Can external motivation transform into passion? How to use 60 minutes to study effectively? Alex Rawlings, “Britain’s most multilingual student” and organiser of polyglot workshops shares his experience with learning foreign languages. Watch and find out!
VocApp.com: All right Alex. Thank you very much for giving us your precious time. Can we just start by telling our viewers who you are, what you do and why we were so happy to trace you down to the conference for the interview.
Alex Rawlings: Three years ago in 2012 I won a competition by Harper Collins, the publishers, which was trying to find Britain’s most multilingual student. I was tested for fluency in eleven different languages by native speakers and I was given the prize. Back then I was studying German and Russian at Oxford, I’ve since left Oxford and I’m now living in Budapest, where I’m learning Hungary and teaching, English, German and Russian.
VocApp.com: Wow, so many languages. Why learn so many? Some people have problems with one.
Alex Rawlings: Yeah, I mean, it’s a number of different things. I think first of all each of the languages that I’ve learnt, I’ve always had a reason to learn them, there’s always been a way to use them. Which means that in addition to just learning them, I’ve also been able to practice them, which has been really important. I’ve had the motivation to take them to a high level and imagine how I’d like to use them. Beyond that, it just turns into a big passion, a big hobby. I think, once you’ve got the bug it really stays with you and you just want to learn more and more.
VocApp.com: Yeah, you said that you had a reason but with Hungarian, I don’t believe that there was a really special reason to learn Hungarian.
Alex Rawlings: Hungarians always start to go into the stratosphere a little bit. I decided I wanted to go live in Budapest to experience living abroad and I think Hungarian’s come from that really. I’ve created the reason.
VocApp.com: You’ve created the reason?
Alex Rawlings: It’s not a natural reason, yeah.
VocApp.com: All right but a lot of people who can’t speak English for example, they decided that they want to learn English and when they don’t know any, they just decide to go to Great Britain and learn it. Do you think it’s a good idea to do it?
Alex Rawlings: I think there’s a lot of challenges that come with just going to the country. I certainly experienced in Hungary, that if you don’t speak the language you’re more likely to hang around with people who speak your mother tongue. You’re going to be in expat circles a lot and when you’re doing that you’re not going to be practicing the language that you’ve set out to learn. I think, if you want to go and spend time in a foreign country the ideal time to go is after maybe a year of studying the language, where you’re at kind of, quite a confident level of what you can do and you can speak quite well about a lot of different topics. Then you will really benefit from being surrounded by the language.
VocApp.com: All right, so when you decided to learn Hungarian, what was the first thing you did because it was a kind of crazy idea for such a specific language to start?
Alex Rawlings: The very first step that I took, was to make sure that I liked the language. I downloaded some free podcasts and I listened to some videos on YouTube and that kind of thing, to make sure I liked the sound, I was interested in the words and that really started from there. Then I was concentrating a lot on pronunciation, making sure that when I was learning new words, I was learning to say them correctly. Then gradually I started to learn more words, more vocabulary just for things that I could imagine myself in Hungary looking around, pointing at something and being able to say what it is in Hungarian.
VocApp.com: All right, so how did you learn? How did you learn vocabulary for example?
Alex Rawlings: I used a couple of courses. The one that I used especially was Colloquial Hungarian by Routledge. I also did a lot of vocabulary with the lists that are available on Memrise for Hungarian. Basically I managed to keep up a routine of doing about an hour a day, split up into chunks of fifteen minutes each, spread out around the day. It never felt like a really big burden learning the language, it always felt very… it felt very doable. It never felt like I was having to give up doing anything else to do it and, you know, I think that also really helped.
VocApp.com: Right. What do you think are the most common mistakes that people make when they learn a foreign language?
Alex Rawlings: One thing that I see a lot is, people set the bar too high for themselves, you know. We have to learn to crawl before we can walk, as we say in English and a couple of other languages, I guess, as well. One thing that I see with my own students is that they get very frustrated that they can’t express themselves in exactly the way they want to in the language they’re learning. They are so fluent in English or whatever their native tongue is, that when it comes to speaking this new language all of a sudden, okay I can’t quite say that, I can’t be so exact. Once you make peace with that idea, once you understand that in this new language you’re learning it’s going to take time before you can be as precise as you’d like to be in English, you can start making a lot of progress too, once you learn how to talk around things that you want to say.
VocApp.com: Do you need to have a teacher to learn a language or can you do it by yourself?
Alex Rawlings: Well, it depends what you want to achieve with the language. If you just want to read the language then, no, you probably don’t need a teacher but I think if you want to speak, it makes sense to get some practice in. Apart from giving you practice with speaking, practice with pronunciation, what a teacher and a course really does is, it gives you structure that makes sure that even when you have moments where you’re not so motivated or you feel, okay I don’t want to get out of bed today, you have to. That’s quite useful because we’re all human and sometimes it does all break down.
VocApp.com: Do you look for language partners when you learn? Do you try to…
Alex Rawlings: I’ve actually written an article recently on my blog about this issue. I’ve tried a few language exchanges but I often find they don’t last a very long time because life gets in the way and things just fall apart and you’re very dependent on another person. So, actually, I now just choose to find a teacher online on Skype and pay them for their time to correct my language.
VocApp.com: Do you use any technology, I mean any applications apart from Memrise, as you’ve mentioned?
Alex Rawlings: Well, I have a couple of online dictionaries that I use. There’s the PONS, of course, which is the big German dictionary but also does a couple of other languages too. I really like that one I think it’s really, really clear and apart from that obviously, Skype is the piece of technology I use more than anything to connect with language learners around the world.
VocApp.com: Some people struggle with not being native-like speaker of that type of language. What would you say to them?
Alex Rawlings: I mean, if you look at this practically, you’ve been learning your native language ever since you were born, so you’re always going to be better at that, then at whatever language you’re learning, okay. Once you’ve made peace with that idea, you can get back to thinking about what you really can achieve with these new languages that you’re learning, which is actually a pretty inspiring level. I know a lot of people who, in languages that they’ve learnt, much later in life even in their forties and fifties, they’ve managed to achieve a really, really good level in quite a short amount of time. Just by being consistent in their studying, having clear goals and really thinking carefully about which languages they’d like to learn and which languages they’ll be able to use.
VocApp.com: What do you do in order not to lose any of the languages that you already have?
Alex Rawlings: There’s a number of things you can do, for example, if you can get hold of TV in that language, that’s a really nice exercise to sit and watch a half hour documentary about something that interests you and write down some words on the side that are new, new expressions that you like, things that you wouldn’t have necessarily said yourself. Maybe even if you want to be really proactive about it, record yourself talking for five minutes summarizing what you’ve just watched and trying to use the new vocabulary that you’ve written down.But generally, the more languages that you are learning, if that’s what you want to do, this can get harder and harder. Generally I don’t always get to practice all my languages at the same time. I have a set few that I’m using at a particular time of my life and then the others I have to, kind of, put to the back of my mind for a while. Then when I need them often I can revitalize them and bring them back.
VocApp.com: I know that you are involved in workshops for polyglots, for students or people who learn languages. Can you tell us more about it?
Alex Rawlings: Absolutely, so the workshops are really, really good fun. We normally get quite small groups of people, so, there’s a very different feel to these kind of events where you have three hundred and fifty people, at our events we have, twenty. We spend a whole weekend together, we’re sharing our experiences, we’re teaching techniques about learning vocabulary and basically trying to give you the right mindset, thinking about how you can go about learning a new language the most efficient way. We were actually in Poland in March in Poznan and in Warsaw and we’re going to be in Budapest at the end of May on the 30th.
VocApp.com: So who is it for? Is it for students, is it for polyglots?
Alex Rawlings: It’s for everybody who’s interested in learning languages. I think what’s really nice about it is that we’ve had some people who have learnt a lot of languages and we’ve had some people who’ve only learnt one language or maybe even half a language. Everyone who comes has completely different perspectives and experiences and everybody leaves having learned something. Some people just come because they want to practice their English and it’s a good opportunity.
VocApp.com: Great. Thank you very much!
Also check out Alex’s website, where you can find lots of inspiring language learning resources!