Rozhovor s polyglotem: Alexandra Coutu (english version)

Napsal Redakce (») 11. 3. 2013 v kategorii Interview s lektorem, přečteno: 3026×

Alexandre Coutu je kanadský polyglot pracující jako překladatel. Poprosil mě, abych rozhovor s ním vyvěsil na blog i v angličtině, takže zde je originální verze (překlad udělám co nejdříve, tzn. až se přestanu válet u moře a vrátím se z dovolené zpátky do ČR). 

1. How did you get into language learning? What is your educational background?

I grew up in a small, homogenous French-speaking town in Québec and the first language I studied was English, in elementary school. At some point between grades 7 and 8, I decided I'd had enough of not speaking it comfortably and I took the resolution to learn it. This was before the Internet and since there were no English native speakers in my town, I learned the language doing mainly 3 things: I watched TV and looked up every word I didn't know, I wrote lots of letters to pen pals from around the world, and I talked to myself in English.

I later studied a dozen languages in college and university and graduated in Linguistics. I taught French and English for a few years, but I've been working as an English-French translator for over a decade.

2. What would you single out as the most important factor of success in language learning?

Attitude. People who wish to sound and be like speakers of a language, or else who wish to share their society, tend to succeed better. In any case, a certain degree of empathy is necessary. Those who harbour animosity or a certain resistance towards the culture or its people are much less likely to succeed. 

Language studies can also be quite meaningful if they allow you to do something you couldn't do otherwise. This may not be readily apparent for some, but deeper introspection should allow everyone to find something they enjoy and where knowing another language would, at the very least, provide a much more fascinating experience. Without a goal to work towards, it’s easy to give up.

So you think that a kind of willingnes to participate in the life and culture of speakers of the language is important? The more one is fascinated by the people and culture, the easier the learning process should be? Do I get it right?

That is correct. If you aim to sound like native speakers and you try to copy them, you are much more likely to succeed than if you are afraid to be like them.

3. How do you motivate yourself?

I find most of my motivation in being able to better understand the world I live in and its people. Above all, it's this element of human communication that fascinates me. I also enjoy -- and perhaps I'm lucky for that -- the mental exercise of putting words together to form meaningful messages and, ultimately, the satisfaction that comes from succeeding.

I've studied languages in the past without access to native speakers, but today, the single most motivating element in my learning is human interaction. I try to meet natives regularly and this forces me to try to improve and not disappoint them.

In language learning it is natural at some point to feel that all the learning doesn´t bring expected rewards, that it is too slow and that one should do much better. Do you know these feelings? How do you cope with them?

Just like a roller coaster, my satisfaction over my own progress has regular ups and downs. I’ve come to expect them as something natural and since every down inevitably leads to a high, it doesn’t worry me. Actual progress is probably continuous; it’s just that it doesn’t always appear that way on the surface. Besides, the more you know, the more you know what you don’t know, so a lot of this is just a matter of perception.

4. What is your daily/weekly learning routine?

I don’t have a predetermined schedule for studying; I do it whenever I have time and feel like it. I usually study for only 15-30 minutes at a time. Some days I do lots, some days, nothing at all. Trying to stick to a schedule would otherwise be stressful and frustrating.

However, I spend more time thinking in the languages I'm learning than I do studying them. It allows me to study and practice anywhere, anytime, even for very short periods of time. I also try to meet with language partners once a week; this forces me to study ahead and it gives me an objective for the week.

And what do you do with your language partners? Only conversation or anything else? How did you find them?

Finding language partners is not always easy. I sometimes ask people if they know anyone or I’ll post or answer an ad on a free ad website. I found my current Japanese partner after I sent an email to a local language school. They were kind enough to forward the message to all their ESL teachers and one of the students replied.

When I meet language partners, we divide our time into two halves and we are each responsible for preparing our half of the meeting. In other words, if I’m going to work on Japanese for an hour, the preparation is entirely my responsibility and all my partner needs to do is be present and willing to help, and vice versa for the second half. I find that this is the best method; it not only removes any burden on the helper, but it also forces the student to be proactive about his studies.

I usually start a session by asking all the questions I’ve noted during the week. Then, I usually plan some kind of presentation where I talk about what I did, or maybe a book I read or a TV show I saw. I prepare this orally before we meet. Usually, this allows all my weaknesses or difficulties to surface and we can address them right away. Role play is another possible activity. Sometimes, I make my partner tell me about her day or something she did, and I interpret what she says, a few sentences at a time, into Japanese. I also sometimes translate orally a text I bring along and she corrects me and suggests improvements. Or else we’ll read a text and have my partner ask me questions about it. The sessions usually end with some kind of free conversation. What works best sometimes depends on the partner’s personality.

5. Do you have any specific method which you practise most?

I generally concentrate on oral. It’s what I find most effective and what fascinates me the most. I use self-talk and meet with language partners. Since I don't use any specific method or regimen, and I don't enjoy classes or spending a lot of time studying, these are my most common activities.

With self-talk, I imagine situations I may encounter or discussions I may have, and as I try to speak in the language, I realize the structures I'm unsure of, the words I don't know, or the hesitations I have. I can repeat over and over any difficult sentences, as many times as needed, before I use it in the real world.

6. Do you have any favourite language course? What do you think are the characteristics of a good course?

The most important part of any course is the learner, and he is responsible for making a method meaningful. He must participate actively or he will run the risk of being bored and uninterested.

No self-teach method is perfect for everyone, but most do a pretty good job of presenting the learner with the important structures of the language and a basic vocabulary to bring those structures to life.

I usually like using more than one source of information and I have no loyalty to any specific method. I like to look at things from different angles and it helps me learn better. This also allows me to take control over my study and gives me a certain independence. I decide what matters. I spend more time over what seems important to me or, otherwise, I skip what seems trivial. If I missed an important word, it's bound to come up again anyways if it really was important.

Wanting control over my studies also mean that I don’t like classes. They can be an interesting source of input if one wishes to learn leisurely or if one feels they need that motivation, but the serious learner will almost always find that the class as a whole learns more slowly than him. I'm too impatient to wait for others. I also tend to ask a lot of questions, and I take too much of the teacher's time.

7. Do you think learning grammar is important? (If yes)What would you say to students who hate grammar?

I think grammar is extremely important, but perhaps I need to define what I consider to be grammar. To me, grammar is any structure that allows a message to be expressed in a language. The way you put a subject and a verb together is grammar. The way you introduce an object, or a place or a notion of time, these are all examples of grammar. Learning these structures and assimilating them early on is essential if you wish to reach a certain level of fluency quickly. Since using a language is an essential part of acquiring it, if one is unable to produce sentences early on, then practice will not be possible.

Vocabulary is also important, and a lot people consider that to be a great vector of fluency, but knowing lots of words is useless unless they can be used in well-constructed, meaningful sentences. It's also a lot easier to look up a word in a dictionary and insert it in a grammatical structure you already know than to seek the grammar needed to put words together. For that reason, I always pay a lot more attention to grammar than vocabulary.

Sometimes, grammar can be complex and is presented as rules that are difficult to remember or even to understand. Instead of remembering complex rules, remember the examples. Become comfortable with a few example sentences and alter them as needed. These sample sentences act as mental references and they are much more meaningful. Once you have memorized an example sentence, it’s easy to modify it a little bit at a time in order to create many other sentences. These sentences are like keys you put on a keychain. Whenever you need to say something, you can refer to those model sentences and be confident that you will be understood. When you apply a rule you are unsure of, make predictions and ask a native speaker to confirm. If a grammar rule is too hard to get right away, just move on. If you make sure you use the language regularly, it will necessarily surface again and you will eventually learn it.

8. What is it like to be a polyglot? How is it different from knowing just your mother tongue and another world language (e.g. English)?

My mother tongue is French, but I’ve come to be just as comfortable in English. I no longer remember what it's like to only speak one language. When I speak other languages, like Spanish or Japanese, I enjoy putting the puzzle pieces together to achieve a specific message. Sometimes, the communication process is just instinctive and I don't think about it, but the whole process of expressing myself clearly and presenting a well-structured message is always interesting. It sometimes feels like I’m cracking a code, especially if I can have direct access to people of other cultures who think and view the world differently, people with whom I could otherwise never have spoken to. This was particularly evident during my last trip toJapan.

I sometimes feel a bit disheartened about the succes of English as the new lingua franca. Yes, it is great to have common language, but on the other hand what is the point of learning other languages? Of course it depends on the kind of people you usually meet, but for example in academia everybody knows English. And learning languages is time consuming, so is it worth a while? What do you think about it?

A lot of people use this as an excuse not to learn another language, but on a personal level, there is a substantial difference between using English as a lingua franca for a one-time visit to a country and actually caring about the country, its people, its culture and its language. I find pleasure in learning and speaking other languages and understanding people, so I wouldn’t choose not to learn a language just because it’s simpler. The same way runners could just use a car instead, but they enjoy running and they feel good when they have a good race. If I speak English with a foreigner, our exchange will probably not be as cordial as it would be if I’m able to speak to him in his language. People open up and trust you a lot more when you’ve shown a genuine interest for their culture and language. And not everyone can speak English – or is willing to make the effort – especially outside the larger centres. During my last trip toJapan, I made a point of using Japanese only and my trip would have been drastically different if I hadn’t. Nothing can replace that sense of accomplishment.

9. What are your plans for future language learning?

Right now, I’m actively working on Norwegian, Spanish and Japanese, but Japanese is the one I am most serious about. It's also the most challenging, so I'd like to attain a high level of proficiency in it. I assume I'll be starting another language at some point, but only time will tell.

Thank you very much for your time!

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