Education of a Polyglot

Currently, I am living in Saigon, Vietnam, studying Vietnamese 60 hours per week, with the goal of becoming a qualified translator for Vietnamese language. My commitment to Vietnamese comes after years of frustrated language studies in other Asian countries. This article, in three parts, will discuss the history of my language studies in Europe and Asia, my current Vietnamese study strategy, and finally, it will include a review of many of the learning materials available for Vietnamese study.

My family is Sicilian, but I was born in the USA. My mother died when I was young and I lived with my maternal grandmother, who was a polyglot.

She had two masters degrees and spoke Italian, Spanish, English, French, German, and Yiddish. I grew up exposed to all of these languages. The adults spoke Italian to each other, but normally spoke English to the children. My grandmother encouraged me to speak English, Italian and Spanish and for a long time, I stayed with a Spanish speaking babysitter when my grandmother was at work. My grandmother’s house was always full of Spanish speaking people and I had a lot of Puerto Rican play mates. My grandmother read me comic books and nursery stories in Spanish, Italian and French.

At school I studied two years of Spanish and two years of French. At university, I studied three years of French, a full four years of Spanish and German, as well as two semesters of Russian. I graduated with a BA in German with a minor in English. After graduation, I did additional studies, including writing two under-graduate thesis, one in German and one in Spanish.

When I had completed my first two semesters of the German program at Middle Tennessee State University I went to the University of Mainz, Germersheim, Germany, as an exchange student, to study translation of German, Spanish and English. I wound up spending four years at Germersheim, attending classes, working as a translator and teacher, and doing professional translation research under Dr. Kiraly, who was exploring various methodologies of second language acquisition with the goal of creating artificial intelligence computer programs for translation.

A lot of the research we worked on dealt with first language acquisition by children, which we then applied to the learning of second language by adults. During this time I explored a number of Silent Way or Natural Way of language acquisition. Of course I read Krashen, but I also stumbled on Dr. J. Marvin Brown’s Automatic Language Growth theory, which would play a huge role in my life, many years later.

In retrospect, the mistake that I made in Germersheim was that I broke off my formal studies too early, thinking that my work as a translator and as an academic researcher were adding to my knowledge sufficiently. In some ways, they were, and I was learning things that my former classmates might never learn. But, on the other hand, I wasn’t getting the boring classroom fundamentals. I really should have completed more formal language education because sometimes my professional translations were spot-on and sometimes they weren’t. The proof that I needed more academic training was when I failed the certification examination for the American Translators association. I was the head translator for Warner Bros. Germany at the time and also did freelance work for a number of large clients, including German government agencies. But what I realize now, and what I apply to my study of Vietnamese is: No matter what level you are functioning at, even if you are so highly functioning that you can translate or interpret at international conferences, you MUST complete ALL of your academic training, including grammar and writing exercises.

At Germersheim I had private tutorials in Russian and Italian. I left the university for one semester to study at German translation school in Salamanca, Spain. When I left Germersheim permanently, it was to attend business school at Universidad Latina, San Jose, Costa Rica. I attended classes in economics, finance, and accounting, taught in Spanish. I also attended my first ever Italian classes at the Centro Dante Aligheri, San José.

In total, I spent a bit less than a year in Costa Rica, after which, I went to New York to work in the financial industry. I was given a large number of Italian and Spanish speaking clients and often spent entire days without speaking any English. I gave financial planning seminars in Spanish, Italian and occasionally German. Afterwards, I would field questions from investors in those languages. It was during this time that my Italian improved greatly, as it was the first time since I was small child that Italian was part of my everyday life.

After four years in New York, I came to Asia.

Since coming to Asia, more than ten years ago, one of my primary goals has been to learn an Asia language to 100% fluency, both academic and functional, reading, writing, speaking and listening at the level of a native speaker, college graduate, and to go back to work as a translator, researcher, and academic.

Sadly, I still haven’t achieved this goal. Along the way, I have attended classes in Mandarin, Thai, Korean, Khmer, Vietnamese, and Bahsa Malaysia.

Of those, I have learned Mandarin to an academic level of intermediate, (in all four skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening) but with a communication level which is advanced.

To learn Mandarin, I attended six months of private lessons, 15-20 hours per week, at Taipei Language Institute, Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Because I wanted to learn as much vocabulary, grammar and usage as quickly as possible, I didn’t learn any Chinese characters or pinyin. My teacher and I practiced only listening and speaking. I read texts written in Taiwanese phonetic script (Bopomofo). And I didn’t do any writing at all.

The advantage to not learning the writing straight away was that I could learn faster. The downside was that without writing, there was no way to practice at home or to do homework. Most foreigners believe that living in the country where the language is spoken you will be immersed, or that you could just go to the park and practice conversation with strangers. But it takes months for you to be able to speak beyond a silly inane level that would bore a native speaker to distraction.

I don’t see the benefit of asking fifty strangers in the park: What’s your name? What country are you from? and What’s your job?

Until you have a level conducive of real conversation, it is not very helpful to engage in conversations with strangers in lieu of spending more time reviewing your lessons.

After six months of classes I went to Mainland China and lived in the Shaolin Temple for three months. It was the first and almost the only time I was fully immersed in a language in Asia. As a foreigner, it is very hard to create a situation where everyone around you is speaking to you in the Asian language and where you don’t have access to TV, internet or foreign friends. Those three months were crucial in the development of my communicative abilities in Chinese, but I knew that there were still major deficiencies in my language.

I moved to Cambodia where I studied Khmer at the Khmer School for Expats, in Phnom Penh. I had fifteen hours of private classes each week for about three months. I concentrated primarily on speaking but also learned to read. While writing my book, “Re-Discovering the Khmers” I spent months in the field, interviewing people and write doing research. It was a good practical application of my Khmer knowledge.