I was interviewed recently by Antonio Graceffo. Antonio is a polyglot and martial artist who writes frequently on foreign languages. He has spent the last ten years in Asia studying languages. He currently lives in Saigon. Please visit him on YouTube: (brooklynmonk1) and on his web site: http://speakingadventure.com/.
Antonio Graceffo: Interview with Claude Cartaginese
Claude Cartaginese is the creator and editor of The Polyglot Project, a book written entirely by YouTube polyglots, hyper-polyglots, linguists, language learners and language lovers in their own words. The Polyglot Project is available as a free download on Claude’s YouTube channel (syzygycc), his blog (syzygyonlanguages.wordpress.com), or you may purchase a hard copy at Amazon.com.
Antonio: Were you born into a multilingual family?
Claude: It may sound a bit paradoxical, but I was born into a monolingual family but grew up bilingual. My parents were immigrants from a small village in southern Italy. Like many Italian families who left their homeland at the end of World War II, my parents settled, along with many others from the same area of Italy, in Westchester County, New York. Because there were so many others in the immediate vicinity who spoke the same regional dialects, there was never any urgency for my parents to learn English. Up until I started kindergarten, I only spoke the same regional dialect, which was an offshoot of Neapolitan. After starting school, I learned English along with the rest of the children. My parents never did learn it.
Antonio: When did you start learning languages seriously?
Claude: I studied French in high school, but didn’t like it. It was entirely grammar-based, and I found that approach to be tedious. We spent most of our time conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabulary lists. It was a very inefficient way of learning a language. Interestingly, 30 years later my children, who attended the same schools, had similar experiences. Nothing at all has changed when it comes to teaching foreign languages in the school system. In college, it took a completely random event to get me really interested in learning foreign languages: I met a polyglot. Not only could this individual speak over 20 languages, but he was completely self-taught. I did not know such a thing was possible. And yet, it was still many more years before I began to study languages myself in earnest.
Antonio: Did you do any of your languages in a formal setting? If so, where and which languages.
Claude: Although I have taken a few language courses over the years, they have mostly been a waste of time. They either moved too slowly for me, with the instructor catering to the slowest learner in the class, or they went way too fast, such as the time I took an intensive Japanese course where the school promised to teach us to speak, read and write Japanese in six weeks—a hopelessly impossible task!
Antonio: How much of your knowledge is a result of self-study?
Claude: Realistically, I would have to say most of it. In the first place, even if I had wanted to study more languages while I was at school, there just weren’t that many language course offerings. And due to the poor state of my finances at the time, I did not have the ability to sign up for private language courses. I discovered early on that if you really want to learn something, a teacher can’t teach it to you anyway. You have to learn it yourself.
Antonio: How many hours do you study per week?
Claude: Not as many as I would like. Due to employment and family obligations, I make do with stolen moments here and there. I have a 45 minute commute to my office each way, and make it a point to listen to whatever foreign language I want to learn or brush up. If I have the energy, I will try to get in another half hour before bed. Weekends, I often have the opportunity to study a bit more.
Antonio: How many hours do you believe one needs to master a language?
Claude: I think it depends quite a bit on the language. If your target language has a lot of transparency, due to its similarity to your native language, then I think it would only take a few months to become extremely functional in that language. Italian and Spanish come to mind, or Hindi and Urdu. If your target language is radically different than your native language, such as the way Japanese is to English, it could take years. Anyone who tells you that they learned to speak a complicated language like Chinese, Japanese or Arabic in six months, and their native language is English (or Italian or French) is lying to you—although I have seen it done in other languages. Esperanto, for example, can be learned in just a few months.