Those who learn languages already know Benny Lewis, Luca Lampariello, Steve Kaufmann and other great polyglots. They share so many great tips but it feels like they are on a level way higher than yours when you can speak only one or two languages.
This can be discouraging but on the other hand, I am always inspired to learn a new language or to learn more intensively when I listen to, watch or read about a polyglot. To hopefully share some similar inspiration, I decided to introduce you to the polyglots that live a normal life just like you do. They became polyglots and so can you.
Meet John, he’s Dutch and he’s living in Berlin. He’s professionally active in the fields of content and localization. He speaks Dutch, English, German, French and Danish.
Mizuki Tao: Tell us more about yourself.
John Boudewijn: I’m passionate about theater, and an avid tabletop gamer of both the role-playing and board gaming variety. I suppose I just like connecting with people and these hobbies sync that social aspect very nicely with my love for storytelling.
I read a lot, travel regularly, and often end up with all kinds of opportunities for fun and/or trouble thanks to my tendency to say “Yes!” to things whenever it’s feasible.
I’ve worked in very international environments and have a lot of friends around the world, so I like to keep in contact with people whenever I can. Often it’s an opportunistic affair, like setting up a meeting in Amsterdam with an American friend I met in Germany.
Mizuki Tao: Yes, it’s very nice to meet all kind of people around the world. Where are you from and what language do you speak there?
John Boudewijn: The Netherlands, originally. I usually speak Dutch whenever I’m there, though every now and again I’ll trot out some English, French, or German to help a tourist or when meeting up with international friends.
Mizuki Tao: When did you start learning languages?
John Boudewijn: Pretty much from day one, as both a native speaker of Dutch and English.
I’ve always liked stories, and even as a kid it became very clear to me that the gateway to accessing some stories would be to learn a different language, so I tried to pick things up whenever I was given the chance. I have memories of being around six or seven and translating letters from my American relatives into Dutch on the fly as I read them out for people who didn’t speak English.
Mizuki Tao: That’s really impressive. So how did you learn all language you speak?
John Boudewijn: When it comes to Dutch and English, I’m a native speaker. Those came to me easily, like anyone’s native tongue would. The only real memories of learning things I have for those was discovering how to pronounce words I’d previously only seen in writing.
German I picked up a little along the way, then had some classes in as a kid. What really cemented it in my mind was my love for theater, which had me make frequent trips to Germany to see performances. In the end, I wound up moving there. First to Frankfurt am Main, because I worked for Nintendo at the time, and then to my now-home of Berlin. I’m fluent in German now, of course, though I never stop learning. I’ve lived here for approximately eight years now and have worked in companies where everyone really only spoke German. In all honesty, if I wasn’t an EU citizen already, I’d have probably joined all of my British friends who are currently adopting the German nationality.
Mizuki Tao: What about French and Danish?
John Boudewijn: French was again a combination of school and theater, with some literature thrown in. Authors like Victor Hugo, Gaston Leroux, and Alexandre Dumas paved my way into the language. Nowadays I don’t use it as much as I’d like to, but I can still get by whenever the opportunity presents itself. Just the other day I helped do a little marketing for a startup and wound up being the guy to translate our messages into French, as we didn’t have a native speaker on hand. On launch day, the feedback on my work from French speakers was positive, which was a little moment of pride for me.
Danish was almost a crime of opportunity. I have some Danish friends who introduced me to Danish cinema, and particularly the dark comedies struck a chord with me. I also figured it would be easier to chat to the friends and family they introduced me to if I could speak at least a little Danish. It turned out to be relatively easy to get at least comprehension up to a decent level, between already speaking English, Dutch, and German, though I still need to work on the more active use. While English is and will likely always be my first choice, this is quickly becoming a favorite.
Mizuki Tao: What tools did you use the most in your language learning journey?
John Boudewijn: I personally have a bit of a knack for picking up meaning very quickly. In my last position, I was in charge of the localized content for seventeen countries and was able to figure out the meaning of virtually anything that hit my desk. Only Finnish would often stump me, as that language has so little in common with others.
That gift means that my focus is often far more on using the language myself. Of course, I also try to read a lot in the given language, listen to music, watch movies, and whenever possible catch theater performances. However, to become an active user, I enjoy immersion. With today’s connected world there are fortunately some good ways to actually use a language. Text-based chats such as Convose and video chat apps like Tandem, among others, are very helpful to me.
Mizuki Tao: How traveling helped you learning a new language?
John Boudewijn: Initially traveling and finally moving to Germany certainly helped me get my German from advanced to fluent. As a linguist, I find travel, in general, to be very stimulating. It gives you a chance to explore new accents and expressions.
My positive yes-attitude and willingness to help people out has landed me in a great many places. From a tiny village in Bavaria to see theater performance about King Ludwig 2 to an AirBnB in Jamaica where an American woman and her Jamaican husband were teaching the local kids to read. You take all these experiences and stories with you, and they become fodder for more conversation, which in turn leads to more learning and more opportunities.
Mizuki Tao: Where do you find motivations to learn a new language?
John Boudewijn: I often don’t need much convincing. Usually just meeting people is enough to make me want to learn more, as is encountering a particularly nice bit of artwork. It’s the reason that in addition to my five main languages I have smatterings of others. Nothing elaborate, but when my interest is piqued I can’t help but want to learn and I have a good memory for these things.
Even little oddities, like Finnish having the expression “liskojen yö” that translates into “night of the lizards”, to describe something far beyond just your casual hangover, or how Russian drunks will ask each other “Do you respect me?” have a tendency to stick in my mind.
Of course, traveling to a place where these languages are used always makes gaining at least some proficiency a priority. Not everyone is privileged enough to have a chance to learn multiple languages, so I like to be ready to use at least a little of the local language, sometimes even just to be polite.
Mizuki Tao: What is your advice for those who learn are learning languages?
John Boudewijn: Just go for it. Don’t be afraid, insecurity is the killer here. While in some places people may be very keen to try out their English on you, generally speaking, people will be glad and flattered that you’re trying to learn. I remember saying Dutch words with a German accent and being close enough to correct for people to understand what I was on about. There’s no need to rile yourself up because you’re not perfectly fluent. You’re learning and trying to connect, those are good things. Keep at it.
Mizuki Tao: Thank you for sharing these great tips and interesting stories. I really hope this will inspire some of you to learn a new language or continue improving the language you already possess. It was really nice to meet you, John, I’m looking forward to learning more tips from you. If anyone wants to connect with John be sure to check his Facebook and Linkedin. Thank you again and let’s get to improving our language skills.