Today we’ll interview Zach Krisl who has studied 50 languages at the tender age of sixteen.
Tell us about yourself!
Hello world! My name is Zach Krisl. I’m sixteen years old and I live in the American Midwest. I’ve been seriously studying language since December of 2013. Before that, I had taken roughly a year and a half of Spanish in school, but language wasn’t really important to me. For some reason, I picked up a German book that day in December, and my interest exploded. Within a month I had begun studying around 10 languages, and by now, I’ve at least dabbled in over fifty languages. By no means do I “speak” all of these languages, but I like to say I’m a “practicing polyglot” or a “polyglot in training”.
What languages do you speak?
So, as I said before, I’ve dabbled in over fifty languages, but my top three aside from English would be Spanish, German, and Serbo-Croatian. Over all, I have probably a total of five or six languages I could survive on, but I wouldn’t say I SPEAK them, simply because I learn more every day, and I will always be ABLE to learn more every day.
Do you dream in a foreign language?
Well, it isn’t often, but I have dreamt in foreign languages. Which for me is really surprising, because the languages I DO dream in, are the ones of which I don’t know much. I mean, I’ve heard that if you dream in a language, that it means you’re fluent in said language, but I know for a FACT that that is not true, because I have dreamt in French, Russian, Chinese, etc.… and yet I have trouble speaking Chinese and Russian when I am awake sometimes.
What do you think of constructed languages? Would you be interested in learning one?
Well, I am currently learning two constructed languages, Interlingua and Esperanto. I LOVE the idea of them, but at the same time… they have their downfalls. They’re simple to learn, and the concept of having a “World Language” or a “Universal Language” is great… but as of now, not very practical. Along with this, the other main downfall is that they don’t have a culture. To me, to learn a language is not just to memorize vocab words and work on grammar… but it’s also to have a nice time at a tapas bar in Spain, enjoy Japanese anime, eat some authentic Korean Kimchi, or maybe some Norwegian Lefse or German Rouladen.
Do you always follow the same strategy when learning a new language?
Definitely not. Each language is unique and so no two languages, in my opinion, can be tackled the same way. I use similar techniques for certain languages, but almost never the same. One thing I always try is to learn a third language from a second language. What I mean it that, well, for example. I am learning many Slavic languages, (Serbo-Croatian, Bosnian, Czech, Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Slovenian) of these seven, Serbo-Croatian is the one of which I know the most. So, instead of translating from English to Russian, I do Serbian to Russian. I love this technique because it teaches me new vocab while also helping me to remember and retain the same vocab in a different language.
How has your strategy to learn new languages changed over the years?
Mostly, it’s simply that I’ve been putting more time into it. The first time I attempted to learn a language was when I was in 5th grade. I loved anime at the time, and so I wanted to know what they were ACTUALLY saying on Naruto, rather than having to read the subtitles along the bottom. I eventually found some online resources, but didn’t really know where to go from there. I learned to read Japanese, and learned to pronounce the letters and such. I also learned some basic grammar… that was my mistake I think. That right away I went to grammar, rather than learn vocab first. After that, maybe a year later, I tried to learn Greek, as I loved the Greek myths we were covering in school. This one, I didn’t even get as far as I did with Japanese. I managed to memorize the alphabet in roughly an hour or two, but past that, nada. I didn’t really understand how to learn a language until I took Spanish for the first time in school. I feel that if you learn one language, you learn how to learn, and you then are able to learn others much easier. The first one is always the hardest in my opinion.
Which resources do you normally use the most?
Well, I really enjoy the Memrise app, and also Duolingo. Duolingo is actually what helped me first start out on my German, and from there, I began to work hard with it, and it came naturally from there. I enjoy duolingo and Memrise because they make learning the languages like a game, rather than work. Of course, for me, the work of learning them is fun, but I understand that it isn’t for everyone. Otherwise though, I have never worked really with any of the major language learning programs like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur, although I have heard both good and bad about both.
What is your definition of fluency?
For me, even if I were to know every word in a language, I wouldn’t consider myself fluent in the language unless I knew everything about its culture too. Because for me, to be fluent means not just being able to count to a million, or being able to get around a city. For me, you need to know about the country, the people, the food, etc. A prime example. I heard a joke in Spanish, and understood every single word, and yet didn’t understand the joke at all. Everyone else was laughing ridiculously, and yet I was left out of it. It turned out to be referencing a children’s show in Mexico, one that they had all seen, but I had not. These are the things I’m talking about, fluency depends on more than just your amount of known words.
What would you recommend a new language learner? How to get started?
Treat yourself like a child. Learn to speak first. Don’t try to start writing right away if it has an alphabet you need to learn. How I so often start it now, is I treat myself like I’m in kindergarten. I learn my colors, how to write my name, body parts, etc. Simple things. I always enjoy learning Head Shoulders Knees and toes also, because I’m just awesome like that. As I was saying, I make sure to get an okay grasp of spoken language before I begin writing. And the other thing, is learn simple things first. Don’t try to learn medical terms in Chinese before you learn your colors, or else you will be so confused. And the final part of this is to try to find someone who can help you. We all need help sometimes, and so finding someone you can talk with and get help from is so important. If you can’t find someone, that’s okay, but I seriously don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have helpers.
How has speaking multiple languages changed you as a person?
If anything, it has probably made me a much creepier person ha-ha. For example, a while back, a friend of mine and I were walking in the store, and I heard someone speaking Swahili around the corner. I nearly ran out of my shoes in an attempt to go and speak to this person, as Swahili is a language I don’t get to speak often. I get to the end of the isle, and with a cry of “KISWAHILI!” I knock over a middle aged woman. Or one other thing I do that my mom absolutely hates, is when in public I sometimes… well, speak with an accent. I think to myself, “These people don’t know me, and I NEED to improve my German Accent” or I also do French or Russian accents. And so, with that, if I’m with my mom, she calls me either Hans, Pierre, or Vladimir (Yes, I know, the most stereotypical names ever, but oh well). And I agree that it’s kind of weird, but I am NOT insane, and it actually DOES help for when I’m actually speaking these languages, despite the stares I may get in the dairy section.
Do you watch movies to practice your languages?
I do watch some movies in different languages, but much more often I listen to music in different languages and have radio apps for over 20 different countries (Shout out to South Africa. I turned on South African radio at midnight here, which would be 6 am in South Africa, and they’re jamming out to Tupac, whoop whoop). And here, more than likely the manliest thing you’ve ever heard: I can sing “Let it Go” from Frozen in 25 languages. Yay for my masculinity! Next Question!
You know you’re a language nerd when…
You know you’re a language nerd when you specifically MEMORIZE the phrase “One language is never enough” in 50 languages. Or when you have anything in common with me. Like, at all. Though that could also mean you’re: a nerd in general, kind of chubby, incredibly handsome, a genius, straight up charming, an internet freak, or just amazing in general.