Hello everyone! I’m going to be starting an interview series with polyglots, and other people in the community. For now, I can only do text interviews, but expect video ones later.
For our first interviewee ever, we have with us Ben Henschke from DigIntoEnglish.com. Ben hosts really awesome podcasts to help people learn natural English expressions and improve their vocabulary. He speaks and is still learning, Japanese, German, French and Korean.
…Interview starts below…
Zach: First off, I just want to say thanks for taking the time out to do this interview. Can you start off by telling us a bit about yourself and where you’re from?
Ben: Thank you for the opportunity. My name is Ben Henschke, and I’m a long-time language lover from Adelaide in Australia. I work as a translator from Japanese to English, so I suppose I’ve found a way to love languages professionally. I also run a podcast and website for English learners called Dig into English.
Zach: I read on your website that you’re a language nut. Have you always been one or was it a more recent occurrence?
Ben: I’ve been learning languages for a very long time, but it was only a few years ago that I truly caught the language bug. I started learning Japanese in primary school – that’s the Australian equivalent of elementary school – then picked up German in high school and French at university.
However, while I was good at learning foreign languages, I never had any particular passion for it. I just treated languages like any other school subject. As a result, I could tell you all of the German case endings and give you an excellent explanation (in English) of the French subjunctive, but could barely speak either of those languages.
It was only four years ago, while I was in my third year of university, that I found a website called All Japanese, All the Time. That site taught me something incredibly important: there are effective, and most importantly fun, ways of learning languages outside the classroom. It gave me an enormous motivational boost.
Once I started finding ways to use Japanese in my daily life, my Japanese level jumped quite rapidly and I managed to transfer that momentum to other languages. That gave me the confidence to start learning languages by myself as well.
Zach: How do you learn languages? Courses, coaches or classes? I personally use courses such as Assimil and Teach Yourselfs.
Ben: I’ve taken classes for Japanese, German and French, but wouldn’t do so again. At university, language classes cost $600 per semester or something obscene like that. An Assimil book with CDs costs 65 Euros and will take you much further than a semester at university. For those that don’t know, Assimil is a course in bilingual text form, with the target language on the left page and your native language on the right page. They come with complete recordings in the target language only. They’re a wonderful resource.
I think the main advantage of classes is the regular check on your progress. You have no choice but to study because you have exams at the end of each semester. However, I found that I just crammed before the exams and did well enough, but then promptly forgot everything I’d learnt. It was an expensive and useless cycle, really.
If you’re in a well-taught class with a small number of students, the teacher speaks in the target language whenever possible and you have the motivation to go beyond the course material, they can be a useful introduction to a language, but if you really want to improve over the long term, you will eventually need to take control of your own learning.
By coaches I assume you mean language tutors. I think these are most useful at the intermediate level. If you don’t have a time constraint on your language learning, then I think your time is initially better spent exposing yourself to new vocabulary rather than forcing yourself to speak.
Once you get to the intermediate level, though, a one-on-one session with a tutor is an excellent way to iron out any difficulties you have with the language. Of course, if possible, an even better way would be to make friends with native speakers of the language you’re learning and then – just occasionally! – you might be able to ask them about any difficulties you have.
Zach: If you were to start learning a new language today, how would you begin doing so?
Ben: It depends on the language. I just began learning Dutch three weeks or so ago, and I’m using Assimil. Because Dutch is quite similar to German and English, I haven’t felt the need to go through a dedicated grammar book yet. When I’m finished with Assimil, or if I get bored with it, I’ll look for podcasts with complete transcripts and bilingual texts. As I said before, I don’t rush into speaking the language.
Korean, on the other hand, is a more grammatically complex language, so I used everything I could get my hands on. Textbooks with audio, podcasts (Talk to Me in Korean is excellent), pronunciation guides, everything. Some of it was useful, but some of it was boring. If you have access to a library with language learning materials, I suggest you take a look at everything that is available for the language you want to learn, and then find a couple of materials to stick with.
When I’m listening to audio, I speak along with the recordings whenever possible (and not in a crowd!). I find this very useful to get used to the sounds of the language. I don’t know whether it helps increase spoken fluency – although my hunch says yes – but I think it certainly helps with pronunciation.
Some language learners and language bloggers might disagree with this last point, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to jump straight into material at a native rate of speech, such as radio or TV shows. If you understand any less than half of the material, I think you could be spending your time more effectively doing something else. The same goes for ploughing through books that are too difficult for you, dictionary in hand. It’s not a very efficient use of your time. There’s nothing shameful about listening to slightly slowed-down audio or reading simple books. They will help and you won’t be stuck with them for long.
Zach: It’s really hard to keep working towards learning a language. How exactly do you stay motivated to keep learning?
Ben: I actually have a nasty habit of having a huge burst of motivation but then losing interest quickly. I think this is quite a common problem with language learners. My advice would be to do a variety of activities in the language. You might just be bored with what you are doing instead of being bored with the language. If you get sick of using Assimil, try to watch some TV in the language. If you get sick of using a textbook, listen to a podcast. There are so many possibilities that you are bound to find something that you enjoy.
Also, it might be a bit old-school, but I find it useful to keep a language learning calendar. I print out one A4 piece of paper for each month and stick it on my wall. When I use a language for a certain amount of time (half an hour, for example) I make a mark on the calendar. The aim is to mark as many days in a row as possible. I’m sure there are apps to do that these days, but I find the physical reminder on the wall very useful.
Zach: Do you have any tips for those learning a new language?
Ben: First, never think that learning a language is “too hard”. If you’re persistent and you find a way to make your language learning enjoyable, no language is too difficult for you.
Second, do something with that language every day. That doesn’t have to be “study” in the traditional sense. Read an article online. Listen to a podcast. Whatever. The important thing is regularity. Once you make language learning a habit, it becomes so much easier.
Zach: I really like your site and podcasts. Can you tell us how the decision to create DigIntoEnglish arose?
Ben: Podcasts are portable slices of a language. You can choose podcasts on topics that interest you, then take them with you and listen as many times as you like. They’re a terrific advance in language learning technology, and I’m very grateful for them.
I’ve used podcasts to help me with every language I’ve learnt. I found that the best podcasts for learners have complete transcripts and are spoken slightly slower than usual. They also cover a wide variety of topics so that listeners have the freedom to listen to whichever episodes they find the most interesting. That’s what I’ve tried to do with Dig into English.
I suppose those are the “serious” reasons, but really, I just thought it would be great fun. I was right.
Zach: Again, I just want to thank you for doing this interview. Do you have any last words or closing thoughts for everyone?
Ben: Remember that there is no such thing as a “useless” amount of language knowledge. Even a few survival phrases can improve your experience as a tourist. Even speaking a few words to a shopkeeper can be exhilarating. There’s really no reason not to learn a bit of the local language if you visit a country.
I would also suggest setting realistic goals. If I expected to be perfect at every language I’ve learnt, I would have given up a long time ago. I’m certainly not UN interpreter level in any of my languages, but what little knowledge I have is enough to improve my life in some way. When you start seeing the benefits even a bit of language knowledge brings, you might gain some motivation to keep going. Forget any negative experiences you might have had at school, and give language learning a try. It’s truly one of life’s pleasures.
Do you have any questions for Ben? Leave a comment below and ask him!