Today’s interview is with language learner Veronica Perez who uses LearnWithOliver to learn languages. Even though she isn’t a famous blogger it’s one of the best interviews I’ve read for some time. Definitely worth reading. Enjoy!
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I am 38 years old, a graduate of Accountancy, and I speak Filipino, as a native language; English, which is an official language in our country; and Japanese. I started learning Japanese in 2009 and passed N2 in December of 2013. I can’t claim I studied entirely on my own, though I learned only by getting online. I’ll forever be grateful to the authors of the different websites I used, and blogs that I read, not to mention authors of published books on the language. In 2014, I started learning other languages as well. Currently, besides English and Japanese, I’m also learning French, Swedish, Spanish, Korean, Latin, Ancient Greek, Brazilian Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Italian, Greek and German. That’s in the order that I started learning them. I started learning German just this October.
How has your strategy to learn new languages changed over the years?
While learning Japanese, I focused on collecting sentences. After familiarizing myself with its writing system, which took barely a month, I went ahead and read sentences, and only acquired vocabularies in the process. I passed the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) doing just that. Well, I also watched a lot of Japanese movies, anime, TV programs and series, to acquire some listening skills, but I did not actively learn to speak. Eventually, it just happened, though it wasn’t my intention. A lot of reading and watching movies did that.
Since I couldn’t actively use the language, I didn’t personally know any Japanese national, so I had no one to talk to, I started keeping journals in that language. That’s when I noticed that I was utterly lacking in vocabularies. I could understand a great deal but I could not produce the right words to express what I wanted to say. So, when I started learning French, I did it both ways. I still focused on learning sentences but I also coupled it with lots of practice on vocabulary words alone. That’s how I discovered LearnWithOliver, which was then called Antosch & Lin. Its contents were exactly what I felt I needed at the time. A collection of sentences, plus a list of all the vocabularies used in them.
I’ve used electronic flashcards since the very first day and I don’t think I will ever be able to do without them. It’s only how I set up my cards that’s changed over the years. I change them based on what I believe I need at a certain period in my learning. Like, right now, I’m focusing on reading Japanese aloud. With a writing system like theirs, you can actually understand everything you’re reading without actually knowing how to pronounce the words. This is what I’m trying to achieve now, to be able to read Japanese aloud at a decent speed.
Do you have a favorite language?
I couldn’t explain why I kept adding to my list of languages I was learning, besides the fact that I felt it could be done, thanks to our current technology, but when I got to learning German, I thought: This is it! I stopped adding more languages after that. But I have to say this may only be for the time being, because I’ve also wanted to learn Russian. But then, it’s going to take a while before I start doing that. I want to be able to reach a certain level of proficiency in German first, before I start on another language again. Why German? I honestly don’t know. It just felt so right.
Are there any language blogs or podcasts you follow closely?
There’s not a single one I follow closely but I do read a lot of blogs and listen to podcasts. I’m basically everywhere. I read blogs, not just about the languages I’m learning, but about language learning in general. I particularly like those relating about their personal experiences. Since I’m just on my own here, tapping on my keyboard and clicking my mouse, I consider them my classmates in this broad school called language learning. I think this is important, hearing from kindred souls. It helps in keeping my passion for learning aflame. It’s the same with podcasts, I prefer listening to personal ones, like those talking about the traffic and the food they had for lunch. I consider that to be the closest I can get with the language. The reason I’m learning this many languages is I like reading books. Novels, in particular. And I want to be able to read literature in as many languages as possible. But there might also come a time when I would have to speak it, too, and I wouldn’t want to sound like a dramatic novel when I did. That’s why I listen to podcasts, to get the feel of how the language is actually being used in day-to-day conversations.
What would you recommend a new language learner? How to get started?
He has to know what he wants to do with the language he wants to learn first. That’s how he’ll be able to know what to do next. Does he want to be able to read in that language? Then, read right away. Does he like watching movies or listening to music? Then, focus on acquiring the listening skills necessary to do that. Does he like to talk, or have someone, in particular, he wants to communicate with in that language? Then, start with everyday conversations. Is it for a job? Then, go towards what that job requires. Once he has the answer to this, the materials he thinks he needs will just present themselves. It’s like magic. When one already knows what he wants, it will come to him. (Stated otherwise, Google will become his best friend.)
I also suggest that he does what he finds enjoyable. When he realizes that he doesn’t like what he’s doing anymore, find something else. When one likes what he’s doing, it starts to feel more like fun, though learning a language demands a great deal of work. It won’t matter where he starts, really. He can start with medical jargon, if that’s what interests him the most. Be it, say, basic, intermediate, or advanced, they will come together, eventually, as long as he keeps going. As long as he learns constantly, he’ll be using the language, even before he realizes he already can.
What keeps you motivated to keep learning?
Understanding words, or phrases, I wouldn’t have understood had I not learned the language. That’s the best motivation for me. The first time I weaned myself off the subtitles, when watching Japanese movies, and still understood what was going on, I was crying the entire time. I did it! Nothing can compare with the joy that brings.
And what point would you recommend to read up on grammar?
When one feels he already has enough vocabularies, to which he can apply these grammar rules on, that’s the time. This will save him a tremendous amount of time. Languages tend to have these exact phrases, with which one expresses certain ideas. If he will keep on digesting sentences, or materials, in the language he’s learning, he’ll naturally be able to acquire and use these phrases. Learning grammar can be likened to polishing your shoes before you wear them. Vocabulary words, and common phrases, are the shoes. It’s grammar that polishes them. You wouldn’t polish a piece of leather and wrap it around your feet, would you?
How important do you think is talent when learning a language?
A great deal. But only if it had to be done really fast and effortlessly!
We all have different capabilities. There will always be someone who can do it better than the other, and there’s nothing wrong if we admired that someone. When it comes to one’s own learning, though, what’s important is knowing what will work best for him. One ought to pick that method that he thinks will be most effective for him. If one has the talent, he should embrace it. If not, then, he would just have to exert more effort, and invest more time, to get to where he wanted to go. He will get there, for sure, as long as he stays the course. I know I don’t belong in the talented category but it’s the least of my concerns. It may take me longer than the rest, but I’m getting there, too.
Additionally, to borrow Kató Lomb’s words, “Language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.” Either way, talent or none, in learning languages, one always wins.
Do you use mnemonics to learn new words?
Yes, but not actively. What usually happens is that I tend to associate them with words from another language. Like, when I learned the (Brazilian) Portuguese word for cigarette butt: bituca. In our language (Filipino), bituka means intestine. I instantly imagined an intestine full of cigarette butts. (He swallowed them, after smoking, because littering harms the environment!) Then, the word stuck. Because I have this tendency, to associate words with another, learning more and more languages works for me, because more and more associations become readily available to me as well. In cases when I couldn’t make any association at all, I’d try picturing the word in my head, say a window, and imagine the word written there. If that still didn’t work, I’d just leave it to the flashcards. After seeing the words multiple times, they stick, anyway.
I’ve read books on mnemonics, and the like. I believe I understood the idea, but I just couldn’t make it work for me. Either I’d forget the mnemonic I came up with, or I’d successfully come up with something really clever, but a full hour had already passed me by. It’s a waste of time for me. I’d rather see more new words than spend my time thinking of mnemonics I just might forget, anyway. I forgot what I thought could help me remember! That’s the worst feeling in the world, so I just go with what comes naturally to me.
What would you say is the hardest language?
One I can’t understand. That would be the hardest language for me. I’m a native Filipino speaker, so I’d say that’s the easiest language, but only because I know it with all my heart and soul. English used to be really difficult for me, when I was still learning it as a young girl in school. Now, though, I can’t say it’s so hard to learn. I thought I’d lose my mind, when I started learning Japanese, but now, I’d say, it’s relatively easy. Relatively? Compared with what? With a language I don’t yet speak. I could go on and on. French is easier than German, because I’ve been learning French for almost two years now. I started German only two months ago. On the other hand, my Spanish is a lot better than my Swedish, though I started learning Swedish six months earlier than Spanish. We (the Filipino language) use(s) a lot of words that have Spanish origin. The association helped a great deal.
What do I consider to be the most difficult among the languages I’m learning now? Latin. But only because LearnWithOliver doesn’t have it yet. It’s the lack of materials that engage me. In other words, though I don’t want to say this, it’s the relatively less amount of time I spend in learning the language that makes it difficult.