Judith is simply put a superstar. Her passion for languages is beyond imagination. She speaks several and she is contributing in so many ways to make language learning better, easier and spread around the world.
We know Judith as she has been one of our first user, helping us to make Bliu Bliu a better place and a better tool to learn language with her constant feedback. Enjoy the interview and at the end don’t forget to support her new project LearnYu on Indiegogo.
Who are you and where have you lived in the last 12 months
My name is Judith Meyer – on many forums I’m known as Sprachprofi – and I live in Berlin. I’m originally from a small town near the German-Dutch border and these two cities are the only ones I’ve lived a significant amount of time in, unless you want to count 6 weeks in Beijing.
What languages do you speak?
I speak German, English and Esperanto equally effortlessly, even though only German is my native language. I have a degree in Computational Linguistics and Romance Languages with a focus on French, French literature and all, so my French is also very fluent, and I have taught Latin for many years, even creating my own 3-level language course for it. Next I learned Italian, Modern Greek and Mandarin Chinese and I’d say that I also know these languages very well. Spanish and Dutch are in a funny state, I regularly read books in them without the help of a dictionary, but in speaking I experience way too much interference with other languages. It’s because of this interference that I didn’t tackle more European languages and instead turned my attention to Swahili, Arabic, Japanese and Indonesian. These are languages that still require some work and I have temporarily paused all but Indonesian. You can watch me practise all of the mentioned languages at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8OGEP_N37fU&list=UUQXp79zeYbKwjUd35cQcaOw .
This is a video I recorded in one go, without a script and without cuts. Obviously having to switch every minute or so means that my brain can’t fully acclimatize to each language, so both my accent and expression suffer, but I think the video can still give you a general idea of where I’m at.
Languages are just a hobby or you make money out of them?
Both. Unfortunately I haven’t found any company ready to pay me to learn a language or even assume the cost (I’d love to do an Icelandic challenge for TV like Daniel Tammet), but I have been working as a consultant in the language field for many years, starting even while I was still at university. I started by teaching languages as well as working on a grammar system for Cantr.net. Then I got into developing language courses for the virtual classroom, then several years hosting and planning language-learning podcasts for Innovative Language Learning LLC (some people still recognize me as the host of GermanPod101), designing curricula and training teachers in lesson development for Myngle.com, creating the prototype of a machine translation system for Unikom, LLC, creating a computer-aided translation system for Wooga (large creator of Facebook & mobile games) and consulting for business-english24.de . Now finally I’m working on my own startup which combines language learning and computational linguistics. It’s called LearnYu.
Tell us more about LearnYu
LearnYu is the idea that the computer could be a perfect language tutor, because the computer has unlimited patience and also a vast memory that can remember everything you learned or have trouble with. It teaches you a word or grammar point and then gives you some exercises for that. If you do them correctly, you move on to the next point. If you make mistakes, the computer draws on its vast memory to keep coming up with more and more different exercises, an unlimited amount of them, until you understand and the concept has entered your memory. Every word is introduced in at least three different kinds of sentences – this is a big advantage over regular courses, where some words are only used once and you never see or use them again. The interactivity is another big bonus. You don’t just read or listen to material, you are always actively doing something, whether it’s translating (in either direction) or responding to the phrases as in a conversation. Within one lesson, you see a word at least three times – more often if you have trouble remembering it – and even when you do the next lessons, the computer will ensure a regular review. And keep in mind that you always see new contexts, new phrases. It’s not like an SRS where you can memorize the response without understanding.
Right now, LearnYu is focusing on Chinese. We’re systematically covering all the levels of the HSK (standardized test), because we found that the vocabulary in that test is really frequent and useful. As an added bonus, this means that if you complete a level on LearnYu, you can then sit the test without fear of failure and you can use the test result as proof of your language level, for example when testing out of classes at university or applying for a job.
Give this new kind of language course a whirl! At www.learnyu.com, you can log in with your Facebook account and try a free lesson. The other lessons will be available for free, too, but are still being tested at this point. Also, I’m collecting money for the development of more levels. Go to http://igg.me/at/chinese in order to support me.
Tell us something about your First Time.
I was 10 years old and had to start taking mandatory English classes at school. This was my first exposure to foreign languages because my entire family is monolingual. I didn’t do well at first either, got C’s and D’s in my English classes until I found the internet – once I made English-speaking friends online, my marks improved a lot. I spent so much time using English online, voice-chatting, writing in political discussion forums and so on, I even graduated as one of top students, ahead of the ones who had done an exchange year in America.
Any terrible experience? Like a language you could not learn and you gave up…
I tried Russian because it’s so useful. Turns out that that’s a terrible reason to learn a language: I just couldn’t find the motivation to study, never mind wrestling with that insane case system. For me, language-learning is really a matter of passion. A good challenge among friends never hurt either ;-)
What about an “easy” experience
Esperanto. I was 14 and read popular science books about linguistics. One of them had a chapter on planned languages and mentioned that Esperanto is both the easiest planned language and the most successful of them (in as much as 2 million people spread out all over the world is a success; few small languages have gained that many new speakers in such a short time, but it’s still far from the intended goal). It also said that learning Esperanto would be a good basis for learning other languages. Since I wanted to learn all the languages of the world, I thought that I might as well start with Esperanto. If it was as easy as they said, it should barely cost me any effort. And if it got too hard, I’d just stop.
Esperanto is still several times easier than any other language I ever studied. So easy in fact that my progress became a motivation onto itself. You know that I didn’t have a good reason to learn Esperanto, curiosity more than anything, I certainly didn’t think I’d ever get to use it much, but just seeing myself WHOOSH past everything was a huge motivation for 14-year-old me. And now I’m glad I learned it, because Esperanto changed my life.
Why languages and not…..
I can go days without programming, or surfing the web, or pursuing any of my hobbies. I can go a day without food. I can’t go a day without learning languages.
Do you have a mentor? Does anybody inspire you?
I mostly learn in self-study and then I occasionally book tutoring when I have questions or want to practise.
I draw inspiration from the polyglot community, a lot of whom I’ve met in person. Of course there are greats like Richard Simcott or Alexander Arguelles, who are very inspiring to all of us, but I also draw inspiration from anyone I meet, because we all have something to teach each other. Like Confucius said: “三人行必有我师” – with three people walking together, one is certain to be my teacher. For example André Müller has mastered more than twenty different alphabets or writing systems, Volte can do 12-hour language study marathons, Leszek at 17yo has enough enthusiasm for language-learning to last an entire army of polyglots, Maria Weidner will make anyone want to learn Indonesian… Any of you might be creating or telling me about the method or resource that will change how I learn a language. (As certainly you did, Claudio. I like Bliu Bliu a lot!)
Do you have a secret weapon to learn languages?
I found that my memory often plays tricks on me when I think back to when I last studied a language. It always seems to be more recently than I actually did. So the biggest change came when I started to log my daily language hours. I created a spreadsheet (download an example here) and I’ve been inputting every half hour I spend on languages, ever since 2010. This has two advantages:
- when I feel like I’m not making any progress in a language, I can glance at the spreadsheet and I’ll know why
- just looking at the spreadsheet motivates me to do more, either out of guilt or because I “get” something for watching a TV series in Chinese rather than English
Can you share with us your language learning routine?
I don’t really have a routine. My schedule is always changing because I work freelance. The only things that are set in stone right now are my Modern Chinese Literature class on Monday afternoons and my Chinese Speech & Writing class on Wednesday mornings.
Do you try to read/watch content at your level? Is it easy to find?
I am terrible at following textbooks. As a lesson writer myself in a profession that doesn’t usually provide training, I note so many sins against didactics and common sense that it’s hard for me to enjoy a course to the end. I usually throw it out half-way through and then just use easy readers or native materials. I make use of on-hover dictionaries, parallel texts, subtitles (for films) and the like of course. I have developed a rather high tolerance for unknown words and I can guess many from context. Still, Bliu Bliu is a godsend, especially once you get that grammar system working. ;-)
Have you already used Bliu Bliu? :)
Yes, a lot.
Your final words: share anything you want with our passionate community of language lovers.
It is said that a man can have 10 years of experience, or one year of experience repeated 10 times. Be sure to do the former. New materials, new methods, new contacts, new languages are essential if you want to move ahead.
How can people get in touch with you…
Find me at www.learnlangs.com , @Sprachprofi or on Quora.
Also, be sure to check out LearnYu and my Indiegogo campaign!