Richard Janssen knows a thing or two about languages. Like our very own Matthew Youlden, he’s what we call a hyperpolyglot. Upon hearing the extent of Richard’s linguistic abilities, Sam Taylor decided to put those skills to the test (with a little help from Babbel, of course).
Here’s part one of two — in which we meet Richard and find out what makes him tick.
A while back now, I got a great email. I mean, I get great emails all the time, but usually they have subject lines like “look at this dog” or “your pay slip is ready.” This one was more memorable than that. This one was from Richard Janssen, a 26 year-old from Venlo in the Netherlands. By way of introduction, he described himself as a “language fetishist” (“linguistic genius” would have been boastful, I suppose) and proposed that we might enjoy working together.
The bit that really caught my eye was that Richard speaks ten languages. With thoughts of discovering the next Matthew Youlden, I hammered out a reply.
“Have you tried Babbel?”
Well, as it turns out, Richard hadn’t tried Babbel. Some say the old ways are still the best, and I can see the appeal — after all, people have been figuring out each other’s languages for a lot longer than they’ve been carrying around miniature supercomputers in their pockets. But progress is progress, and I thought perhaps I could show Richard the light. “Why not give it a shot,” I proposed.
Some back-and-forth via email and a quick phone-call or two later, we had ourselves a plan. It turned out that Richard was working as a translator in a business that labels food from around the world. A lot of the firm’s partners were Turkish, but Richard couldn’t speak to them in their native language (an uncommon occurrence for him, I’d imagine).
Great. We had all the essential ingredients for one epic linguistic quest: Richard would learn Turkish with Babbel for one month, test it out in a business situation and report back. I knew he’d make a good Matthew Youlden.
From the top
So, our story has a hero and every good hero needs a backstory — a creation myth if you will. Richard’s begins in the small city of Venlo, near the German border in the south of the Netherlands. As a child, he grew up speaking his mother’s Hungarian along with the Venloos dialect of his father. Venloos belongs to a family of regional dialects collectively referred to as Limburgish — which is itself officially recognized as a distinct language in the European parliament.
Bilingualism was enough for Richard until he started school. School classes throughout the Netherlands are understandably taught in Dutch, and Richard’s wasn’t up to scratch. So his parents and teachers taught him. That makes three languages.
Through his time at primary school he gradually learned English (a great deal of entertainment in the Netherlands is available only in subtitled English), and in high school he added German and French to his repertoire. Language learning was “just one more class” at this stage, but he excelled nonetheless. For those keeping track, that makes five or six languages, depending on how one interprets Richard’s French proficiency.
Even six languages didn’t seem particularly special to Richard. He was a Dutch person from a border town — multilingualism was to be expected. Where I’m from, it makes you a bona fide genius, but Richard wanted more. He set out to really prove himself to potential employers (here’s his LinkedIn profile, incidentally). That’s why he opted to learn three more languages in his first three years of university.
In the first year, he decided to master his rusty French. In the second, he took part in an exchange program in Italy and added that to his repertoire. In the third year, he studied in Spain and, naturally, learned Spanish (eight languages now).
So were these the languages that would land him the best job when he graduated? Not necessarily.
“I started learning languages in the first place for career reasons,” he concedes. “But I’m only interested in learning the specific languages that mean something to me on a more personal level. It’s not really about the language at all somehow — it’s about the people, the culture, the history, and even the food. I’m an especially big fan of Italian food, for example.”
The extra mile
With Richard’s growing appetite for language learning, even these achievements weren’t quite enough. He had to master the dialects of the people that inspired him to learn in the first place. In Spain, that meant picking up the heavily accented and notoriously difficult Andalusian variety of the language, and in Italy he learned to speak like a true Bolognese.
“I traveled a lot in Italy,” he tells me. “The people I met often assumed I was from the north, so I guess you could say that it went pretty well!”
Inspired by his early success (and a growing reputation as a polyglot), Richard added two more languages after his studies. Portuguese, upon the request of a friend’s family who had planned a visit for some Brazilian guests, and then Swedish because “those were the cheapest flights.”
And all this while either studying or working full time, and finding time to indulge his other interests: journalism, music, and food. Particularly the latter; Richard runs his own recipe blog which you can read here (in English).
And that just about brings us up to the point at which Richard first got in touch with us.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it…
Richard’s Turkish challenge really only had one rule:
Thou shalt learn solely with Babbel.
The aim here was to make sure this test was as close to scientific as possible — which is not very close at all, admittedly. Really, I just wanted to make sure that Richard wouldn’t sneak any library books into the equation and contaminate my results.
Strictly speaking, Babbel wouldn’t be the only learning resource Richard had available to him, but I didn’t need to tell him that. When you’re trying to pick up a new language, you see, the secret to light-speed progress really is to speak to people — right away. The sooner the better, mistakes and all. “Just do it,” as they say. Richard was in close contact with several native Turkish speakers, and, as a lifelong language learner, he knew that this was an invaluable resource — one that he’d certainly be making the most of.
Aside from this limitation, Richard would be allowed to learn as much as he wanted, or as little. He’d be able to learn on his own schedule, at his own pace, on the bus, on the train or anywhere else he wanted. If he wanted to completely ignore the challenge for 29 days and then cram for the final 24 hours, that was fine by me. But again, I knew Richard knew better. Anyone that’s ever successfully learned a language can tell you that slow and steady wins the race: little and often really is the key. Once you’ve successfully learned ten languages, that becomes second nature.
We were off. 30 days later, I’d have another call with Richard to see what he’d managed to achieve in his month with Babbel.
To be continued.