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The Secrets of a Successful Language Learner

An interview with a professor who spends his retirement learning more languages

Interview conducted by Aneta Pavlenko.

Our guest today is William Fierman, an Emeritus Professor of Central Eurasian Studies at the University of Indiana in Bloomington and an expert on language policies in Central Asia. Bill, could you please tell us a little about your language learning history?

I grew up in a St. Louis suburb where I had the good fortune to study Russian in junior high and Chinese in high school. While in high school I spent two months on an exchange in Brazil, living in a family with no English speakers, and learned some Portuguese. Later, I improved my knowledge of Portuguese by studying in a school for foreign students in Lisbon. I got a Bachelor’s degree in Russian and Chinese. Then, I began to study Uzbek on my own in preparation for a dissertation on Soviet language policy. I have since studied Kazakh and can read several other Turkic languages. I learned a lot of Czech while living with a family a couple of months in Prague. Fairly recently I tried learning Hungarian and reached a point where I could communicate about everyday matters. But I was vanquished by that language and gave up.

I am absolutely amazed by the variety of your languages and the levels of proficiency you manage to achieve. You are one of the few non-Russians with whom I correspond in Russian and your mastery of colloquial Russian is such that I often forget that my interlocutor is not a native speaker, in linguistic terms. What brought you to Russian and how did you get to be so native-like?

When in junior high school I had to choose one of five languages to study, my parents told me to select any language except Russian. Russia fascinated me though because it seemed so remote. I was a highly motivated student and I had absolutely fabulous language instructors both in the US and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where I studied for one semester. In the mid-1970s, I also lived for a year in Tashkent. Some of my closest friends have been native Russian speakers.

Our colleagues in Kazakhstan tell me that your Kazakh is equally impressive and you are famous there as the American who lectures in Kazakh. Why Kazakh?

As noted above, I started with Uzbek as a graduate student. However, after the USSR’s demise I began to focus more on language policy in Kazakhstan. It is a more important political issue there than in Uzbekistan and it is relatively easy for an American scholar to work in Kazakhstan. Even Russian-dominant Kazakhs are thrilled to meet an American who can speak “their language.” So there has always been great positive reinforcement.

What do you see as the key differences in ways in which multilingualism is treated in Kazakhstan and in the USA?

There are many differences. Most important, though: the dominant and unofficial state language of the US is a world language, whereas Kazakhstan has a state language that is quite weak. So there is widespread knowledge of another language, Russian. Most of the population of Kazakhstan knows at least two languages, whereas most US citizens are monolingual.

What are your favorite language learning strategies and do they differ across languages?

They do differ. It depends on my goals for the language, as well as availability of teachers/ informants, and of instructional and other materials. Much of my learning has been without a teacher, sometimes even without an easily accessible informant. I like to immerse myself in speech or texts for a language I am learning, even if I do not understand everything. Then I like to go back (especially with texts) to figure out everything I can with a dictionary and, if possible, a native speaker. I force myself (I can’t say I enjoy it) to read or listen to “deciphered” texts over and over, thinking in the language. Eventually I begin to use some of those words and constructions in speech or writing. I use flashcards for vocabulary but do not find translation exercises helpful. I read every foreign language public sign and listen to public announcements, trying to figure them out. I love working with a native informant in learning a new language, discovering I can make myself understood. I use languages I know better to learn new ones, especially in acquiring reading and listening skills. I have used this approach with Turkic languages (building on Uzbek), Portuguese (for Spanish), Czech (for Polish), and now I am learning to read Ukrainian by using online translators to see Russian equivalents. The problem with this approach is that if I try to speak or write in the “new” language acquired this way (which for me is the case most often with Turkic languages) I am plagued by interference.

What are your future plans in terms of language learning?

I want to learn to read Ukrainian, maybe Belorussian, too. I’m always trying to improve my Turkic language (especially reading) skills. I am working on Azerbaijani and then plan to make the short jump to Turkish. Then I want to return to Tajik – a non-Turkic language, form of Farsi, but sharing much common vocabulary with Uzbek and Azerbaijani.

Thank you, Bill, for sharing your experiences and good luck with your new language learning adventures!

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo courtesy of William Fierman

Aneta Pavlenko's website.

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