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Interview: Balint Brunner (the United Kingdom)

Let's meet Balint Brunner from the United Kingdom

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

My name is Bálint and I’m seventeen years old. I was born in Budapest, in Hungary, to Hungarian and Greek parents. Currently, I live in the United Kingdom, where I’m also enrolled in secondary education. I’m the author of a blog called ‘I wish to be a polyglot!’, which some of you may have encountered already.

I’ve been interested in languages since a very early age. My mother and grandparents often talked to me in Greek, sang lullabies in their native tongue and introduced me to their culture. By the age of five, I had a clear image in my mind about the concept of having different languages in the world. Together with English and Modern Hebrew (which were taught at my school) I also began to immerse myself in Greek, with more or less success. As expected, my knowledge of English saw a rapid improvement during my first year in the UK, but Greek was replaced by German and later French at school. Besides speaking Hungarian and English fluently, I can now communicate in French and hold more basic conversations in Italian, Hebrew, Esperanto and Elefen.

Why do you think languages are important to you?

Languages are to me what music is to most people. Each and every one of them has a unique “personality” which I wish to familiarise myself with. I believe that through the vocabulary, grammar and phonology of a language one may explore and express a view of life which is beyond comprehension for those with no competence in it. Furthermore, language is the heart and soul of most cultures – being able to address people in their native tongue is, therefore, a great way of showing off your interest in their culture, and perhaps the best way to strike up a conversation! If you opt to use their language you may show respect, and with respect comes understanding. As Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I know, this quote is becoming a bit of a cliché now but it really is a true statement.

Which language are you learning and how do you learn?

First of all, let me tell you that I’m an autodidactic learner. Even if I take a class (which I have neither the time nor the money for), most of the “adventure” takes place at home, in my free time. However, while last summer I managed to do a thorough revision of Greek and could even go through some Hebrew once in a while, I no longer have the luxury of time to commit myself to intensively studying any language.

Improving my skills in French, Italian and Hebrew, however, isn’t that time-consuming! For instance, I tend to memorize an impressive amount of vocabulary just by translating the lyrics to my favorite songs – and the best thing is that I learn each word within a context that I can later refer to when constructing my own sentences. I would recommend Édith Piaf and Mireille Mathieu for French, Andrea Bocelli and Fabrizio De André for Italian, and Ofra Haza and Yossi Azulay for Hebrew. But any song will do as long as the words are clearly pronounced by a native speaker. Besides this, I watch local TV channels online, use social media in my target language and do some language exchange in email and on Skype. Better than nothing, I guess!

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

Greek. It’s definitely Greek, I have no doubt about it. Despite being so determined to learn it, I simply can’t cope with neither its grammar nor its vocabulary. I originally intended to show you the complexity of Modern Greek grammar by summarising the rules of conjugation, but failed to do so. Yes, it really is that hard – and that comes from a Hungarian! As for the vocabulary, it’s just so different from anything I have encountered before that my mind simply can’t take it in. Unlike Hebrew and the Romance languages, Greek is a language that you have to really commit yourself to learn: an hour a week will not get you far.

Which language is the least challenging to learn and why?

I love this question! Anyone who knows I’ve studied Esperanto for over a year would confidently assume I find that one the least challenging. But this is, in fact, not true at all. Esperanto is perhaps the most logical language ever to have existed, but the terms ‘simple’ and ‘logical’ must not be used interchangeably. In my view, a language in which a hospital is referred to as ‘malsanulejo’ is not simple in any sense of the word. Of course, Zamenhof has done an incredible job at making Esperanto accessible to speakers of a wide variety of languages but ignoring an internationally recognized term while adopting the root ‘san-’ to mean health is beyond comprehension for me. I’m not trying to be negative though; I have a lot of respect for Esperanto and recognize it as a truly universal language. However, if you are looking for the ‘simplest’ language, you’re barking up the wrong tree! Try and find the closest natural or artificial relative of your native tongue. As this is simply impossible for a Hungarian-speaker like myself (we have no close relatives whatsoever!), I decided to use my knowledge of Romance grammar and lexis to learn Elefen – also known as Lingua Franca Nova – a constructed language developed by Dr. C. George Boeree. Now that was an easy one! I already understood almost everything before even beginning to study it.

As for natural languages, I would say Modern Hebrew is the least challenging. Even though it has a rather unique vocabulary (it’s a Semitic language, after all), its grammar is very simple and regular. It is perhaps the only language in which I can spontaneously construct sentences without the fear of getting the grammar wrong. Yes, learning to read and write fluently did take some time, but it really was worth it.

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

It’s really time for me to try and be realistic about things and prevent myself from getting too interested in another language. I’ve been through that with Italian and, even though I got quite far with it because French had already taught me the basics, I really should have focused on learning some Greek and Hebrew instead. For the next few years, I shall aim to improve my French so that I can take an international language exam in the near future. In addition to that, I would like to be able to converse in Italian and Hebrew with as little difficulty as possible. Greek, however, is something I will have to postpone for a little while, as my current studies don’t allow me to dedicate enough time to studying it. But if I were to choose a new language right now it would have to be either Mandarin or Korean. Why? I just love them, and that’s the most important thing.

What is your advice to other language learners?

I’m probably not the first one to recommend that you speak and write from the first-ever day of learning the language. Seriously, Benny Lewis has even created a video course about it! But let me emphasize one more thing: try and find a language partner whom you have never met before and who doesn’t speak your language. It’s important! Talking to a stranger results in more success than attempting to speak to a friend, a family member or a teacher in your target language. I believe this is just a matter of confidence and bravery: talking to a native speaker of a language induces more of that subconscious lack of self-esteem and fear of failure if you happen to know the addressed person reasonably well.

For instance, back in secondary school I was often ‘forced’ to communicate with my teacher in French. On the one side, she did me a favor by making me use the language. On the other side, from all this experience I drew a conclusion that my ability to communicate orally was at an incredibly low level. About a year after my last French lessons, however, I spent a week in Burgundy and had several opportunities to practice my speaking with the locals. I soon realized that I could speak to them and could even understand most of what they were saying, regardless of their dialect or age group. Well, I’m not saying that I suddenly realized I was a fluent speaker of the language, but the surprise of exploring a previously unknown level of capability had quite a significant impact on my self-esteem. And since being confident is the key to successfully communicating in a foreign language, I recommend everyone to try and use it in an unfamiliar environment. Thank you!

If you have any questions or opinions for Balint Brunner, leave your comments below.

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