YouTube polyglot Luca Lampariello…
Back in 2009 YouTube polyglots were becoming all the rage. Poking around to see what all the excitement was about, Luca Lampariello’s Channel stood out for me. What really impressed me was Luca’s method for learning languages. And the array of languages he spoke wasn’t too shabby either: Italian, English, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, and Portuguese.
After Luca and I’d been chatting for awhile, he agreed to explain his method in more detail in order for me to share it here. With much patience on his side (thanks Luca) together we created what became two top draws on WLT. And by the end, Luca and I became friends.
Over the years Luca has continued to dedicate his time to the language learning community. Definitely past time for an interview!
Interview: Luca Lampariello on Learning Languages…
Hi Luca, how are you? Long time no see! During our first collaboration you spoke nine languages. How many languages do you speak now?
Hi Catherine. I am great thanks! Well, it depends on the definition of “speaking a language”. I like thinking of a language as a network that we build with time. In my opinion, being able to speak a language means being able to assemble words together to form sentences, as well as being able to interact with native speakers in daily life. It is a bit like playing with Legos. When we have 100 Lego pieces in front of us, the very first thing that comes to mind is not the quantity but the question “how am I going to assemble them together?” One can know an incredible amount of words without even being able to string a sentence together. Also, communication between two human beings is always bidirectional, so when somebody asks me such a question, I always think about speaking as well as understanding what people say. That’s another capacity that we develop by way of practice and exposure, and it is an integral part of using a language.
How do you choose which language to learn and why do you decide to study a particular one?
I have to say that in this regard languages are like girls. We have the illusion that we choose them, but in the end, they choose us. If I think about it, it is the languages that have chosen me along my path, and every single one has a different story.
How long does it take for you to learn a new language to fluency?
Once again, one should clearly define the term fluency. Unfortunately it is a very vague term, and everybody has their own definition. Having said that, and having given my own definition, I would say that the amount of time it takes to reach fluency depends on your mother tongue and the target language. In my case, it took me less than a year to become fluent in Spanish, and more than two years to become fluent in Chinese. So in general, it takes six months to two years to become “fluent”, depending on the language. In this regard, I would also distinguish between “conversational fluency” and “advanced fluency”. One thing is to be able to speak and understand natives, another is to enjoy a language in all its aspects: books, movies, cultural jokes, etc. That takes a much longer time.
Is it possible to learn a language in one month or in a relatively short amount of time?
The modern world is obsessed with speed. Language learning is a long road if our objective is to be able to use language in all its aspects. That said, adults already have their own native tongue in place, which is an advantage because we don’t start totally from scratch like kids do. But just to start communicating at a very basic level is certainly possible, especially in languages that are close to our own.
Regarding your study routine, how many hours a day do you spend on learning your languages?
Not that much to tell you the truth. I spend relatively little time deliberately studying a language, 30 minutes, maybe 1 hour a day when I am inspired, but the key factor is consistency: I do it every day. Learning something every day, even at small doses, leads to success in every activity. I call it “the bucket effect”. Look at an empty bucket. A drop falls in it. “Ok”, you might say – “it still looks empty”. Without realizing it though, one drop every five seconds can fill a bucket in a matter of hours. Our brain is like a bucket, and the drops are the bits and pieces of information that flow into it, day by day. After months our brain is full of information and ready to be used in the real world. And when we start doing that, we start learning faster and faster as we get exposed to the language.
People are often in awe of your pronunciation in all the languages that you speak. How can you reach such near-native pronunciation? And how can one reach a near-native pronunciation in a foreign language?
Oh, that’s a tough one (kidding). I think that there are two main factors that really make a difference in this regard:
First, I am interested in sounds, and I do care about having good pronunciation. So I start paying attention to phonetic patters from the very beginning.
Secondly, I am good at impersonating other people. I think that while training is great, I also believe that in order to reach certain results, one has to let go of his personality in one’s native language and “live” another character in another language. If the world is a stage, like Shakespeare writes, then taking on another language is like switching from the character one has always played into a different character within the frame of another story.
Proof of this is that when I speak another language I have a different personality. I do different things, I act differently, my gestures are different. Everything changes, and when I speak, it is as if I had another experience of life. This is the sum of all my experiences, the people I’ve met, the movies I’ve watched in that language. They all breathe and live inside of me when I use the language.
Did it ever happen to you to be taken for a native speaker? What was people’s reaction about that? Do you think it is that important?
Yes, many times. Especially in English, French, Spanish and German. Now it is happening more and more often in Russian. People are always surprised, and it always ends up spawning interesting experiences. Once I was sitting in a square in Rome and I heard a loud burp. I said, in English, “what, that is a loud burp there”. The girl who belched laughed and asked me if I was American. From that little exchange, I got to know someone who became one of my best American friends, and I don’t think it would have happened if I hadn’t replied in that accent. I can tell you countless stories like this. People’s attitude towards you changes considerably, and I found it be a strong motivation in learning other languages.
Speaking like a native doesn’t have to be the main goal of a language learner. It is not an easy goal to reach, and to be totally frank, just a tiny fraction of people achieve it, and for a number of various reasons. Having said that, I think that achieving good pronunciation within everyone’s reach, provided that they start working on it from the very beginning.
Which is the most critical aspect in learning a foreign language: grammar, syntax or vocabulary? Any useful tips or piece of advice to tackle these three aspects?
There is no single aspect more critical than the others. They are all equally important. I think that languages are living, extremely complex entities and we shouldn’t focus too much on the single parts because we run the risk of “getting lost in the maze”. That said, some languages have specific features that pose problems. The characters and tones of Mandarin Chinese, for example. I think that one should find a way to tackle languages in a way that suits their needs and tastes, and that embraces languages as a whole. The method needs to be flexible though, so that one can adapt it to the specific language.
As far as grammar and syntax are concerned, a famous Hungarian polyglot used to say “don’t learn language from the grammar, but grammar from the language”. I completely agree. I think that while some grammar explanations are great at the beginning, one starts figuring out the patterns of the language through exposure. If we try to learn all the rules at the beginning, we end up getting lost and frustrated when we realize we cannot actually use those rules in the real world. The same goes for syntax. I say, get exposed to the language, use it, and the fog of grammar and syntax will lift in the course of time.
As for vocabulary, my first piece of advice is to get a hold of content that you like. Interest causes your brain to retain information more efficiently. Then use spaced-time repetition. We don’t store a word just by looking at it. We need to see it a few times and in different contexts before it “sinks in”.
You are known for using a technique involving translation from and to the target language. Some might find it a hindrance to the development of the capacity to “think” directly in the foreign language. What is your take on that?
It is always a question of how you do it, and my experience is that there is a “right” way to use translation. I use translation as a tool to figure out the patterns of a foreign language while using my own as a crutch. I do this for a few months, after which I start using the language without even thinking about my own. If one translates with the wrong goal in mind and does it poorly, they run the risk of filtering everything through the lens of their own language, and that should obviously be avoided because it creates considerable interference.
What other languages are you planning to learn? Thai, for instance?
Of course I have! Thai is one of the languages that I would really like to learn. I have heard great stories from friends who went to Thailand, and the idea of enjoying such a lovely country and interacting with the locals in their own language is exhilarating.
Do you enjoy traveling? Do you think that it’s important to travel to learn languages? And … any plans to come Thailand?
I love traveling. I was thinking about this recently on the plane back to Rome. Travelling, like language learning, is a journey into new worlds, but it is also an inner journey that we take inside ourselves. All those who have traveled, no matter the distance, have felt that strange, bittersweet feeling of bewilderment, a sudden desire to live more and more intensively. One of my favorite quotes comes from Chris McCandless, a guy whose story inspired “Into the Wild”: “staying is existing, traveling is living”.
Of course I will come to Thailand – did you have doubts about it? (laughing)
How has the ability to speak different languages changed your life?
They dramatically changed it in all its aspects. I work full-time as a language coach on-line, and I use tons of languages every day. I made friends with many many people from all over the world, and when I travel or I live in a foreign country, life is so much easier. If somebody were to ask me for one reason why I learn so many foreign languages, I would simply answer “for all the reasons of the world”
Where are you now in your path? What are your projects for 2014?
I have a ton of projects lining up. The most important one is the book I have been writing for quite some time now. But right now I am working on a huge workshop that is going to take place in Vienna next week. I have been working hard on it. The main goal is to give people the right tools and frame of mind to achieve their dreams. For example, with the internet, I think the focus is shifting from giving language learners the “right” materials (of which there is overabundance) to teaching them first how to find and create their own materials according to their tastes, and above all, how to use them.
Thanks for this interview Luca.
Thank you Catherine!
You can find more about Luca’s workshop here: How to learn a language WITHOUT killing yourself