not to be too strict with yourself or expect to learn everything in a day. Everyone learns at their own pace and in their own way. Keep practicing regularly and eventually everything will click.