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Interview: Manfred Sailer (Germany)

Let's meet Manfred Sailer from Germany


1. Could you tell us about yourself, including the languages you know?

Hello, my name is Manfred Sailer. I am a German monolingual. Ever since elementary school, I have been fascinated by the grammar. I still remember how excited I was when we learned what an "adjective" was. I only started learning other languages at the age of 10. I managed to turn grammar into my profession, studying general linguistics and working as a linguist in the English department of Goethe University, Frankfurt. I love learning languages, though I am quite lazy when it comes to memorizing vocabulary.

When I became a linguist, I decided I would try to learn languages of different types: a creole language, a sign language, a tone language, a non-Indo-European language, and a constructed language. I am not there yet, but I am on my way.

I am relatively fluent in English, French, Esperanto, and Dutch. With some effort, I can read and speak Spanish, Afrikaans, and Papiamentu. I also learned some Russian, Yiddish, German Sign Language, Portuguese, Toki Pona, and Modern Greek. I have started learning Modern Hebrew several times but never got to a comfortable level.

2. Why do you think languages are important for you?

It makes me genuinely happy to learn languages, to speak in a foreign language, to read a text or to watch a movie in a foreign language. When I travel to a country where I have some understanding of the language, I have the impression that I am experiencing my entire visit in a more intense way.

3. Which language are you learning and how do you learn?

I am currently learning Modern Greek relatively systematically. I bought a textbook and worked through it auto-didactically. I have a colleague in Athens with whom I can use some Greek when we exchange e-mail messages. She is very excited about me learning her language and takes the patience to either write her messages in both English and Greek or to give me hints on constructions and vocabulary items she is using. She is also happy to answer all my questions about Greek. In addition, I use Duolingo to enlarge and train my vocabulary. I started learning Greek because I saw a high chance of going to Greece more or less regularly, as a tourist and for work, because this would create opportunities to use the language, to get books and movies etc.

I am also learning Papiamentu at the moment. This is a creole language with tones - but not many! - whose vocabulary is based mainly on languages that I already speak (Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch). So, it satisfies two criteria of my list (tone language and creole language) and does not create too much vocabulary learning difficulties. In addition, it is spoken on three beautiful Caribbean Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao) which are easily accessible by plane from central Europe. Again, I started with a textbook and a dictionary. I subscribed to the online version of the Curaçao TV station. I also took private Skype lessons, which helped me a lot to gain confidence to use the language. I was lucky enough that my wife also likes spending time on Curaçao and Bonaire, so we have been to these islands on vacation several times already.

4. Could you tell us which language is the most challenging for you to learn and why?

My main difficulties in language learning are spelling, pronunciation, and vocabulary. So, Greek is quite a challenge for me because of its long words that are often not related to words from other languages that I speak and because it has so many ways to spell the same sound. These are the same difficulties I have with Modern Hebrew, which is why I haven't gotten very far with it yet.

German sign language is difficult because of its phonology. My eyes just cannot segment signs fast enough. I would need a lot of practice to overcome this, but there is not enough easily available material for me.

5. Which language is the least challenging for you to learn and why?

I must confess that I try to learn languages that are not too challenging for me. So, Afrikaans was a good choice because it has a fascinating grammar, but it is very much like Dutch from the point of view of vocabulary and spelling. Similarly, Papiamentu has its unique grammatical and phonological features, but the spelling - at least on Curaçao and Bonaire - is very phonological and the words are mainly cognates of words from languages I have already learned.

6. What is the next language for you to learn and why?

I still have a long way to go with Modern Greek. If I manage to achieve a level of confidence that I am happy with, I might work on some of the languages that I am not that confident about yet. So, at the moment, there is no language out there that I absolutely want to learn next.

In general, I pick languages that seem to be relatively easy for me. I prefer small languages - why learn a "big" language if there are already so many speakers? However, I need access to learning material, to online material in this language (music, e-books, audiobooks, movies), and, ideally, access to some speakers for questions and practice.

7. What is your advice to other language learners?

To me, a language is like a friend: you need to invest time to get to know another person. The better you know them, the more fun you can have together. However, the more time you spend with a new friend, the less time you have for your old friends. So, my advice would be to think about the effort it takes to learn a particular language and about the opportunities you have to do something, you enjoy with/ in this language. But, most of all, as with people: if a language looks interesting, try to get to know it!

Keeping one's learned languages at a good level is also an important challenge. Usually, I only focus on one or two languages at the time - Greek and Papiamentu at the moment. However, if I know that I will go to France next month or meet someone from the Netherlands soon, I will not wait for this natural opportunity to speak French or Dutch. Rather, I will stop with the other languages and try to reactivate as much of my French or Dutch as possible - reading books, watching TV etc. This helps me to have a lot of my knowledge reactivated before I really need it in practice.

8. How would you use your language skill to make this world a better place?

Learning small languages helps to conserve linguistic diversity. If you tell speakers of a small language that you are learning their language, this usually makes them very happy and supports a positive attitude towards their own language. Interest in small languages promotes their study and the production of grammars, dictionaries, and teaching material for these languages. Language is a very powerful tool for understanding another person, another culture.

9. Imagine you have a linguistic superpower, what would it be?

I would love to have the ability to find a speaker of a language that I am learning whenever I feel like and to always have a nice and interesting topic to talk about with them. Luckily, Amikumu is quite close as a tool to give me this power.

10. What could you suggest to encourage more people to learn languages?

Learning a language takes time and practice. Therefore, I think you should try to have fun while learning the language. It is not only about reaching a certain degree of competence in the language, but also about having a good time on the way there. Depending on your learning style or your personality, this could be achieved by studying in a nice group, by combining learning and traveling, or, as in my case, by being fascinated about particular language structures.

Sometimes, I use a computer game analogy. To me, a textbook is like a computer game. On each page, I get new skills (grammar rules) and tools or items (words) that I can use. There are some challenges within the "game", i.e. the textbook exercises. However, I can also go out into the real world to face more challenges (like reading a short text or even trying to say some sentences). This analogy might help some learners to get into the right mood for having fun with learning a language.


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