The six official languages of the United Nations are considered the most geopolitically important languages in the world—not to mention that native speakers of those tongues represent about a third of the global population. Emily Liedel decided to learn them all to fluency.
Introduce yourself and your quest.
Professionally, I’m a freelance journalist, translator and language entrepreneur. I write about international affairs, urban issues, food and language. Personally, I’m on a quest to learn all of the official languages of the United Nations (Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese and Arabic – English which is my native language) to native-level fluency by my 35th birthday in 2019.
Currently, I speak everything but Arabic, and I’m still finishing up becoming fluent in Chinese. I also speak fluent German and Swiss German (the dialect spoken in Switzerland) so I like to say that German is my bonus language.
What inspired you to want to learn so many languages?
If I had a magic power, it would be to speak all languages and to be able to speak to anyone on earth. For me, language learning has always been about being able to communicate with people from vastly different backgrounds, to learn their stories and to understand their worldview. I’ve been interested in foreign cultures since I was a kid and fascinated by a series of children’s books that were based in the Middle East.
Also, my elementary school had a Japanese immersion program. There were Japanese-themed assemblies, snacks, and calligraphy in the halls. There was this pervasive feeling that I was missing out because I didn’t speak Japanese. Not only did I not understand the calligraphy, I didn’t understand the snacks and I had never been to Japan. It felt like they got to have a fuller, richer experience in school, whereas my experience in elementary school was one-dimensional.
How does it feel to become fluent in a language that used to be foreign to you?
I don’t think there is a moment when I become fluent. It’s a gradual process measured by small successes. But there are moments where I realize I’m a language speaker – like when I have a dream in French, or am discussing something with a neighbor and didn’t notice I wasn’t speaking English.
Most recently for me, last year I was reading a children’s book in Chinese, and I realized that I could read without looking up any characters and still understand what was happening. It was such a cool moment.
And when I moved to Spain, I had been studying Spanish with audio tapes and would not have considered myself fluent. But I negotiated a sublet the day after I arrived, in Spanish. That was also a moment where I thought, “Hey, I can speak Spanish!”
Tell us about a memorable encounter while on your quest.
My sister and I were traveling from Moscow to Beijing on the trans-Siberian railroad. When we were crossing the border out of Russia into Mongolia, there was only one other “Westerner” on our bus – a guy from New Zealand.
He went through passport control and was pulled aside. Neither the Russian border agent nor he could understand one another, so I went over to help. It turned out the man hadn’t produced the right document, and was almost put under arrest! While the New Zealander seemed extremely nonchalant for someone who just was saved from a Russian prison, the border control agent was quite grateful.
But then, I had my own trouble crossing that border. My passport had been amended to add pages before the trip, and the agents had never seen papers like mine. They held me back while all the other bus passengers, including my sister, were kept on the bus. A call to the US Embassy in Moscow didn’t help, as it was the middle of the night and no one answered.
I wound up negotiating on my own behalf in Russian that day as well, and was eventually let out of the country. Encounters like these keep me motivated to learn.
How have you overcome a low point in your quest?
Learning Chinese characters has been quite difficult. I’m an auditory learner – so I remember things well when I’ve heard them, and tend to forget things that I read. For other languages this has worked well – vocabulary comes up in conversations and I then can recognize it written down.
But with Chinese, the character system means that learning a word in a conversational setting can’t be transferred to knowing the word written. Just yesterday I had to look up the character 戴, which is a relatively basic character and means “to wear,” as in “to wear a hat.” I’d spoken it plenty, but didn’t recognize it in a book.
So, I’ve been fiddling with different strategies to learn Chinese. Flashcards, taking more classes, seeking out blogs (Hacking Chinese is great!). It’s a slow process, and I haven’t overcome this obstacle yet. But I think of myself as the kind of person who can speak Chinese, so it’s just not acceptable for me to give up.
Does learning a language change how you experience the world?
There is actually a whole field of linguistics dedicated to that question! Studies have shown that people are more rational and less biased when they are speaking a second language, which is attributed to the fact that using a second language provides a sort of cognitive disrupter. So if you have to make a hard decision, maybe you should try discussing it in your second language!
Personally, I’ve noticed my personality changes when I speak another language, and so do my mannerisms. When I’m speaking another language, I adopt not just that language’s sounds but also the body language that native speakers use. I might get more boisterous or more reserved or change my behavior in other ways.
Learning a language is also about learning another culture, and different cultures very much have different ways of looking at the world. Like in Russia there are two words for blue: light blue and dark blue. To a Russian, those are two different colors, like green and yellow are different colors. Because you’ve been exposed to different ways to discuss the world, it’s much easier to understand and accept when someone presents a way of looking at things that you hadn’t considered before.
Do you have any advice for someone starting out on their own language quest?
- Start with a clearly defined reason why you want to learn the language
- Figure out how the new language relates to your life now. Do you like traveling in a country that speaks your target language? Do you have a hobby related to the language? I think people are most successful with language learning when they can see clearly how learning the language will enhance some other part of their life that they already enjoy.
- Start studying, both in a class and on your own. Don’t waste time trying to find the ‘perfect’ technique – what works best for one person might not work for another, and some progress is always better than no progress.
- Live abroad. There a lot of people who write about language learning who insist that living abroad isn’t necessary for learning a language. They are right in theory but wrong in practice. I’ve never felt comfortable using a foreign language until I’ve spent at least several months living in a country that speaks the language.
I’m working on improving my Chinese and learning Arabic. This summer I’ll take the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, or Chinese Proficiency Exam, and master the 3,000 most common Chinese characters. I also hope to be able to read a children’s book in Arabic soon, before spending at least two months in an Arabic-speaking country.