Portrait: Richard Janssen’s Turkish Challenge
Not long ago, we met Richard Janssen, a hyperpolyglot and food fanatic from Venlo in the Netherlands. Having marveled at the extent of his linguistic abilities, we decided to push them to their limits with a test: a one-month, Babbel-only Turkish challenge. Here’s how it went down.
Need a recap? Check out our previous article on Richard before reading on – I promise you’ll be impressed.
When we last heard from Richard, the self-professed “language fetishist” and certified hyperpolyglot was about to embark on a one-month linguistic journey with Babbel. I’d given him just 30 days to learn enough Turkish to hold a business conversation via telephone (and impress the native speaker on the other end). This was no controlled test: Richard’s job involved doing business with Turkish partners, so the stakes were as high as the time was short.
How would he do it? With Babbel, and Babbel alone. That was a pretty daunting part of the challenge for Richard – he’d never used the app before and his usual language-learning method involves scouring the internet for as many different sources as possible before combining their wisdom in his trusty notebooks.
“I always think of learning a language as being like baking a pie,” the part-time food blogger explains. “The first thing I do is gather the basic ingredients to make the pastry. That’s like the grammar – the fundamental rules of a language. Combine that into a dough and you’ve got the base that everything else is added to. Then I think of vocabulary as a flavoring. You’ve already got that grammar base, so you can combine all these words in whatever way you want to make a sentence – or a pie. Accents, idioms, informal ways of speaking… these are the decoration on top – the finishing touches.”
Spoken like a true foodie, Richard. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” one might say. But we wanted to know how Babbel stacked up compared to a dedicated language-learner’s time-tested routine. Richard was curious himself, luckily, and eager to get started.
So he did. For one whole month Richard learned Turkish with Babbel, and then I called him back…
“Hey – how’d it go?”
“Turkish is probably the hardest language I’ve ever learned.”
Off to a good start then…
“But I think I did great,” he reassures me. “I like a challenge, so yeah – I loved it!”
I’m relieved to hear this, but still anxious to find out exactly how everything worked out. Let’s define “great”: “The pronunciation was all straightforward enough – there aren’t really any sounds that were too strange for me. As for Turkish grammar, the only thing I hadn’t seen before was vowel harmony, but the way Babbel explained it and repeated it in the exercises made it pretty easy after the 30 days.
“Now I understand vowel harmony, and I also know the basics of communicating in Turkish.”
Fantastic. Of course, the best part of learning a new language is using it. And given that Richard had plenty of opportunities to do just that, I had to hear how his calls went with the native speakers.
“I can’t have long, in-depth conversations about anything too complex,” he concedes. “But when it comes to the everyday stuff, I have no problems – the friendly chatting, etc. that’s so important to building a business relationship. And I think it really does help a lot; people were certainly surprised that they could speak to me in their own language, and they were all very happy about it.
“I think it comes down to showing an interest in another person – their language and their culture. That goes a long way. When I explained my plan they were impressed – and incredibly supportive.”
And how did Babbel do?
As for his experience of using Babbel, Richard himself seemed impressed. The explanations of grammar and repetition of concepts through the Review Manager, he says, reflected very closely his tried-and-tested method for learning a new language. Another Babbel philosophy that Richard shares is the idea that you can learn a new language most effectively by using those you already speak as an asset. As our own Matthew Youlden will testify, that means the more languages you speak, the easier it becomes to pick up another one.
“Turkish is very different to most European languages,” Richard explains. “It’s agglutinative, which is a way of adding suffixes to words to construct meanings. Luckily, Hungarian also falls into this category, so I’m already quite familiar with the system – it didn’t take too much work.
“The key is to be aware that each language will have things that are easy and things that are difficult about them. And what those things are will depend on what you already know. I saved a lot of time learning Portuguese, for example, because a lot of the grammar is shared with French, Spanish and Italian. You can use that kind of comparison to make learning any language much faster and much simpler.”
Rapid learning: not for everyone?
So Richard, admittedly, does have a bit of an advantage over the rest of us in this kind of challenge – speaking ten languages has to come in handy sometimes, right? Also, you might think, he had a month to dedicate himself fully to the project – that’s unrealistic for most people. Well, you may not speak ten languages just yet, but you might be surprised about how much dedication you actually need to make rapid progress.
“I was very busy with work and other things,” says Richard. “But I tried to keep at it for a full month. I managed to work on my Turkish with Babbel most days.
How much time did he manage to set aside for this intense studying? “No more than 30 minutes on any given day. Some days I didn’t have any time at all.”
Richard knows consistency is key, but it’s also important to have a life. If you shut yourself away for hours at a time studying the finer points of grammar, you might be able to conjugate irregular verbs on command, but you might also find you have nothing much to talk about. Language learning needs to fit into everyday life, and it needs to be useful – talking to people is a much better aim than memorizing verb tables.
In Richard’s case, everyday life brought him into regular contact with native speakers of Turkish. But you don’t need an obvious connection to the country your chosen language is spoken in to put your newfound knowledge to work. Thanks to the wonders of both the internet and budget airlines, virtually any speech community you can think of is just a few clicks away. And as Richard found, they’ll likely be delighted that you’ve decided to join them.