Pick up helpful tips on learning languages from the author of BrazilianGringo.com, who speaks 5 languages. In this first episode of our interview series with known polyglots, Meaghan asks Josh (among other things) about:
- what works & what doesn’t?
- how long does it take to learn a language?
- how can you immerse yourself into a language without leaving your country?
- how can you reduce a foreign accent (or actually get the native one)?
Tip: if you are not an English native speaker, you can use this interview as an interesting learning material – the video contains subtitles.
Meaghan: Hi, my name is Meaghan, and today I will be talking with Josh Plotkin. Josh runs a website and blog at BrazilianGringo.com. His website helps non-Brazilians learn Portuguese and gives tip on surviving in Brazil. Thank you, Josh, so much for talking with me today. How are you?
Josh Plotkin: I’m great. Thanks for inviting me on to talk with you.
Meaghan: Okay. Let’s get started. My first question for you is how many languages do you speak?
Josh Plotkin: It depends on how you define speak, but I would say I speak Spanish and Portuguese fluently and that I’ve learned Italian and Mandarin, but I wouldn’t confidently say that I’m a speaker of those languages though I could get by to a limited degree if I had to go to Italy or China.
Meaghan: Wow. That’s actually very impressive. How many is that then, Spanish, Portuguese, 4? Four languages?
Josh Plotkin: Well.
Meaghan: More or less.
Josh Plotkin: We’ll call it 4 or 5.
Meaghan: Okay. Four or 5. How long have you been learning Spanish and Portuguese since you feel most fluent in those languages?
Josh Plotkin: I took about 5 years of Spanish in high school and then I lived in Spanish-speaking countries for about 6 months. I was in Mexico, Colombia, and Cuba for a little bit, so I got some practice there. Then, in Brazil, I went to Brazil after already knowing Spanish, which made it a lot easier to learn Portuguese. I lived there for about 3 years and I met a lot of Spanish speakers while I was in Brazil, so that helped me with my Spanish as well.
Meaghan: Wow. You’ve done a lot of traveling. That’s actually very impressive. I’m impressed. You’ve actually lived in the countries that you’ve learned the languages.
Josh Plotkin: With Spanish, most of my experience with Spanish was in a traditional classroom setting, and there’s a big difference between my Spanish whereas Portuguese I didn’t take any classes at all. I learned it by talking with people. My Spanish is very academic, so if you talk to me in Spanish I won’t have much personality. I’m slowly working on building that, but in Portuguese I seem like a real person.
Meaghan: Yeah. I have those problems actually. It sounds exactly like the problems I have. No personality. Do you think culture is important, like learning about culture when you’re leaning new languages?
Josh Plotkin: I think culture is probably one of the most important and most overlooked aspects of learning a language. In my Spanish classes, we didn’t really focus on culture at all. We just focused on the grammar. We focused on the verb tenses. We focused on vocabulary. As a result, when I speak Spanish with people they have a hard time connecting with me. I have a hard time making them laugh because I don’t understand them. There’s so many Spanish-speaking countries and they all have a different culture, but I never really focused on one. I picked up little bits of Mexican culture and I was able to make Mexicans laugh to a limited extent.
With Portuguese, I was focused entirely on the culture and I feel like I know Brazilians pretty well. I can make them laugh, I can make jokes off the cuff when talking to someone. I just can understand them a lot better, and they can understand me a lot better when I’m talking to them in Portuguese because I know how to frame what I’m saying in a way that will be understood by their cultural background.
Meaghan: I think that learning about culture is extremely important to communicate, the communication aspect of learning of a new language. What do you think has worked for you in terms of methods of learning because there’s so many different ways of learning languages? Do you have any that stands out for you as the best way to learn?
Josh Plotkin: The best way to learn would be to put yourself in an immersion environment and that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go to a country where they speak the language you’re trying to learn. It just means that you have to immerse yourself completely as much as you can in material and the culture of the language that you’re trying to learn. If you’re in Denmark trying to learn Chinese, go to a Chinese restaurant, listen to Chinese music, make friends with Chinese people on Skype, watch Chinese TV shows, join all these Chinese Facebook groups, try to find what young Chinese, the memes they’re sharing. Try to get a fascination for the culture and spend as much time as you can in that environment wherever you are in the world.
Meaghan: Did you watch a lot of Brazilian telenovelas during the time you were learning Portuguese then? Is that something that you did?
Josh Plotkin: I didn’t do telenovelas. I mean, within the culture, there’s all sorts of subcultures and I just absorbed the culture of the group of the people that I was around, which at first was mostly college kids. Then, later on I branched out into other subcultures that I was trying to learn more about and I spent time around those people, read the blogs that they would read and learn that way.
Meaghan: Okay. Have you tried anything yourself that you absolutely do not recommend to anyone in terms of learning language?
Josh Plotkin: Yeah. Rosetta Stone is … I still don’t get why … I mean I get why people use it because they’ve got a really marketing program, but in terms of the amount of time you put into it versus what you get and how much you have to pay for it, it’s just a big scam. It breaks my heart to see people using Rosetta Stone when if they put that same effort into some other program or a program of self-study, they would get so much more out of their study time.
Meaghan: Yes. I have the same opinion as you do, but do you think the … there’s another one, I can’t remember the name…,
Josh Plotkin: Pimsleur?
Meaghan: What about Pimsleur? That’s the one as well. Do you think that that works, something more like that?
Josh Plotkin: I’m not as critical about Pimsleur. I think Pimsleur is … the intended use is it’s all audio so you can listen to it wherever you go. You can’t multitask while you’re trying to learn a foreign language, so you can’t zone out and do something else, but the flexibility of being able to listen Pimsleur while you’re walking or driving I think makes it useful for people who are trying to learn on the go.
Meaghan: Okay. Very good. What do you think about visuals, for example, flashcards. Do you use flashcards or is that something that just doesn’t work for you?
Josh Plotkin: I like to write stuff down. I like to keep lists. I never really was big on flashcards. I experimented a little bit with Anki, those spaced repetition softwares. I like to learn by writing, learning through experiences and then writing about my experiences, and having conversations with myself practicing the words that I learned when no one’s around.
Meaghan: Oh. That’s good. You have to watch out though. You can’t do that on a bus, for example, I think, having a conversation with yourself.
Josh Plotkin: After living in Brazil, I’m a lot more comfortable being that crazy guy who talks and sings on the bus.
Meaghan: It happens, I think. I understand that. Do you believe in focusing on grammar? You said in Spanish you really focused on grammar, but do you think that maybe it’s better just to forget about grammar and just immerse yourself into the language?
Josh Plotkin: It depends on where you’re at in learning. I think grammar is obviously important at higher levels, but in the beginning I think people get too focused on grammar and they obsess over the rules of the language. They are thinking too much about whether they’re saying grammatically correct, and that inhibits them from going out and speaking with someone. You don’t need to have perfect grammar to be able to order a cup of coffee or to be able to get directions on a bus or to do any number of things.
Meaghan: Right. For everyday interactions, usually you don’t need to have complex grammar knowledge to live, for example.
Josh Plotkin: Yeah. I think people forget why they’re learning the language in the first place, which is to communicate with people and to accomplish minor tasks and to express their point of view. People generally don’t define why they’re learning a language in the first place and they get off track from that.
Meaghan: This is completely changing the subject but I want to talk about accent reduction. Do you have any tips for people who are looking to reduce their accent either in English or any other language?
Josh Plotkin: I would reframe it and not talk about accent reduction but I would focus more on trying to gain an accent. We’ll talk a bit about American English, for example. American English is too broad. You can’t learn American English. If you’re trying to speak more like an American, I’d focus on Californian English or New York English. Pick a very specific accent and then get as much material as you can of native speakers using that accent and then break down the individual sounds that they use to create words and then practice those individual sounds, like the word, water, wa-t-er. Practice each sound individually before you try to formulate words, and then once you’ve gotten the word pronunciation then you got to focus on the flow of the sentence because there’s a music to every language. You’ve got to … for that I would suggest grabbing a sentence of a native speaker saying … Get a native speaker to say what you want to learn how to say, have him record that, and then you say that and then compare the two. Where they don’t match up, then that’s where you need to work on improving your flow.
Meaghan: Do you think that that’s something that you can do by yourself or is it something that you definitely need someone to work on it with you?
Josh Plotkin: It helps to have someone working on that with you. If you use SoundCloud. If you record both of those things in SoundCloud, you can match the two together and see where it doesn’t match up.
Meaghan: Okay. I like that tip actually. It’s something that I haven’t thought of doing before, especially using SoundCloud. That’s a really good program to use in order to help yourself. What did you call it, not accent reduction but picking up an accent, actually. I like that. Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you wanted to add about learning a language or motivation for learning different languages, or your experience in particular?
Josh Plotkin: I would just say simplify what you’re trying to do and just do little things instead of trying to do big things. Focus on trying to learn one word a day and build a habit of learning the language and don’t overwhelm yourself and try to cram all this language learning into little time. Just get consistent before you, baby steps before you try to learn how to run.
Meaghan: Thank you so much for talking to me. Those are great tips. Good luck with your own language learning and all of your other projects.
Josh Plotkin: Thank you, Meaghan. It was nice to talk with you.
Meaghan: All right. Bye.
Josh Plotkin: Bye, bye.