Through a great stroke of luck, I have the pleasure of enjoying many stimulating conversations with Dr. Conor McDonough Quinn, an Ivy League trained field linguist who resides right here in Portland, Maine. With a specialization in the study and preservation of Algonquin languages, he is presently working on a language revitalization project with the Penobscot community right here in Maine. While his linguistic focus is currently local, he has lived in China, Indonesia, and Oman, and has traveled extensively throughout Europe. With my own ears, I have heard him slip gracefully between Bulgarian and Mandarin within a single dinner party, happily providing kindness and humor with every language that he speaks. He’s exchanged Indonesian pleasantries with major world leaders, including President Obama, but is always more than happy to speak Arabic with toddlers, or Passamaquoddy with community elders. To put it simply, he makes it all look so easy.
With this New Year, many of you may be interested in learning a new language, or at least traveling to a wonderful place that you have never been. Learning to speak a new language can seem daunting at first, so I thought I would glean some tips and encouragement from an expert in language study. Thankfully, he agreed to an interview:
So many people in the world speak English that, depending on where you are going, it is often possible to function just fine without language study. What can be gained by learning to speak another language when you travel?
It shows a lot of respect for people, when you go to their country and speak the language of the land. Even if someone can speak English well enough to function, they may be relieved not to have to accommodate and always do things the English way. With language study, you can provide a genuine sense that you respect their culture.How receptive are locals usually to tourists who try to speak their language?
Generally people are incredibly positive about [language study]. Very rarely will you find people who are impatient. When most people can see that you have made a genuine effort, they are often overjoyed to speak in their language with you, help you, or even welcome you into their world.
Should travelers ever feel shy or embarrassed about their skill level?
No, absolutely not. In fact, what travelers need to do is overcome their own shyness. As adults, we often feel sort of inept, stumbling around like two year olds in a new language, and so we use that as an excuse to not try to speak the language. If people overcome this shyness, they will find that everyone is appreciative when they have made a solid attempt to communicate the local way.
So if a person has decided, for instance, to travel to Italy, and wants to study Italian, what is a good place to start?
Learning a language always has two aspects. One is preparation and the other is practice. Preparation, you can do on your own. Practice means carrying out a conversation, going and speaking with [those who are more fluent]. You do it out there in the world, with real speakers. For preparation, you really must have some kind of audio, with native speakers, using the language. You really don’t want to just rely on a book. The best thing is some kind of audio based course that comes with a book. You want to get back to the sound of the language, how it’s spoken. You want to learn the rhythm of the words. It’s like a song.
OK, so once a person has the basics down, and they are actually traveling, what can he or she do to improve with the language as they are speaking and using it?
More than anything, don’t avoid doing it. Don’t avoid speaking with people. Take every opportunity that you can to speak and use your new language. There are often people who are more than willing to chat with you, because they would otherwise be going about their day, and might be a little bored. Look for guards, shopkeepers, people waiting for things. Even if you aren’t the best conversationalist, you are surely better than nothing!
What was your first “second language”? How did it feel to take it on?
I think my first language after English was Irish Gaelic, which I sought out in attempt celebrate and preserve my family’s heritage. It’s an odd language to learn because virtually everyone who speaks it also speaks English. So you have a particular challenge of not just going back to English whenever possible. By and large, though, the majority of people that I met were very supportive of me when I was in Ireland trying to learn the language.
At what point did you decide that language study would be your main life pursuit?
Hmm. I have never actually decided that. It just keeps happening!
How long does it usually take you to become functional in a new language?
To me, basic functionality means enough to get by without any English at all. Usually I find myself getting by after a week of being there, but there has to be enough preparation beforehand. That usually takes a couple or weeks, or more, depending on the language and how much it differs from the languages that I am most practiced with. But growth continues after the first week. Usually it takes about a month of immersion before I feel that I am speaking the language well.
I know you have traveled extensively, and it’s probably difficult to choose a favorite, but what destinations are you most eager to see again?
Oh, you know, everywhere I have ever been before, Indonesia, in particular. China, I would like to go back to. Oman is really great. Taiwan is always fun. All of them. I would really go back to Ireland and learn more Irish. And Turkey, I would love to go back to Turkey, all I saw was Istanbul, but I would really love to spend more time in the countryside, but I would also love to spend more time in Istanbul, as well.
So I know that you are exceptionally well-practiced in the pursuit of language learning. Can you tell me about other people who have taken on language study before traveling? How did it work out for them?
I know that my sister did some study before when she was an exchange student in Thailand. But from what I understand, she had to do the vast majority of it on the ground. She was in an area where few people spoke any English at all, so she had speak to everyone, every day, in her limited Thai.
What would you consider the easiest languages for English speaking travelers to learn?
I would say Indonesian was the most learner-friendly that I’ve encountered.
What are the most difficult?
I don’t know. They all seem pretty easy to me. Hah! I can say some things about languages that are famously difficult, but aren’t that hard, really. For instance, learning Mandarin is supposedly very hard to learn, but there are tricks to learning the tones. After you master the tones, the grammar and pronunciation is actually quite easy, and then it’s just vocabulary.
Can you tell me a funny story about a moment when it seemed difficult or confusing to communicate?
Actually, not really. You’d think that I would have a bunch of stories of wacky misunderstandings and so forth, but I find that I’ve almost never had that because of how I approach learning a language.
Do you think there are basic words or phrases that a person should learn when traveling, no matter what? What are they?
Absolutely. Beside the obvious expressions like “Where is the bathroom” the most important ones to start building a rapport with people are basic verbs and nouns, and words to refer to the conversation, like this and that, as well as he, she, you, me, and they.
What would you tell a person who is just starting out, and trying to learn their first second language?
Learn to laugh at yourself. As adults learning a language, the one thing that holds us back is the feeling that it’s not good enough. It’s always good enough, because it’s the best you can do. Seek out opportunities, and you will find that you will get better very quickly, and become more flexible and improvisational. Put yourself out there and you will be rewarded.
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