And What do Polyglots think
By Antonio Graceffo
Polyglot Interviews welcomes Hal Medrano, a Cuban American who has been living in Hanoi, studying Vietnamese intensively. Hal is one of the three best Vietnamese speakers I have encountered in over a year of living in Vietnam. He also has an extensive background in ESL teaching.
1. Were you born into a multilingual family? (Were you raised bi-lingual?)
I’m a native Spanish/English bilingual, raised in NYC within a Cuban family. Growing
up, I spoke exclusively Spanish with my grandmother, and mostly English with my
mother, with Spanish being the language when we were all together.
2. When did you start studying languages seriously?
Traveling in Europe at the age of 16 I simply transferred much of my Spanish into
French. Not always exact, but I was able to have bar-stool conversations by the end
of my 6 weeks in French-speaking countries. Similarly, I picked up a lot of
Portuguese by hanging out with Brazilians for the two years I studied capoeira in
the late 1980s. I also studied Khmer 3 days/wk for most of the 9 months I was in
Cambodia in the early 1990s.
Overall, however, I have had surprisingly little formal study, and have mainly
picked up the languages I’ve spoken over the years.
3. Did you do any of your language study in a formal setting? If so, where and
Vietnamese is the first language I’ve ever really studied in a formal school setting
(my Cambodian study was one-on-one), with a formal syllabus, and so on. I studied
between 6-9 hrs/wk for about 15 months after first arriving in Hanoi. I stopped
studying a few months ago but have continued to read and listen to TV, and of
course, I live in Vietnam so acquisition is constant.
4. How much of your knowledge is the result of self-study?
Typical pattern for me is often to pick up a phrasebook and some listening materials
before traveling to a new country, drill myself on numbers, greetings, and a few
basic phrases, and then go an butcher the hell out of a language. I’ve done this
with Thai, Korean, Portuguese, French, and incidentally, Vietnamese as well. Little
remains of the other languages – Vietnamese has pretty much taken over my brain.
6. How many hours do you believe one needs to master a language?
It depends on the individual, the difference between L1 and L2, and a host of other
factors. I think a person’s belief system is self-fulfilling; people who believe they
learn languages quickly probably do, while people who don’t believe they have any
language “ability” probably don’t. However, I do think even that latter group of
people will eventually learn, if exposed to enough input – but time is difficult to
After a year and a half in Vietnam, I’m at a CEFR B1 level – fully functional and
often conversant, but with huge holes in my vocabulary, continued pronunciation
problems, and listening skills that depend a great deal on context. I am nowhere
near having mastered this language – but I have developed some automaticity. It’s
7. Do you have any goal in learning languages? Are you training to be a
professor, teacher, translator…or do you just study for love?
As a language teacher I consider it a professional responsibility to put myself in
the role of my students, and test out the mostly-silly methods I’m often expected to
employ, but mostly I am intellectually curious and I like making friends who are
different from me.
8. What is your occupation?
Instructional designer, with a specialty in English language instruction.
9. Do you learn more than one language at a time?
11. Do you believe children learn languages faster than adults?
Absolutely not. Children have affective benefits – they’re less afraid of making
mistakes – and probably have a more pliable phonetic system, able to adjust to
foreign phonemes. But adults are far better able to employ meta-cognitive skills –
knowledge of themselves as learners – and are better able to focus their efforts.
Both groups fundamentally learn through exposure to comprehensible input, but adults
are better able to apply themselves to the learning process, and this, I believe,
gives adults an advantage.
12. Do you, or most polyglots, have some type of mental disorder, such as autism
or obsessive compulsive disorder?
I’m weird as shit, but nothing clinical.
13. Did you do well in school?
I dropped out of high school because it was interrupting my education, inhaled the
Harvard Classics, and then was runner-up valedictorian at college. I also excelled
in grad school, so I suppose the answer is “yes”. But you wouldn’t have seen it in
15. Do you feel that polyglots are qualified to work as translators and
interpreters or must one do formal studies first?
I did some Spanish-English interpreting for the Seattle medical system many years
ago without any formal training, and did fine. I brushed up on some medical
terminology, and that was about it. I’ve never done professional translation, but
hold to the belief that interpreters do better going from L2 into their L1. I doubt
training has anything to do with it, but I’d be willing to be convinced otherwise.
16. Why do the vast majority of people who begin a language fail to learn it?
Lack of knowledge about how language is acquired, and lack of persistence.
To the first point, you see people wasting enormous efforts on vocabulary drills,
grammar, and so on, when in reality those activities should take a back seat to
passive acquisition – listening and reading.
To the second point: we tend to forget that language learning is emotional. Once the
thrill of communicating basic concepts passes, there’s often a period of frustration
– the pre-intermediate blues – where a person feels ashamed at being unable to
communicate the full extent of their emotional/intellectual being. I think a lot of
people give up rather than persevere through this long, long period when one feels
“stupid” in the target language.
17. Any comments on language learning or polyglot life you would like to share
with the world would be great.
Here, Hal comments on ALG Automatic Language Growth Theory, which I support and have written about extensively.
ALG is more right than wrong – people fundamentally acquire language more than
they acquire it. This ability is practically wired into our DNA; given enough input,
humans will eventually spontaneously begin to produce language. People should
understand and trust this process.
Where I differ from ALG is in my belief that a person – especially a self-reflective
adult – CAN apply some intellectual resources to accelerate the learning process.
For me, a certain amount of formal study – even grammar – can help me to answer
questions that come up naturally as I’m exposed to the language I’m trying to learn.
I also think there is a valid role for production – negotiating meaning in the
target language – even early in the learning process, although I agree that too much
early production can lead to fossilized errors.
Fundamentally, I think a person should remain catholic in their approach, and do
whatever feels natural. An attitude of play is very helpful. And remember that the
real reason to learn a language is to form relationships, so a language learner
should endeavor to immerse him or herself in the lives and culture of the people who
speak the language her or she is trying to learn.
18. Do you have any dream languages, I mean, a language or languages you are
dreaming of learning but haven’t started yet? And why?
There are some languages whose music appeals to me – Russian and Arabic come to mind
– but I have no desire to live in the areas where those languages are spoken, and no
plans to learn them.
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
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