Gabriel Fairman | Rethinking the Process of Learning a New Language

NN:

I am very excited about talking to a Polyglot because learning a language can be difficult, it can be frustrating, but here you are knowing so many languages and also running a big business while sharing your experience on your LinkedIn account with us. We are connected there. I am very excited about this conversation and I am so glad to welcome you to Roybi Roundtable.

GF:

Thank you Naciem! Those are very kind words and I hope I can live up to them. It’s a pleasure being here with you and thank you so much for making this happen.

NN:

Gabriel, can you tell us a little bit about the languages that you know?

GF:

Yes. So, I grew up speaking Portuguese, English, and Spanish simultaneously. I have no recollection of learning any of those languages, like, I just spoke them, it wasn’t a learning process. I did learn Italian later when I lived in Italy and a little bit of French. And I studied Mandarin Chinese for more or less 5-6 years.

I got to be pretty fluent at that time, this was like 20 years ago. So, I haven’t used it much since. But I did live in southern Taiwan in a Zen Buddhist monastery and I did try to immerse myself as much as I could in the culture. So those are the languages that I have come across so far in my life.

NN:

Were you always a person who was interested in learning a new language? Or your interests in a language were based on where you were living and because you wanted to connect with the culture? I am guessing your environment, and that’s why you learned a new language. Why was it? I mean being a Polyglot is not an easy thing to do?

GF:

It’s a great question. I haven’t really thought about it. I think my first experience with Italian, I wasn’t actually looking to learn the language. I wanted to live in Italy because it seemed like a really cool culture and I loved the food. I am originally from brazil and at that time I was attending college and there was an opportunity to study abroad and I felt it would be nice to have a change of airs and experience different cultures. So that was the motivation.

It was culture and wasn’t linguistic. I think that actually was very helpful because I had already identified with the culture, language kind of comes naturally. How can you interact with culture? you need language. Plus having Portuguese and Spanish that are also Latin-based languages, just made it very easy, both to understand the culture and to adapt to the language. It’s a great question because I wasn’t after the language but after the culture. Language came later.

NN:

Interesting! How about Mandarin?

GF:

Same thing. I had been studying Asian religions. I took a course on that topic at some point in college and I was really intrigued by Zen Buddhism. I wanted to learn how to read scriptures without having them translated and I wanted to be able to tap into a different way of thinking because I noticed that when I was reading these texts, I could sense that a lot was being not necessarily lost, it’s too strong a word, very conveyed in translation. So, I wanted to tap into the source and that was the motivation there.

Plus, I think I just wanted a challenge. I had already learned Italian and French. It was kind of surprising for me because with Portuguese and Spanish bases it just makes it relatively easy to plug in a different vocabulary, different verbs, and different ways of pronouncing things but overall, a very similar way of understanding the world.

And that’s the way I understand the language. It’s a way we understand and convey the world. With Chinese, I was like, let me see if I can really stretch my brain out a bit and see if there is a different way of looking at the world. And it was significantly different and I think it did add a lot to my stress and also it made me able to appreciate the world through different lenses, which is in the end how I see languages. It’s like these lenses through which you experience and also interact with the world. 

NN:

I always liked to learn new words and learn a language vocabulary, but grammar for me was just too much work. How about you? Did you have a method? Was your method the same with different languages? Did you focus more on grammar? Did you focus more on vocabulary? Was it through reading a book or listening to music that you learned a language? What was your methodology for learning a language?

GF:

It’s another really good question. I am a terrible student. I used to have really good grades when I graduated. It was like a valedictorian or celebratory in my high school. I was a good student in grades but very in-disciplined and I think that carried obviously into languages and formal language study never worked for me. I took a French class in 8th grade or something and it was disastrous, just because I don’t like memorizing words and I don’t like thinking about grammar. I like understanding it, I don’t like to think about grammar and then think about what I am going to say.

I like to use it as a tool. So that puts me at odds with most learning methods out there because I am a very experiential learner by trial and error. What’s interesting about that is, the process works or it doesn’t. A good example is, I was in Italy and I was able to pick up very quickly. I would say, within the first two months I could communicate very easily and fluently in Italian without trying to study anything. But I did it well. At some point I was like, now I have the basics, I get it, but if I don’t force myself to understand the grammar a bit, I will not be able to take it to the next level.

Then I dug into books, I studied some grammar, some phrasal conjugations, and then it was really interesting. Then I didn’t feel like I was memorizing these things, I felt like I was just at the right moment.

My experience with Chinese was completely different because it was so foreign to me compared to Italian. With Chinese, I didn’t have an option. I had to really study for many hours a day. What was interesting was that it was kind of a big challenge, because most of the people in my class were first-year students in college and I was the last year’s student. Most of them came from Chinese families. So there, people that grew up speaking Chinese but didn’t necessarily know how to write it. Most had some exposure to it prior to the class. So that had put me at a big disadvantage and the class was curved based which didn’t make it easier. So, I had to play catch up really quickly and with Chinese, all that intuitive part just fell apart because I couldn’t even understand what was right in front of me.

I couldn’t write the characters and the methodology there was something they call integrated Chinese and the idea of integrated Chinese is that you learn how to read, write, and speak at the same time. It’s different. So, some approaches with Chinese were like we will try to break it up and let’s just focus on the oral part, let’s leave writing that’s too difficult for later. It was integrated which made it more challenging but at the same time so much richer. So, I didn’t have a choice. With Chinese I just had to study, study, study, and then through repetition it was very interesting because I didn’t understand. It was like for the first 10 or 11 months, I couldn’t even understand why I was doing that and then all of a sudden, things began to click and I was like wow, I get it.

I can say things, I can understand things and it went from being incomprehensible to comprehensible. Yeah, different experiences with different languages. And I think the key thing at least for me is being agnostic in terms of the approach. So, focusing on what works for you at that time for that language. Again, my experiences of different languages resonate differently with different people based on how they grew up, where they grew up, what they learned speaking. And again, if you grew up speaking Hungarian, maybe learning German isn’t that big of a leap, maybe it is. It’s whatever you get. Again, there are cultural, there are linguistic, there are personal aspects. So, I don’t know. At least for me, the approach was different every single time.

But I do notice that I am not a good classroom learner. I am much more about dialogue and about interactive learning, which is one of the reasons I like Roybi Robot so much because you get to interact with something and it dissolves that idea of having to learn in a classroom setting. It makes it fun; it makes it interactive; it makes it exploratory. Which at least for me that’s the way I love to learn. It’s when it doesn’t feel like I am having to learn, it feels like I am getting something out of it.

NN:

Exactly! And I completely agree with you. I think every different language should have its own methodology in the first place, secondly, I think once you know you are a student sitting and your job is to learn then there is no fun in it and it becomes a chore rather than something you want to do. That’s also something that we do incorporate in our lessons in Roybi Robot.

We just wanted to make it more fun and also more cultural because you learn a language for its culture and you talked a little bit about this which I like you to tell us more about. Every language opens a new world and you learned a language because you wanted to delve deeper into its writing and its texts and relics so not even modern writing, which I imagine to be a different language. So now that you know multiple languages, can you tell us about how it feels like knowing multiple languages and if you do see the world in different ways with different languages.

GF:

I think seeing for sure, but it goes deeper than that. I am a different person with different languages. For instance, a good example is, my Spanish was mainly used with my father and him for instance, a lot of his personality is kind of glued to the language. So, for me it’s an emotional language, it’s full of drama and it’s who I become when I am speaking that language. I am a little bit more exacerbated, a little bit more passionate; it’s full of that kind of emotion for me. Like I learned English more in an academic setting at school. For me part of it is the language, it kind of lends itself in that way.

English is more of an object-oriented language. It is easier in my opinion. To be more clear, in English that is a be in a roman’s language. But I think it’s almost like the mindset in the setting in which you learn also sticks to the language. For example, with Italian, when I was in Italy, it was one of the most carefree moments in my life. I was in college; I thought I was still riding the end of the ’90s, “everything is going to be great” kind of a mindset. It just stuck with me, when I am talking Italian it’s just very different. 

It’s very nice and cool and also part of it is culture as well. It’s also a way of looking at life. So definitely it’s not just that I see the world in languages but also, I am a different person. I think the outcome of my conversations in different languages is very different as well. So, seeing, experiencing, and actually shaping the outcome of things. I think that’s how deep the language goes. I still dream in different languages. I still dream in Italian; I still dream in Chinese; I still dream in English. For some reason, I don’t get rusty in them but it’s all about the dialogical approach. It’s understanding that language is not something like static books, it’s something that you use to get things done, you use to communicate with people, use to get things across. It just makes it a lot more active, a lot more useful than just randomly learning.

NN:

I completely agree with you. I learned English because I was here to go to college. So, for me like you, I can argue more, I can read academic texts much better, and can be more creative and serious in English. But when it comes to showing affection to a baby, I have to use my Persian, I can’t use my English. So, I have different ways of using a language. But how do you switch between languages? Because for me even with English and Persian, sometimes I need to translate certain things for my mom, and just switching back and forth can be quite different because I am listening and thinking in that language, which is English, and when I want to translate it in Persian to my mom, then that quick switch is very difficult. How about for you?

GF:

Yeah! I think I have had different phases with that. So, when I was with English, Spanish, and Portuguese, because I learned them together I would switch seamlessly between the languages and there was no impact. When I began to learn Italian for instance, I began to second guess myself in Portuguese and Spanish and it became a mess, especially during the most intense part of the learning process it was very difficult for me to switch. Like I would switch and carry over speaking Portuguese and carry over some stuff from Italian when I start speaking Italian, I carry back stuff from Spanish and those were three languages that kind of became a soup in my head.

With English, it was kind of a separate bin so I could key that in and out just because it was so different. I think I just learned that like switching back and forth in a very natural way at a very early age. I think the key thing is not thinking about it. Because if I start thinking about the switch, it then becomes a lot more challenging. If I just flow into it, it becomes easier. I think it just has to do with how comfortable you are with all of those languages. If I am switching to the languages that I am not super comfortable in, it’s going to be painful. I think people don’t understand the kind of energy that it takes for the brain to adjust to a new language. I kind of remember, when I was learning Chinese in the first two weeks in Taiwan, I was just exhausted.

I didn’t even understand and wouldn’t do anything during the day. I felt like a train had run over me. It just takes tremendous computational, neural power to adjust and I think that’s the thing sometimes people find it hard to switch back and forth. Part of it is because it’s not developed to the point where you are a different person in those languages. Because when you are a different person you would switch the entire registry right? It’s like a big switch. You are going somewhere else. Mentally, spiritually and the body is like you are going somewhere else.

When you’re still the same person but you are just switching the language layer then I think it’s really hard. You are still thinking like maybe in English, but speaking in Italian. Thinking in English but speaking in Spanish. I think there is a big difference between switching languages and switching modes of thought. For me, when I switch, I switch modes of thoughts, I don’t switch languages. It’s fairly natural. But when I am learning a language, I have to switch to Chinese or something, it can be very tricky for sure.

NN:

I completely agree with you. Mentally you feel exhausted when you are speaking a language that’s not the language you usually converse in. Gabriel, I want to ask a bit more about you being a father and raising children in the US. I don’t know what the school districts have decided for you guys and if you are doing homeschooling or your children aren’t home. So, I am guessing you are definitely spending more time with your children at home. How important is it for you to teach the multiple languages that you learned growing up and how do you do it as a father?

GF:

It’s a great question. I don’t think I do a great job at it. We do speak to the kids mostly in Portuguese but we left them to choose. Our eldest, a 10-year-old girl speaks back in Portuguese. Our middle child, a 7-year-old boy, speaks back sometimes in Portuguese and sometimes in English. It depends on how complicated the phrase is and our baby who is 15 months old, he just knows Portuguese so far, he knows English too but he is basically thinking in Portuguese. But I think, a really important point if anything that I would like people to take away from our conversation is, there’s this really famous Austrian philosopher called Ludwig Wittgenstein.

He studied a lot of language and linguistics. There was this thing, he wrote a big philosophical discourse, called “Practice Philosophical.” One of his things is, he flipped language on its head and he challenged, up to then the view of language was structuralist. So, the idea of structuralism is that, let’s say you have the word chair, it corresponds to the object chair. And language is basically a series of correspondences between ideas and reality. Right? That was the prevalent theory up till then. What Wittenstein did was he’s like No, language isn’t corresponding to things in reality, language is in fact shaping reality. It’s something that we use to get things done. So, you don’t call a chair because it corresponds to an object chair.

You call a chair because you have to point to someone that they have to sit somewhere and you need to call that place that they are going to sit on something. So, you call it a chair. It’s a very subtle distinction but it changes everything. I am going to tie it back. This is how it applies to language. So, the basic proposition is language does things. Language is not there to represent things, it does things. So, for me when I feel that there’s a purpose to the language it becomes meaningful. So, if I am interacting with Roybi if you know talking to my kids there is a sense of usefulness in teaching them that and it goes beyond just the idea of teaching them a language.

It’s like again there is a purpose they are connecting with their heritage, they are connecting with all these things and there is dialogue, there’s connection and there is a purpose in it. Right? I am a big fan of that. Driving the learning process as opposed to learning just for the sake of learning. I think it’s really hard to learn the language if there is no point in it. Like you said, even if it’s to watch Italian soccer in Italian.

It doesn’t matter if there is a bigger purpose. Then all of a sudden, things start coming together because that’s what language is. It’s about doing things, it’s about interacting with things and, that’s why at least at this age I am not that concerned about having the kids learn Chinese or learn German or learn other languages, because I don’t want to muddy their experience with the magic of them having, first the purpose and then the language, right! So, if my daughter, for instance, is more and more interested in learning Spanish and Russian. Why? Because she likes a few shows that come from Russia and she likes a few shows that are in original audio in Spanish and she’s like I wonder how that sounds like and she’s already aware enough because of her Portuguese experience that listening to showing original audio is different.

So, she’s starting to develop that purpose. Once she’s clear about it I will help her and do whatever I can to help her learn those languages but I don’t like it when it’s an academic thing, the pure thing, because at least for me it’s impossible. Again, even if it’s like I want to learn French because I want to read some great French literature or I want to learn Russian so I can learn Dostoev in Russia. Those are really cool things. If those are things that you want to do and then it just makes everything come together. Just learning Russian for the sake of Russian I am not going to get very far. I am likely to spend a few months and just No. Give up just too hard. So, going back to my kids that’s why I don’t really make it an agenda to have them learn the language.

For me, my first agenda with them is having them aware of how big the world is, how diverse the world is. How many different kinds of cultures, how many different kinds of lives people can have? That to me is the first step. Languages come later. I see a lot of parents really obsessed about teaching the kids at the earliest age possible because after that it’s so much more complicated from a neural perspective. I think that may be right but I don’t like it. If I don’t like it, I don’t want to do it for someone else. I mean when I look back in theory, could I have learned more languages growing up? Probably. Would I have been happier or better off because of that? I am not so sure.

I think I am a big proponent of letting kids be kids and let them pick up things at their pace and in their own time and with their own interest. Again, it may happen that one of our kids just wants to speak English because that’s what they are interested in, all their tastes, all of their cultures revolve around US English and that’s fine. I like to respect each individuality and each need and each personality. That’s my philosophy and not that it’s right but that’s how I think.

NN:

I completely agree with you. I agree that the environment is very important in attracting children to a new language or a new concept.

Gabriel, it was great having you. I know you are very busy so I really appreciate the time you gave us to chat with us.

GF:

It was a great conversation. I loved those topics and you really made me think about a few questions that I hadn’t really thought about. Great conversation. Thank you so much and I am looking forward to our next conversation.

NN:

Thank you so much and have a great rest of the day and talk soon.

GF:

Alright! Thank you so much. Bye-bye.

About Gabriel Fairman

Gabriel Fairman is a thought-leader and entrepreneur specialized in business process automation. He has navigated Bureau Works from a Boutique Translation Agency to a Global Localization Platform used by companies such as Uber, Harley-Davidson, and Philips. A speaker of six languages, Gabriel grew up speaking English, Brazilian Portuguese, and Argentinian Spanish. He then picked up a bit of French, Italian, and Mandarin. Gabriel writes about the first-hand experience of a business leader, entrepreneur, father, and human being. He loves to play the guitar, cook, play tennis and be in the ocean in any way or shape.

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