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Language Café: 6 languages, lots of coffee and a ton of croissants

by John-Erik Jordan

After his last video, Matthew Youlden told us that talking to the camera was a bit lonely, so he asked if he could interview a friend this time. When he told us that she’s a polyglot too, we couldn’t say no! Meet Erika, an Italian-Argentinian singer, musician and translator who speaks Spanish, Italian, English, French, German and, although she’s shy about it, a little Portuguese too.

Matthew enjoys the intellectual endeavor of learning languages; since childhood, his curiosity has spurred him to delve deeply into the different mindsets that new languages offer. Erika, on the other hand, has had myriad motivations for learning the six languages that she speaks. In this video, Matthew and Erika meet for breakfast and discuss her perspective on language learning. She touches upon why she speaks Italian and Spanish as her native tongues, and why she learned English, German, French and Portuguese later in life – all for very different reasons. Learn why bilinguals can find it hard to identify which is their “mother tongue”; how the survival pressure of immersion helps with the acquisition of a new language; and whether Matthew can learn Bengali in 30 days (Erika is skeptical, but Matthew remains optimistic). They also talk about words that can’t be translated into other languages. Erika is convinced that struggente is not just an Italian word, but a wholly Italian concept that sheds light on the language’s unique character.

Another language is more than just different words to say the same things you’d say in your own language – it is a unique point-of-view. For these two polyglots, knowing multiple languages means having a wider and deeper perspective of the world and the people in it. They’ve also both figured out how to make the process of learning languages fun for themselves. Erika’s practiced method of listening, imitating and improvising borrows techniques that she also uses to learn new pieces of music. Her process has allowed her to learn languages by absorbing them from the people around her. She picked up French from listening to her colleagues while working in a French restaurant, English from American and British music, and Portuguese from samba, fado and bossa nova songs.

Want to know more about how learning a language is like playing music? Check out my interview with Erika where we also talk about family history; the giant gap between speaking a language in a classroom setting and in real life; and the ways that a language offers entry into another world.

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