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.
Antonio: What are your language learning goals?
Claude: There is a story I like about Oliver Wendell Holmes, who needed to go to the hospital for a minor procedure when he was in his late 80s. A visitor found him lying in bed one day reading a book on Ancient Greek. When asked why he was studying such a complicated subject, he is reported to have replied: “to improve my mind.” I think that’s primarily what motivates me as well. I don’t need to study languages, I just like to. It keeps my faculties sharp.
Antonio: What is your occupation?
Claude: I have one of the best jobs in the world–I get paid to read! In a nutshell, I work in an industry that insures that individuals or corporations purchasing real property are doing so free and clear of any encumbrances. My job is to read over the historical records and property deed chain, looking for any inconsistencies that would affect the transfer of title to that property.
Antonio: Do you learn more than one language at a time?
Claude: I have tried to do so, but with mixed results. If the languages are too similar, like Spanish and Portuguese, then I tend to mix them up and don’t do justice to either of them. Currently, I’ve taken up Japanese again after a long hiatus, and am starting German at the same time. The two languages are different enough so that I don’t get interference from either language.
Antonio: Have you studied overseas?
Claude: I have not studied overseas, but I have used what I’ve learned overseas. Regrettably, I no longer travel as much as I used to.
Antonio: Do you believe children learn languages faster than adults?
Claude: No, not really. In the first place, a child has all the time in the world to focus on language learning. Even so, it takes years before that child can express itself using compound sentences and complex ideas. An adult could accomplish what a child accomplishes in much less time. As for learning multiple languages, adults retain their advantage. How many six-year-olds have you seen who can speak 10 languages or more? I haven’t seen any, and believe me, I’ve looked. The notion that children learn languages faster and easier than adults is, I believe, a myth.
Antonio: Do you, or most polyglots have some type of mental disorder, such as autism or excessive compulsive disorder?
Claude: I have come across some polyglots who have the types of disorders you’re asking about. Some of them are in my book. I know of some exceptional cases where a mental condition or disorder facilitates the language learning process. Daniel Tammet comes to mind. I think that these may be the exceptions, and the vast majority of language learners may not have any of those disorders; but obviously I can’t be certain.
Antonio: Did you do well in school?
Claude: I only did well in the subjects that interested me.
Antonio: Do you have a learning disability?(For me, I am severely dyslexic and didn’t do well in school).
Claude: I’m not sure how to answer that question, as I’ve never been tested for any learning disabilities. I’m sure we all have our own particular challenges to overcome.
Antonio: Do you feel that polyglots are qualified to work as translators and interpreters or must they undertake formal studies first?
Claude: I think the question kind of mixes apples and oranges. I believe the vast majority of polyglots learn languages strictly for their own enjoyment. Translation and interpretation are highly specialized areas, which require certain training in order to be successful. As an analogy, you usually don’t see race car drivers working on their own cars. Although both individuals work with the automobile, the driver and the mechanic each have their own area of specialization.
Antonio: Why do the vast majority of people who begin a language fail to learn it?
Claude: That is a great question! I think the primary reason is that they learn a language backwards—by focusing too much on the grammar first, only followed by conversation much later. In addition, most beginning language learners utilize a classroom setting, where the teacher sets the agenda and moves the class according to a set pace she determines. Students get bored with this approach in short order. Unless the material is made interesting and relevant for the learner, there can be no other result than failure. The student should have more of a role in the learning process.
Antonio: Any comments on language learning or polyglot life you would like to share with the world?
Claude: Well, I guess this would be a good point to make a plug for my book, The Polyglot Project. The 43 authors contained within its over 500 pages explain the polyglot lifestyle much better than I can in a few sentences. I think it’s important to keep things fun and interesting, and to have a high level of motivation. If you can keep those three things in the forefront, everything else follows.
Antonio: Do you have any dream languages, I mean, a language or languages you are dreaming of learning, but haven’t started yet? And why?
Claude: I live in an area of New York State where many of the streets, towns and landmarks have names taken from the languages spoken by the Indians who once lived in the region. I’ve always thought it would be fun to learn a Native American Language spoken by a tribe from this area, such as Unami or Muncee. If there’s ever time, and I can find some resources, who knows?
Antonio: Thank you for taking the time to be with us.
Claude: My pleasure.
Claude Cartaginese can be found on his YouTube channel syzygycc, or visit his blog at syzygyonlanguages.wordpress.com