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Karen Barbarossa is a lover of languages and an avid student of language, culture, and context. She understands more than a dozen languages, and has learned them through a combination of traditional classes, independent learning, and traveling. She has also taught English as a second language. Her experiences learning new languages both in and out of school settings are explored in the following excerpt from Karen’s interview in Kio Stark’s new book, Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything.
I think part of why people teach themselves things is based on fascination or passion or some other internal force that drives them to it. For me, it’s the drive to know and experience the whole world. To really understand a language and how it works also means understanding the history of the language, the history of the land, the people, and the geography. If I could spend all my time wandering around in the world, spending months at different places learning languages, I would do that.
There is a lot of literature on the best language-learning process but no one taught me that, not really, not when I started absorbing languages. Later I found out that what I learned matched a lot of research on language learning. But for me, I figured it out on my own. It’s not the same for everyone, and that’s important. You have to try different ways and see what sticks. For example, I found that I can’t learn a language I can’t read. So I have had to learn all kinds of alphabets, whereas my brother doesn’t need to read, he can learn by hearing. I know I will have to put in extra time, in the beginning, because if I can’t see the language I can’t seem to store it in my head. But the basics of learning a language seem pretty similar for most people.
It’s easier to learn a language in a place where it is spoken, whether that’s another country or an enclave in your town. There are parts of language learning that I do use textbooks for. Word order, verb order, does the language have declensions, are there masculine and feminine words, and so on. Gendered words are not the same gender across all languages. It’s not as though if you know the moon is feminine in one language, she will maintain her femininity everywhere. It doesn’t work like that, which is a shame. Each one has to be memorized separately. After the textbooks, I talk to everyone who will talk to me. I listen to everyone who is speaking. The radio, the television, train announcements, anything. This is where a fluent speaker can make it more pleasant. Then you just turn to them and ask questions. Strangers are nice about this too, if you are sitting in a cafe and ask someone to explain a word to you, that helps.
Really, the best possible way to learn a language for me is to have someone at my beck and call who’s fluent in that language. Because basically I’ll pester them, “So how do you say this? Is this right? What if I wanted to say this?” And I often ask how to say very absurd things because if I can do that, then I really understand the structure. The absurdity is part of the fun, as well, the laughter at the ridiculous things that are grammatically correct but silly. When I was learning Hebrew, I was talking with a friend about hamburgers and meat, and the different ways of talking about meat in Hebrew. I asked, “If I wanted to say that I wanted an elephant hamburger with ketchup, would I say it like this?” He just looked at me funny and said, “Yes, it’s exactly like that.” So I knew I understood it, I understood the structure well enough to use it. Once I understand the framework, I can plug in the words, but without the framework, the grammatical model, you’re just throwing words around willy-nilly.
I listen to a lot of radio, often in languages I don’t speak. They start to make sense after a while. It’s a very passive type of learning, the intonation and structure float into me, the music and texture of the language, even if I am not understanding what is being said, yet. It soaks around and it’s really useful when I start speaking, because I’ve been listening to the accent.
…I think the biggest thing though, is that this is fun. Every language is a new mystery, so it’s completely exciting when I get to embark on another one. Even thinking about it now, I can’t wait to start on a new one, to get out there, to begin again.
Kio Stark is a grad school dropout, a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and a passionate activist for independent learning. She also teaches as an adjunct in a graduate program at NYU and runs a learning initiative for the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project. Don’t Go Back to School is a handbook for people who want to learn outside of school, with strategies and stories from dozens of people talking about the subjects and skills they’ve taught themselves and how they’ve done it.