Interview with coach and polyglot Irina Pravet

It’s been a while since the last interview. Today we feature Irina Pravet who is from Romania and currently lives in Finland. 

Irina Fudge

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

My name is Irina Pravet and I coach foreigners settling abroad who are looking for a sense of home, as well as people who are learning languages. I was born in Romania and when I was 5, my parents and I moved to Canada – first Montreal, where I learned French, then Toronto, where I perfected my English (today my strongest language). I grew up trilingual and as soon as I had the chance, started learning Spanish and German in school as well. When I was 21, I immigrated to Finland, and I’ve been here ever since. I guess all this moving around between cultures and languages has made me very aware of them, passionate about finding home wherever I am, and ended up shaping my career.

2. What are some peculiarities of Finnish?

I’m so happy you asked this 🙂 Finnish is unlike most other languages (apart from Estonian, and it also shares some similarities with Hungarian) It’s very phonetic and easy to read. Once you learn the alphabet, you can read almost everything. One of the most notable aspect of Finnish is the fact that it doesn’t have any gender or articles (which was a relief after studying German). When people talk about it’s difficulty, they never mention how the lack of gender and articles makes things a lot simpler. Finnish is best known for it’s 15 cases, of which 12 are used actively. 6 of these 12 cases are primarily used to express directions; they are called local cases. Cases are added to the end of a word, and the word is inflected. For example, ‘school’ in Finnish is ‘koulu’. If I say ‘at/in school’ then I add the inessive case (+ssa) onto the end of the word, so ‘at/in school’ becomes ‘koulussa.’ It takes a bit of getting used to the cases because it’s a new way of thinking about things but in the end, it’s very logical. Also, there is no word for please in Finnish. You use the conditional tense for politeness.

3. What is your life in Finland like in comparison to Canada?

It’s hard to say exactly because I left Canada at a transitional period in my life, at the age of 21. So when I think about Canada, it’s hard to separate it from my childhood/adolescence and early adulthood. I joke that I only know how to be an adult in Finland 🙂 I guess the biggest differences are that whenever I have to do something new in Finland, as an adult, I also need to learn some new vocabulary. For example, doing banking and taxes in Finnish involves learning new concepts, but also new words. It makes some of these things feel a bit harder and scarier than they need to be but I try to take small steps forward so as to not let them paralyze me. Otherwise, I would say I live a pretty normal life: I’ve met friends throughout the years, from school, work, and friends of friends. We’re a pretty international and diverse bunch, much like my group of friends in Canada.

4. What are the benefits of a TED appearance? What do you need to do to speak at the conference?

Speaking at TedxOtaniemi was a huge project for me. I didn’t know what all the benefits would be ahead of time but looking back now, I would say that they include getting your name and message out there, and somehow becoming a spokesperson for the message as well. When people are getting to know me professionally, it’s easier to refer them to the Tedx video for them to get a sense of what I stand for and what I believe. Doing the talk was also extremely helpful in that it helped me really verbalize the message I wanted to get out in a very concise format. As the saying goes “If I Am To Speak Ten Minutes, I Need a Week for Preparation; If an Hour, I Am Ready Now”
As for what you need to speak, I would say the #1 prerequisite is passion for a cause/message, #2 courage and #3 perseverance.

5. Do you dream in a foreign language?

I have no idea… I’ve often tried to figure out what language(s) I dream in but I never can remember the actual words; rather I remember their meaning. I assume I dream in English, and if I spend enough time in Romania, I probably start dreaming in Romanian… whichever language I am immersed in.

6. When you learn a new language do you always follow the same strategy?

Yes and no. I tend to follow my curiosity and feel my way around the language in different ways, depending whatever gets me excited. It depends whether the language has similarities to other languages I speak or whether it is completely different. Either way, I try as much as possible to hear the language at first and immerse myself in its sounds, and also stay close to people who are speaking it. I have a much harder time motivating myself to learn if I don’t know anyone who speaks the language or have an immediate need to use it.

7. Which resources do you normally use most?

This feels odd to confess but I don’t use much in the way of apps or more modern language-learning resources. I tend to gravitate towards a basic textbook to get me started, find a reliable online dictionary, make my own flashcards and google things from time-to-time when needed. Otherwise, I tend to ask people and work up the courage to use the language and adjust as I go along. I’ve tried language learning apps like Duolingo and Memrise and although they are really fun, I don’t seem to stick to them for very long. That’s just me, I’m old school like that!

8. How has speaking multiple changes changed you as a person?

I did an entire talk on this topic at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in 2015 (here’s the link) and strongly believe that learning a language will change your life. Not only because it’ll open your eyes to new cultures and people you wouldn’t have met otherwise, but also because it will change the way you see yourself. A language is a medium through which you can express yourself, and every medium has its limitations. So when you step outside the limitations of one language, you’ll be thrown into situations with different societal norms and, if you’re observant and persistent enough, learn to react to situations in completely different ways based on the language spoken. This is a whole new level of mental gymnastics, and the feeling you get when you start to perceive yourself as, for example, someone who can ALSO be ‘reserved’ instead of ‘perpetually loud’ can feel very expansive. It’s like redefining your identity.

9. You know you’re a language nerd when…

… you find yourself explaining how a certain grammar construction isn’t so hard to grasp, and go on to explain why only to be met with wide-eyes stares from those who lost you at a word like ‘adverb’.. it happens.
OR
you’re having lunch with polyglots and they ask you to explain how Finnish cases work with genuine interest, and you ask ‘Are you serious?’ while feeling like you’re dreaming =D

10. What is your single best non-obvious tip for language learning?

As soon as you decide to learn a language, begin to think directly in that language. Even if your mind is blank in the beginning, add to it slowly but surely, and think directly in that language, instead of translating from another one. This is an invaluable skill that takes practice but can be used for learning any language and speaking it fluidly from the beginning.

To learn more about Irina or to see her Tedx talk, please visit Languagecatalyst.com.

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