Marc’s passion is the study of languages, their manifestation in local dialects, as well as their expression in poetry and folkloric song. He has acquired a near-native proficiency in six languages and their sub-forms and has given various musical performances.
Marc Green – TEDxHeidelberg TRANSCRIPT
My story starts in Moscow. I was 15 years old. My best friend and I, we were part of a group of Westerners, visiting the Soviet Union. This was in 1987, a few years before the fall of the communist regime.
We were given an official tour guide who was assigned to us. And the tour would start in the morning, and we were checked in to our hotel rooms for the night. My friend said to me, ”Let’s go outside and look at the city.” I thought it was a great idea. Dumb idea.
So we grabbed our coats, and we snuck out past security and into the street. We found the entrance to the metro. The Moscow underground transportation system is the deepest one in the world. The ride down the escalator took a full minute.
Once we were down there, my friend headed right to an open train, and I pulled him back and said, “Wait! Let’s write down the name of the station so we can find our way back.” So I had a notepad, and I took a notepad, and I wrote down the letters of the station, and we hopped down the train and went on train hopping. And that was fun because – Well, actually, it was weird.
There were a lot of people, probably all coming home from work. They were all dressed in brown and gray clothes, and it looked very, very different from what we were used to at home. But the stations were lovely. There were stations with statues, with paintings on the wall, and glass displays. It was really like museums. We would never have expected that.
And everything was perfectly clean. Well, what was weird though is that the people – nobody seemed to speak, and everyone seemed to be looking at us and it kind of weirded us out. So after about 20-30 minutes, we’d had enough and we wanted to go home. I showed my note to someone and they directed me over there.
Then over there, I showed my note to another person, and they directed us to the other way. And then a third person directed us sideways. That was a little confusing. Aw, then I saw it. Over the stairs, the sign. It turned out I had written down the Russian word for “Exit.”
So we headed upstairs and we found a taxi. That was great. And we told the driver, you know, “Intourist Hotel,” and then he was willing to take us. And I remember sitting next to the driver, handing him 50 rubles. And he looked at me and he said, (Russian) No, dollar! Fifty dollars? That was like I don’t know 20 times that amount or something.
That was not an option for us. So we had to get out of the taxi, and he drove away, leaving us standing there. It was a cold night, and you know everything was strange for us, and we were teenagers, and we were pretty nervous, didn’t know what to do. Well, we started walking. We walked to the end of the block.
We turned the corner. And 200 yards in front of us, the Intourist Hotel. Well, this experience affected me in two ways. The first is that anytime after this trip that I would hear anyone speak Russian, I was just cringe. And the second one is that it taught me the importance of understanding the local language when you’re traveling. And it actually led to me learning another four languages fluently over the following years.
Now, before I go on, I’d like to know in the audience – Can we have a little bit of light maybe in the audience? I’d just like to know who’s – By a show of hands, who is not a native English speaker? It must be 99%. Anyone who doesn’t speak English, stand up! All right, so I can assume all of you have, you know, gone through the process of learning a language.
Anybody who speaks three or more languages? Wow, that’s maybe 70%. Four or more languages, anyone? That’s still quite a bit. Anyone speak five or more languages? Wow, come see me during the break. To me, learning a language is — for me, it’s like a deck of playing cards lying faced down on the table.
As you start learning and understanding, the cards start opening up for you. Now there’s no standard way of classifying this. But as you learn, you reach certain milestones. And the first one would be when about 25% of the cards are turned up, you reach like a basic level. At this level, you have a base vocabulary, some grammar, and you’re able to have maybe very simple conversations and communicate a little bit.
And your study goes on until you reach this magical point of fluency, what we call being fluent in the language. Now what does it mean, being fluent in a language? It means that you’ve turned up more than 50% of the cards in the deck, and that is the point where you have – where the language becomes part of your subconscious so that even if you don’t use it anymore for 10 years or longer, you will not forget it. You can get back into it within a very, very short time.
So this is a level where you’re comfortable thinking in a language, and comfortable communicating in a language. Now, some people go on and, you know, reach like a mastery level. By that time, you know classic literature in the other language and have maybe in-depth knowledge of specialized fields. That’s often the point taken in academia.
For me, when I learned my first foreign language, I had a head start because I was born to a German-speaking mother and an American father. Now, when I was a baby, I didn’t really understand that what my parents were speaking to me were two separate languages. But by the time I was two years old, I had figured it all out.
Women speak only German. Men only speak English. Imagine the fun my parents had when they introduced me to couples. Being a bilingual was actually pretty helpful in learning my first language. It definitely helped.
If you’re – But it also gave me something else. It gave me two identities and the ability to switch between them. When you’re a native speaker of more than one language, then your personality, your humor, your value system, they change as you switch languages. This can have huge advantages.
I mean, some studies have shown an increased problem-solving ability or even a higher resistance to Alzheimer’s disease. But what I’m almost interested in is that it’s actually given me a lot of social benefits. When you’re a native speaker, then you feel at home among native speakers or in a culture, and also native speakers accept you as one of theirs.
Now is this only relevant to native speakers? And that’s the big question. But wouldn’t it be cool if a person learning a foreign language could actually develop another identity and actually enjoy the social benefits of a native speaker that go beyond communication skills?
Well, that’s what happened to me. I was able to do that, and I want to show you from my experience how I think this can be achieved.
So if we say this green area here is the level of the native speaker, the first thing to note is that on your way to reaching fluency, there is not really any shortcut. There are some methods that you can use such as the Burrito Principle where you identify 20% of the most effective materials to study. There are some apps, like stuff for time-spaced learning, that increase vocabulary retention. They save a little time, but in the end, there’s no way around working with the material, practicing it, until you reach the fluency level.