Interview with polyglot Stu Jay Raj…
When I moved to Bangkok I was fortunate to discover Stu Jay Raj’s Cracking Thai Fundamentals course located at that time on Suk Soi 1. Once a week for ten weeks I’d jump on the MRT to travel into the bowels of Bangkok for an hour of hilarious fun. Fun, because Stu is not only a knowledgeable teacher of the Thai language, but a fabulous entertainer too. And ever since then, I’ve followed Stu’s climbing career.
Stu’s interview on WLT has been a long time coming. Due to his varied background, the interview will be in three installments (and I could have easily asked enough questions for a fourth or even a fifth).
Stu Jay Raj: Accredited Dale Carnegie consultant and trainer; regional advisor, trainer, and lecturer in cross cultural communication; IT developer; simultaneous interpreter, translator and editor; television and audio composer; TV presenter; and polyglot.
Stu, when I first met you, you were fluent in: Speaking, listening, reading and writing with over 13 modern languages; Chinese dialects, Spanish, Indonesian, Thai, Danish and Sign language; plus a working knowledge of more than 15 additionally languages, modern and ancient. Have you added any more languages to your repertoire?
I don’t really like counting languages. Languages are songs.
It’s like being a musician and being asked “How many songs do you know?”
There are some songs you ‘know’ – you’ve rehearsed them every day for the past 20 years, you’ve played them in front of packed houses, you can improvise, you know how to pick a dead crowd up with it, you know what parts of the song to listen out for especially when you’re playing with new musicians and you can interpret what other musicians are doing with it. Those kinds of songs become just like another extension of your body.
Then there are the ones that you ‘know’, but you’d probably need to have the chord chart handy just in case.
Then there are the songs you ‘know’ – like when you hear them, you know who the composer was, what key it’s in and you could probably get away sitting in on a gig with another band playing it if you had the charts and were watching for the cues.
The ones I like are the songs you ‘don’t know’ – BUT … you can predict what they’re going to sound like. For example, most ballads you hear playing on the radio or a Karaoke bar deep in the Sois of Sukhumvit will probably fall into one of a handful of ‘formulas’ with some variations here and there. I don’t know how many sappy songs there are out there where the bridge uses the chords ‘IV – V/IV – IIImin7 – Vimin7 – IImin7 – V7 – I’ or some variation of it.
If I was sitting in on a gig and didn’t even know the song, as soon as I heard the first couple of chords starting to sound like that formula, I could probably follow through being pretty certain that what I play is going to be a decent fit.
So to make a short answer even longer, and carrying on the analogy of ‘language’ = ‘song’, I’m always learning new songs and even those songs that I’ve played for years and feel like they’re part of me – I always find ways of making them new for me. At home I have thousands of ‘song’ books and everyday am buzzed to go to my collection and learn something new, sometimes about songs that I already know, sometimes about songs by the same composer, sometimes about songs in the same genre and sometimes I try out genres I’ve never really touched before.
Since doing my TV show last year, I have been traveling all over the place, so I’ve been getting into languages like Tagalog, Turkish, Burmese and Vietnamese.
Your grandfather must be an amazing man. Not only is he a linguist with an extensive passion for history, but he took the time to share his love for languages with his young grandson. Did he use any language learning methods with you?
I can remember when I was about 4 and had the mumps. My grandfather sat with me and would read a book each day with me ‘Italian through pictures’. The book was made up with stick figure pictures and slowly building up functional vocabulary and structures. That book became part of me. Later on, if we were ever out, he would stand and point up at the birds just like the pictures. I would say just like in the book – “Gli uccelli sono là” (The birds are over there).
He also had sets of Japanese Kanji cards that we used to go through. He taught me all the different components of characters – the radicals and the other meaningful particles and we would have compete to see who could find them in the Kanji dictionary first.
He taught me all different memory techniques and we would use them to remember wordlists in English and other languages, memorize lists of numbers, calculate what day of the week any given date was, convert decimal to binary to hex, send messages to each other in Morse-code, build electric circuits from schematics, listen to shortwave radio broadcasts, taught me to touch-type at the age of around four and many other things that stimulated and bridged the senses.
He would play with words with me and we would make new meanings up by making ‘nonsense words’ with roots and affixes that only we knew what they meant.
I believe that all of these things had an impact on my ability to learn languages.
The combination of multiple language skills and training with the Dale Carnegie method must pack a punch when it comes to cross cultural communication. What is your advice for anyone going the same route?
Falling into Dale Carnegie was one of those unintentional happenings of fate. It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. Many of the things learned in Dale Carnegie were similar to what my grandfather had taught me and there were many other things that NO-ONE had ever taught me … but I needed to learn. The great thing about Dale Carnegie is that it teaches you to focus and build on the positive.
It took years just to be accredited to train a single programme. Being in training rooms day in day out during that time and learning under some amazing master trainers was an amazing experience.
The one main thing that my time with Dale Carnegie taught me was the value of ‘people’. You might have a slew of letters after your name, but if you’re not good with people, the benefit you bring to an organization is very limited and can even be a liability. If you’re not a people person, you better be pretty damn good at what you do.
When I came out of Dale Carnegie and started my own consultancy, I realized a potency of the synergies that language, cultural understanding and people skills brought. Companies, governments, UN agencies and NGO’s have also realized the potency of this and over the past ten years, many of them have trained me up to a level of competency in their industries and send me out to work with their people and be a conduit between local team members in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, India and other countries in Asia and executive management.
Advice for people taking the same route? Language + Hard-skills + People Skills = Higher ROI than just Language + People Skills.
After interviewing Miss Indonesia 2005 (Artika Sari Dewi), you landed the envious job of linguist for the yearly Miss Universe pageants. Has it changed the direction of your life in any way?
Being part of the official Miss Universe interpreting team since 2005 has been one of the most amazing and life changing experiences. Each year I have the pleasure to travel to some of the most amazing places on the planet (this last year we were at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas) and rub shoulders with some of the world’s most amazing, influential and gorgeous people. Most of all, I get to spend time with one of the most amazing, talented group of linguistically inclined people on the planet. Most of the interpreting team are polyglots and all have amazing life stories. Some are of royal stock, some have become extremely successful after escaping war and hardship in their home countries. In 2008 when we were in Nha Trang, the Vietnamese interpreter went back to her home village in Nha Trang for the first time since escaping from there almost 40 years ago.
It was that Vietnam event that we first met Lady Gaga. Most of us were wondering who she was. When she performed though, it became apparent that she would be the next ‘big thing’. Within months, she was topping the charts all over the world.
Miss Universe is an amazing cosmos to learn from. People who think it’s just about looks and ‘world peace’ are missing the bigger picture. It’s business. It’s marketing. It’s people.
It’s taught me once again that the ability to understand and build a rapport with ‘people’ is one of the most valuable assets anyone can have. With each pageant comes a whole new set of friends each year – from production crew to event organizers and contestants. After all these years we’re still close and I have had the opportunity to meet up with them again on my travels.
When I saw your new TV show, Nuea Chan Phan Plaek’ เหนือชั้น1000 แปลก, I couldn’t think of any other theme that would be as tailor-made for your linguistic talents. How did it come about? Did you put forward a proposal, or did they come to you?
A couple of years back I was asked to be a guest on the Thai talk-show ‘เจาะใจ’ (Joh Jai) to speak about languages. I had a blast doing the show and when the clips hit youtube, they ended up getting 100’s of 1,000’s of hits. I started to receive emails everyday from people all over the world who said that it inspired them to learn languages and aspire to become a polyglot.
In 2009 one of the producers from JSL called me in and asked me to do a short test-shoot for a new programme that they were looking at producing.
Things went well and I landed one of the best jobs I’ve ever had in my life. I was paid to fly around the world and hunt down stories on the most amazing, extraordinary and bizarre people, places and things on the planet.
On a Thai language note, the title of the show is interesting. It was originally going to be called เหนือชั้น ขั้นเทพ ‘Neua Chan Khan Thep’ – ขั้นเทพ is a popular idiom that’s been in my opinion overused over the past couple of years in Thailand especially by the younger generation meaning ‘ guru’ or ‘master’. I think they were worried that using that word set the expectations bar too high for the show, so changed it to a play on words – ‘เหนือชั้น 1000 แปลก’. Here’s a breakdown of what it means:
เหนือ – ‘above’
ชั้น – ‘standard’ ‘class’ ‘level’
เหนือชั้น – ‘Above par’ or ‘extraordinary’
1000 แปลก is a play on words in that the number ‘1000’ is pronounced พัน ‘phan’. This is the same pronunciation as the Sanskrit based word for ‘species’ – พันธ์. So when you hear the words 1000 แปลก, it could be interpreted as ‘1000’s of weird / strange things’ OR ‘strange species’.
The season finished at the end of the year, but I’m looking forward to doing more production work in 2010 hopefully targeted at the English speaking world this time.
Are you still performing with the ROL Jazz Trio in Bangkok?
Sadly not anymore. Since our bassist Kenro Oshidari was posted to Sudan a couple of years back, the ROL trio had to go on hiatus. Kenro is back in Bangkok now and all of us are keen to play, but now I have just moved my family to Australia. I fly back and forth, but aren’t in town enough to commit to playing.
Playing jazz is an amazing outlet to maintain one’s sanity. You really notice the difference not playing each week. One thing I loved about our trio was that we would rehearse every week at Kenro’s place and in the 8 or so years that we played together, never had one fight or serious disagreement. For musicians, this is an amazing feat! We would record most weeks we played and listen to what we did in each gig to try and work out what we could build on and what needed to improve. I think this is a great principle to take through life.
What are you up to these days?
Just a couple of weeks ago, I moved my family over to Australia so that my kids could learn English and have a chance at a ‘non-Thai’ education over there.
I still travel back and forth in the region, but at the moment I’m trying to give some time back to the kids after having traveled up to 20 days out of each month for most of last year.
I am looking at partnering with an outfit working in the region in a few months and continue to provide solutions to the Oil and Gas industry. I’m also working on several production projects that will be airing in Asia and beyond.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I want to be the person that helped make ‘language’ and ‘using your brain’ sexy. Doing what I do combining multiple languages and cross cultural communication / training is a terrible business model in that you can’t cookie cut it that easily.
Leveraging through being in the media is one solution that I want to invest more time in over the next year. I’ll continue to build on my brand and continue to affiliate myself with organizations and people that support the same vision.