Vladimir Skultety is an outstanding polyglot and a friend of mine. I first came in contact with him 3 years ago on the Internet and since then we have become friends. His linguistic abilities and humility have never ceased to amaze me. He definitely deserves our attention as both a person and as a polyglot.
He will share his inspiring story with us in this interview.
Hi Vlad. Could you tell us a little bit about your linguistic background and your life so far?
I was born and raised bilingually in south-east Slovakia and had the chance to live in the USA and Austria while I was still very young. During my high school and university years I traveled again and made the most of my stays by trying to learn the languages spoken in the countries I lived at as best as I could. Now I live inTaiwanand do essentially the same thing.
What prompted you to become a polyglot? Where does this passion stem from?
It wasn’t my aim to become a polyglot at all and it feels very flattering when people call me that. I used to speak native like English when I was younger and since I lived inUSAas a child it seemed natural to be good at it back home inSlovakia. I later learned and spoke German in pretty much the same way and was quite happy with that achievement back then. I talk a lot and love meeting new people and loved it when I could switch to German or English. Eventually I had the chance to study inItalyand after that I started learning languages purely out of interest.
How many languages do you speak? Which ones are they? What do you personally mean by “speaking” a language?
This question is a tough one to answer because of a number of reasons, one of them being that while most people’s reactions to polyglottery are positive, to some it might seem that I am a show off or a boaster which I am sorry about. I try my best not to come across as a show-off and I truly dislike showmanship in any form. I used to be like this when I was younger and looking back at those times I don’t feel good at all. In either case, for me language learning has never been a race or something that I could demonstrate my superiority in, so lately when asked by a stranger I just met about how many languages I speak, I’ve been saying I only speak my native language and the language I was speaking with that person.
For the purposes of this interview I can say that at my best, if I really try hard and under ideal conditions, I can speak 7-8 languages at an advanced fluency level and 2-3 at a basic fluency level which is still quite far from the greatest modern achievements. Plus save a few exceptions (English, Chinese), for most of those languages there should be hundreds of translators or other professionals that arguably have a deeper and wider knowledge in these languages than I do. I think the only relative advantage I have is that I am able to speak these languages at a reasonably advanced level all at the same time and can switch between them easily.
What it means to speak a language..? You know better than me Luca, that an entire book could be written dedicated to this topic. I guess not being restricted by the foreign language at all (or rarely) would be the most general acceptable definition for me. I also like the HTLAL forum division of language competence into Beginner, Basic fluency, Advanced fluency, Native fluency.
Is quality more important than quantity to you? How do you find a balance once one starts handling more than 5 languages?
I think that the fact that you can learn multiple languages gives the whole process a mathematical dimension which makes the situation very confusing, because the two worlds are completely out of proportion. What does it mean if I say I speak 20 languages? Not much. I am interested in and love much more than just learning a language when I do so and therefore goes without saying that for me quality is much more important. As a true language lover I of course could name about 10 languages right there on the spot, that I would like to speak fluently tomorrow, I try to be realistic and work on what I have at hand while trying to keep up with the rest.
Which languages were the most difficult to learn for you and why?
Definitely Chinese. I have written numerous articles on this topic and it is hard to summarize, because of the variety of readers and I am afraid I’d either be too general or too specific. In short Chinese is different from every language I have studied before in every possible way and it has as a process been equal to me learning my first language with the difference that this time around, the language has a much much much more elaborated structure and vocabulary than child talk. It really felt like learning how to speak all over again.
When you hear about people speaking 50 languages, do you believe such claims? Or do you think it is a mere publicity stunt? Do you believe there really are people out there who can speak more than 20 languages?
Well, I think we both agree that our dear friend Richard Simcott is probably the best modern polyglot we know of. He has achieved and is achieving results that are borderline imaginable. You are an extremely talented individual and I have two other friends who are also capable of extraordinary performances when it comes to language acquisition and demonstration and I think I’m right when I say that none of you and no one in his right mind would admit to speaking 20-30 or more languages at the level of advanced/native fluency. The sheer maintenance of these languages makes it impossible time wise. Not to mention the time needed to learn languages very different from the languages one already speaks. Learning a language to a conversational level (basic fluency) and learning it to a point where you are not restricted by the language at all (advanced fluency) especially in distant languages like Chinese or Japanese are also two separate worlds. It should be nothing new when I say, that learning Russian when my native language is Slovak is much easier compared to when I’m in the same situation trying to learn Mandarin Chinese. While the first one is analogical to learning a distant dialect and can be done within months of hard studies by most people, the second truly can be compared to learning how to speak all over again.
I think that it is quite possible to learn 20-30 related languages to a fairly fluent conversational level by the time you’re 50-60 in case life has been very favorable to you, but almost impossible to achieve advanced fluency in them. It is also possible to have a certain degree of knowledge in a number of languages which is a lot higher than that, there are many university professors who do this professionally, but to my knowledge even these people admit speaking only a relatively small amount of these languages fluently and admit having only structural and relatively superficial knowledge of the rest.
When I hear claims of people speaking 50, 60, or even 100 languages I simply don’t believe them. Among other things, their definition of fluency does not coincide with the definition of fluency that the more demanding language learners (including myself I hope) take as standard. I am almost convinced that there is no one in this world or history who would’ve been able to reach and preserve advanced fluency in even 20-30+ languages (languages reasonably different). My estimation is, that even if you were a born 3-4 lingual, had the best immersion possibilities while you were a child and would do nothing else, but learn and practice languages for the rest of your life, you still could not get over 25-30 languages in your late 70ties. It would be very exceptional.
You have learned Mandarin Chinese to a really exceptional level. I remember when we were both beginners in the language (even if you were clearly at a more advanced stage than I was). I remember that we both fantasized about speaking the language fluently. That dream has come true for you now. How did you accomplish that?
Thank you for the nice words. I still think there is huge space for improvement which hopefully will get smaller eventually. I think you made wonderful progress as well given the fact that you’ve never been in a Chinese speaking country.
I don’t think I’ve reached my “dream”. During my studies I realized that whatever I used to do to learn languages is just not going to work with Chinese and I unfortunately realized this too late. I was frustrated with my slow progress and I was wondering whether I was ever going to learn Mandarin to the level I would like to and as you can imagine interest, which is the essence of language learning in my case declined day by day and I carried on with my studies just for the sake of not giving up.
Later out of sheer boredom and overall lack of interest, but with the will to carry on I stopped consciously working on the language and tried to absorb it naturally. It worked somehow and I started to adjust my do nothing-strategy to a more elaborate one where I tried to combine the best I could get out of natural acquisition and structured, interesting and sequenced input. I wrote several articles about my Chinese frustrations and in case the kind reader is interested, he or she is welcome to continue reading on my blog.
What kind of psychological approach would you recommend to those who are about to learn Mandarin Chinese? Is it really “the most difficult language there is”, as they say?
It was certainly the most difficult language I’ve ever learned. It might be a walk through a park for a native speaker of Cantonese, but for us, mortal westerners this language is just really really hard.
What I would recommend for anyone sincerely interested in speaking Chinese fluently is to go to a Chinese speaking country, find a group of people to hang out with and learn the language to basic fluency by simple absorption with a lot of audio input. After reaching basic fluency, I would recommend doubling the audio input and text chat a lot on MSN. After reaching advanced fluency I would recommend starting reading comic books, eventually regular books, watch a lot of news and start writing articles in Chinese.
Could you give us some general guidance on how to best tackle the Chinese characters and the tones?
Again, there is too much I could write about in order to squeeze it into this short interview, so in case the reader is interested, he/she is welcome to look for related articles on my blog.
There have been numerous quality publications written on how to learn Chinese characters. I wrote a couple of articles about them myself, but of course these do not contain as much information as these publications or do challenge their quality, they are rather an observation of me as a student.
In general I think it would be best to avoid learning characters in the beginning/intermediate stages altogether save the most common 50 – 100 ones and the ones that you just happened to learn by accident. Learning how to speak is much easier this way. Chinese is difficult as it is and the extra burden of characters isn’t going to make it much easier. Once a student knows how to say a word or an expression naturally, without having to think about its pronunciation, learning how to read it will be much easier. I would save learning how to hand-write characters to the very end. A lot of students are attracted to Chinese exactly because of characters so of course if you feel like learning how to handwrite, there is no one to tell you different, but even in this case I would not take forgetting characters very seriously.
When it comes to tones, hopefully I will publish a full length article about how I found my way around them. It took me forever and I hope I can finally say I truly feel it when I say a 2nd tone 2nd tone combination and I know a Chinese person does so too. It is a little more complex but in brief, I approached pronunciation directly through sound and not graphs (tonal charts, pinyin, tonal marks ect.) I analyzed the sound I heard only with my ears and tried to reproduce it as best as I could. Later I had a set of “model tonal combinations” based on words I pronounced correctly, naturally and without thinking what tones were in them and pronounced new words based on these model combinations.
The Internet is host of endless discussions on the fact that an adult cannot speak a language like a native-speaker. What do you think about that?
I personally think I have lost this capability, but there are people who can do this. Talented people living abroad for decades, or simply talented individuals working hard, consciously trying to improve their language abilities. In the end a trained professional should probably be able to tell whether a person is or is not a native speaker, but when it comes to everyday life it happens quite often, that people are mistaken for native speakers during brief conversations, so it definitely is possible to some extent.
Do you think that one has to live in-country in order to acquire an excellent level in the target language?
I think it depends on the language, but in general I think yes. At least for a short amount of time in order to be able to understand the dynamics present in languages that are conditioned culturally. But in today’s age of internet, people who are capable of doing so far away from the country where the language of their interest is spoken are not an exception.
What are your future projects in terms of languages? Are you planning to learn other languages or will you stop for a little bit and focus on the ones you already speak?
After my World war 3 with Chinese I am quite exhausted and thinking of new language projects makes me realize how much effort lies ahead so I’m taking it easy for now. I’m trying to keep up with and get better in the languages I know and dab a little here and there with languages like Japanese.
Japanese is a big magnet for me and I would love to spend some time inJapan, eventually trying to give the language my best shot. For quite some time, I’ve been honestly interested in the culture, history and language ofJapan, so it is definitely not that I want to “put another language under my belt” type of approach or anything like that. I know that either way I look at it I will have to eventually put in a lot of time and I am looking forward to it too.
One final question…a lot of discussion within the language learning community is focused on how to learn a language. Another important point is often omitted – how to maintain the languages that we learn throughout our lives. How do you do it?
Usually I don’t like it very much when people present their knowledge as if it was easily obtained, because it might seem offensive to others and talking about languages in a manner where you say “after 5 languages it gets easy, all you have to do is maintain” unfortunately falls into this category, but since this is an interview about polyglottery this is how I go about language maintenance:
What I try to do while doing my reviews is that I try to keep it interesting, informative and I try to combine my reviews with other activities. I listen to news podcasts or radio shows while I’m in the gym or on the bus. I also try to combine things – say I have a presentation about the Taiwanese economy in school the next day, I read about it in Spanish. I talk to myself in Russian when I feel like it, or I voice-chat on skype, or text on msn. I read novels in foreign languages and I try to do something every day.
Maintaining one’s language knowledge is extremely important and I think it really becomes a crucial issue after a person has learned 5-6 languages. If you want to have all of the languages you know at your disposal at any given moment and you speak more than 5-6 languages, if you don’t give your diligent everyday effort in trying to keep up with them, you will start loosing your abilities very fast. Fortunately relearning the languages that you’ve already learned to an advanced level is not a very stressful event. There is the risk however of seriously forgetting something in that language (as opposed to just not remembering it) and re-learning that might be a problem.
Thanks for this fabulous interview!
Thank you Luca
Vlad is currently living in Taiwan, perfecting his Chinese. He has a blog on language learning where you can listen to him speaking 11 languages in a row, unfolding the secrets of Mandarin Chinese, as well as sharing general and very useful insight into language learning.