15 languages and still going: an interview with polyglot Alex Rawlings

Alex Rawlings is a British-born polyglot, Oxford University graduate in German and Russian and author of  “How to Speak Any …

Alex Rawlings is a British-born polyglot, Oxford University graduate in German and Russian and author of  “How to Speak Any Language Fluenty”. He became known for his linguistic ability in 2012, the year in which he was named “Britain’s Most Multilingual Student”. His realisation of  the importance of languages was sparked by his first trip to Athens at the age of 8, when he saw the value of understanding his mother’s native language first-hand- in his words “I have never looked back”.  We spoke with Alex about language learning, the Russian language, travelling and his thoughts on Ukraine and Ukrainian. 

Hello Alex! You speak around 15 languages! Can you tell me how you personally learn languages? Is it a case of doing a little bit every day? Do you use a mixture of techniques?

I’ve got to say, I don’t think there’s a single technique that works. I learn languages in all sorts of different ways. I’ve done courses, I’ve studied by myself, I’ve asked friends to teach me specific words and phrases while I’ve been on holiday, I’ve read books, I’ve watched TV programmes with and without subtitles, I’ve used flashcards, I’ve used apps, and I’ve used every language learning product under the sun. For me, the secret is in variety and in having an open mind, and then being consistently interested and motivated to keep up with whatever it is you decide to do. I find that if I feel like I really need a language, then I’ll find the strength to keep up with it. That’s why I’ve learned random languages like Hebrew and Hungarian, because I wanted to connect with people I know who speak them. Meanwhile, though, I can’t count the number of times I’ve opened Teach Yourself Danish and not got past page 5. I’m sure Danish is a beautiful language, but however much I’ve tried it’s never been a big enough part of my life to make me carry on with it. At least, not yet 😉

If you could only speak one language for the rest ofyour life, which would it be?

What a torturous question! If you could only see one colour for the rest of your life, which one would you see? If you could only taste one flavour for the rest of your life, which one would it be? If you could only wear one t-shirt for the rest of your life, which one would it be? This is as difficult a question for me! Having said all that, though, I think I’d have to go with the language I speak best after English (I’m not pretending not to be biased here), because that’s the one language that I’ve really seen for myself just how colourful, how flavoursome and how expressive it can be: Greek.

What would you say is the best part about being multilingual?

Not having to answer questions like Question 2! I love being able to slip in and out of different cultures, different conversations, different experiences of the world. It feels like such a superpower to be able to choose where you live, and think about the kinds of friendships and connections you can form there. I love travelling, and every time I go to a place where I speak the language I love feeling like a bit more than just a tourist. It’s probably just an illusion (I’m still just a tourist), but it gives me a little thrill every time. Oh, and I love meeting tourists in London who think I can’t understand what they’re saying on the tube. Because I have news for you: I can :

Do you think there is such a thing as a ‘language learning gene’?

No. I think we all have completely unique strengths and superpowers depending entirely on our personalities. The trick with language learning is to identify how to play best to your strengths and then learn languages in that way. Anyone can learn a language. Just not everyone has worked out their personal ‘how’ yet.

The world of language learners is becoming closer and closer thanks to facebook groups, youtube videos and applications: what are some of the ways that you think the internet is really helping people learn languages?

Nowadays you can just immerse yourself in foreign cultures in a way that even 10 years ago you couldn’t. You can spend a whole weekend binging a Colombian soap opera on YouTube, you can decide to only read the news in French for a month. You can spend hours on Skype talking to people on the other side of the world. The country we live in no longer has to decide thekind of life we want to lead any more. The amount of input at our fingertips really does feel infinite.

As someone who is multilingual myself, I get asked all the time “do you ever dream in French?”- Which question do you get asked the most?

Normally something like “What’s the secret?” which I understand, but still disappoints me slightly. There aren’t really any shortcuts to learning a language. There are plenty of things you can do wrong, but there’s no hack. Or at least if there is, nobody’s told me about it yet. The only secret is to really, really passionately care about languages and enjoy learning them. Enjoy making mistakes, and don’t be a perfectionist. Have fun, and you’ll be amazed how quickly you’ll learn.

Do you think being a polyglot goes hand in hand with being a traveller and ‘fernweh’?

It certainly does for me, but I appreciate that’s not the case for everyone. Languages and travel for me are less about topping up my Vitamin D levels (although that’s a nice side effect) and more about finding new ways to think about the world. I like having my preconceptions challenged and my horizons expanded.

What’s the most fascinating thing about being in a place where a language you’re learning is spoken? Mine is listening to announcements in the metro!

I like reading signage. In English, the kinds of signs we write are very different to the way we speak. I find it fascinating how Italians like using infinitives in their signs. Signs are like the opposite of speaking. You have to be concise and precise. You don’t get a second chance to explain what you mean. Russian train doors say “Не прислоняйтесь”. You either understand that means “Don’t lean against this”, or you don’t. Funnily enough, when I first thought that I thought it meant “Don’t turn into an elephant”, because “слон” means “elephant”.

What has been the highlight of your career so far? What’s the most exciting door that’s been opened for you through languages?

I just genuinely feel very lucky to be able to work with languages every day. Working at Memrise has been a dream come true. I sit with a team of content creators coming up with new ideas and ways to capture the magic of language learning that we’ve all experienced and all love, and turn that into a product that has the potential to change the lives of many millions of people. I love getting to work in the morning. I often don’t even notice whether it’s miserable outside (which it often is in London).


Why did you decide to learn Russian? What is your favourite word in Russian?

It was always an enigma. I wanted to find out more. And I liked listening to Tatu when I was younger. Don’t judge me. My favourite word has to be Ощущать. It means “to sense something”. I just love the way it sounds. Russian to me sounds like a gushing river. Particularly in the word “ощущать”.

I saw you’ve written a book, Russian short stories, what’s your favourite story in Russian?

I love anything by Bulgakov, but in particular “Собачье сердце” / “Heart of a Dog”. I love reading about dystopian 1920s Moscow. When I went to Moscow, I found myself looking out for places I’d read about in Bulgakov’s books to try and see if they were like how I’d imagined them.

Have you ever done an intensive language course where you’ve moved to a country just to study a language?

Not exactly, but I once studied Yiddish for two years because it meant I could go and spend a month studying it one summer in Tel Aviv. The beach was great. (So was the course, by the way…)

What’s your current job?

I’m a Content Strategist at Memrise. I head the Content Design team, which comes up with new concepts and ideas for how to structure the content of our courses. We direct videos, we design grammar lessons, and we work out how to make the whole thing endlessly fun and exciting. It’s hard to imagine a job I’d love more, to be honest.

Have you ever been to Ukraine? What do you think of when you think of Ukraine?

To my shame, no. I once changed planes at Borispol airport when I flew to Georgia from Moscow at a time when there were still no direct flights there from Russia. My host family in Yaroslavl’ (where I studied for a year) was Ukrainian though, so I got good at telling the difference between good and bad borscht.

Would you like to learn Ukrainian? Why (not)?

Absolutely. I have some really wonderful and inspiring friends from Ukraine. I actually meant to start studying Ukrainian a few years ago, but the course I ordered never arrived :’(

Thank you, Alex!

Want to know more about Alex, visit his blog or consider purchasing his book or watching some of his interviews on youtube.

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