Language dabbling

I’ve got a lot on my mind tonight, so I thought I’d unload it here. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about the difference between dabbling in numerous languages vs. mastering fewer languages since I started my second foreign language. I always have wanted to learn languages that I study to a practical level of fluency, being able to integrate the culture and language with my life. I didn’t even consider learning second foreign language (in my case Spanish), until after I was already pretty good at French (had read some literature, had a French girlfriend, multiple French speaking friends). I had polyglot role models such as Luca Lampariello, Richard Simcott, Alexander Arguelles, and Steve Kauffman who appeared to have very high levels of proficiency in multiple languages, and they seemed to be united in recommending learning one language at a time. Luca Lampariello recently had a guest blog writer recommending against language dabbling: m … languages/ m . I remember a great video by Anthony Lauder aka fluentczech on how to become a polyglot: learn one foreign language, then learn another one. I was ready to be a good disciple, and I more or less followed this model. I first started with Spanish, got to a ~B1-B2 level (regular conversations on Skype all in Spanish), then started Russian, which I really dove into more than I have ever done with any other language. Once I was at a ~B1 level, I started Italian (easier). Once my Russian and Italian were ~B2, I started German, and again when my German hit ~B1 I added Portuguese. I had a pattern that worked for me, and it was fun! I was younger with fewer commitments so I was able to travel and I got a scholarship to study in Moscow, I travelled on a shoestring budget to Italy and Germany. I made some Brazilian friends… Then I heard a call from the far east…. it beckoned me with mysterious writing systems, tones, a completely new foreign vocabulary set unrelated to any languages I’ve studied, along with a culture full of delicious cuisine that I already appreciated, and rich histories and philosophies that I could spend a lifetime studying. I was in medical school at this point living in New York City, and there is a massive Mandarin speaking community here, many of them with little to no English speaking ability. I watched youtube videos and blogs for tips on how to learn the writing system and tones, bought Assimil books, pimsleur courses, downloaded apps to help me learn radicals, and got after it, but being in medical school, I had far less time then I had previously when I studied Russian, and progress was a slow process. 2 years later, I could read basic things, make an introduction pretty well, and I had a basic understanding of the language… then my roommate wanted to learn Japanese, so naturally I offered my assistance. As I was helping him, we bought materials, went through the pimsleur courses, colloquial learn Japanese book, I read about the language and learned hiragana and katakana, and before you know it, I passed the point of no return, and I made it a regular on my study schedule, even though both Japanese and Mandarin were FSI level 5 difficulty languages, and my better judgement told me that my Mandarin was no where near good enough for me to be dividing my time like this.

In the following years, I visited used book stores on occasions, and started picking up a collection of resources on other languages, that I would study a bit on and off. I had picked up an old Assimil le polonais sans peine, a used Teach yourself Greek course prior to a trip for a friends wedding in Greece, used teach yourself Dutch and Czech book (they were only 5 dollars each!). I got an Arabic grammar book, a cheap Assimil Arabic and pimsleur course, I dabbled briefly in Esperanto. All of these languages I spent very little time on, just collected materials, spent a few hours on them for a couple months in a row, enough to learn some pleasantries and things about the languages, then shelved them for a later time.

In short, I became a language dabbler.

Oh the shame! I told myself, I need to refocus, I kept trying to double down on Mandarin and Japanese, but my attention span does not seem to last very long. Part of the problem being that I want to maintain my other languages which takes time as well, I have other hobbies, and I dot want to miss opportunities that are right under my nose (great book sales, acquaintances or friends who speak another language). When moving from Texas back to NYC, I got rid of a lot of books that I read before (mostly fiction or medical books) at a used book store, and I returned the Teach Yourself Greek book. I had read and studied the first 5 chapters, I could read, was able to say very basic tourist phrases in Greece when I visited Athens and Santorini for the wedding. I could say it was a waste, since I could have just learned a few phrases in a phrase book and done just as well, but I think having more study and more of a framework around these basic phrases helped me retain more, as I still can read the Greek alphabet and retained ~2/3 of what I learned. Which is pretty good considering I’m now 3 years out from that trip and haven’t touched Greek since.

Now I’m back in NYC, and my language wanderlust is in overdrive, but this month, for the first time in my life, I’ve embraced my desire to be a dabbler, and I’ve had a lot of fun, and even had more motivation to study languages I already know well and work on Japanese and Chinese. It helped me have fun and just enjoy learning, which is really for me what it’s all about at this point. It all started when I stumbled across the blog of Kevin Sun, a fellow New Yorker. I actually met him around 2014 at polyglot bar meet ups in New York before I moved away (although I doubt he would remember me). He is an accomplished polyglot, who speaks English and Mandarin natively, speaks Russian and Spanish well, and I remember his French, Portuguese, and German being passable (it was a long time ago, but I think those were the languages we spoke.. don’t quote me on his levels as memory can be fickle). But the impressive thing to me is that he also had studied ~20 other languages to some extent and could turn around and converse with others in many of these, even if in some it was basic. He wasn’t afraid of using whatever knowledge he had in any language! He just follows his passion, and picks up and drops languages depending on how opportunities come and where his interest takes him. Its spontaneous, and he has a lot of fun! Here is his blog’s first post: m … 4fdc52ff4e m .

So with my newfound more relaxed view on limiting myself, I followed his link for Bengali in the post above, and started using online texts from the University of Chicago Southern Asia library, and have so far studied chapter 1 of a textbook and audio (a bit over 2 hours of study). I picked Bengali because every month I have at least 1-2 patients who speak Bengali and no English, and now I can welcome them and say a few basic phrases before calling the interpreter, and so far with the 1 Bengali woman I met since starting, she smiled and responded, and it seemed to help break the ice to make her feel comfortable (which is hard for anyone in a doctor office, never mind when you don’t speak the doctors language!).

So that’s what I’ve been up to.

On a separate note, I turned on Netflix and wanted to watch a Japanese movie tonight. I ended up on a really strange horror movie, which is really not my genre, called Tag. It was recommended on a website as “number one Japanese to watch on Netflix now”. Ok, I’ll turn it on, I thought, not knowing yet that it was a horror film. I couldn’t get through more than 15 minutes, but the final straw wasn’t due to blood or killing (although that was rough in the beginning too), but rather when the wind started blowing high school girls skirts up is when I gave up completely on the movie. Another highly recommended Japanese movie is “Battle Royale, which a few people and multiple websites have recommended. Just from the description I think it will be too gory for me. I need to be careful with Japanese media as they are famous for their horror movies, and I have 0 interest in exploring that!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s