Language Learning Stories Interview with Lindsay Williams from Lindsay Does Languages
It was such a thrill to interview Lindsay, as she is such a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to languages, language learning and language teaching. Lindsay is a polyglot and has studied countless languages including Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Japanese, Indonesian, Dutch, Mandarin, Korean and Guarani. She has built up a successful online language focussed business – Lindsay Does Languages and helps connect language learners and language teachers all around the world.
Lindsay recently collaborated with two other language gurus (Kerstin Cable and Shannon Kennedy) and presented the inaugural Women in Language conference in early 2018. Lindsay produces a podcast and video series called Language Stories and is a regular co-host on The Fluent Show.
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Language Learning Stories Interview with Lindsay Williams
A huge thank you to Lindsay for her insights shared on this interview. I learnt so much from Lindsay and I hope you do too.
Lingo Mama: I feel very privileged to be able to speak to you live via Skype all the way across the world! So I thought if we could kick off with an intro on Lindsay Does Languages – if you don’t mind giving us a quick spiel about how it all started, and what your mantra is behind the business that you run?
So Lindsay Does Languages actually started in 2012, it was offline and it was private tutition., I was driving around going into private homes, and corporate clients, teaching refugees. Then in 2014, I gradually switched over to online and by end of 2015 everything was online. Now I help people learn languages on their own and help teach languages online – the two parts the learning and teaching.
Lingo Mama: I know your language learning CV is quite extensive, and you’ve learnt a lot of languages across the years – Spanish, French, Korean, German, Chinese, Italian – and others I haven’ said! One I wanted to ask you about today is Guarani – and one that you have semi-recently stated learning. Was it last year you started? Where did the interest in Guarani come from? And where is it spoken? And tell us a little bit about the language?
I’ve got very used to saying “I’m learning Guarani – it’s an indigenous language spoken in Paraguay” – and surrounding countries – Bolivia, Argentina. Guarani caught my eye back in 2015, I was doing the last year of my degree – and studying Spanish. There was a one-page article about Paraguay about how they are bilingual – Spanish and Guarani. I was curious – I’d never heard of this language – I had heard of Quechua and knew there were Mayan languages in Central America. But I’d never heard of Guarani. So I decided I’m going to write about this place – I wrote about bilingualism in three different places – Spanish and Guarani in Paraguay, Spanish and English in the US, (and the fact there is no official language in the US) and Spanish and Catalan in Barcelona. It was all about the coexistence of these languages in these different places. The interesting thing about Guarani – it’s not the same old story about the colonialists came, and little by little the languages were eroded. Yes, it’s had a tough past, there was a dictatorship and the triple alliance war. Paraguay declared the war against Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay – so there were these three huge countries against Paraguay and some estimates say 50-90% of their male population – so the language nearly disappeared. What happened though it was the Mothers – the native Guarani women who hadn’t fought in the war, and had children with men who came into the country and they were speaking and teaching their children Guarani. Because this was quite literally their Mother Tongue – this was fascinating to me.
Last year I went on a long trip with my husband – ‘an extended working honeymoon.’ 6.23 Part honeymoon – part work. We knew we wanted to go from north to south in Latin America, so by choosing Paraguay and Guarani, it was a natural choice, and it gave me more time – as it would be at the end of our trip! So we went there and I went to Guarani school for a week, I bought some books to bring home, and I’m very much in love with the language and I can’t wait to go back to Paraguay.
Lingo Mama – are there other Guarani speakers in the UK? Is there a little community outside of South America? Or is it very much only spoken in that part of the world?
This is very interesting because you learn Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese right? And I guess living in Melbourne, Australia there’s communities – you can practice where you live. With Guarani, it’s not quite like that. There’s not, as far as I’m aware, a Paraguayan restaurant in London, UK – I found a bakery, but it doesn’t exist anymore. My friend, Kerstin Cable (who I co-host the podcast The Fluent Show with) found a Guarani speaker at Park Run! In New York, where we started the trip, we found two restaurants owned by the same family – there was a whole wall of words in Guarani. So that got me very excited at the start of our trip!
It’s a small country – about 6 million people, and about 6 million speakers of the Guarani language. Most people are bilingual and it’s to varying degrees. In the urban areas, there’s more Spanish, and the more rural you go there are less Spanish and more Guarani. So I didn’t get to use the language very much, as we were predominantly in the urban areas. We did go across the border into Argentina for a half day and the women at the border were inspecting our passports very closely. The one Paraguayan border patrol person and I spoke Guarani to him “Hi, how are you?” and he stamped us right in! It was a lovely exchange. The public-facing world of Paraguay is Spanish, the language of the heart, of the family, friends, is Guarani. In between, there’s a ‘mixture’ language – a blend of both Spanish and Guarani.
Lingo Mama – I watched your Language Stories episode on Guarani. And your teacher who understandably was so passionate, especially as you were there in their country learning a language so close to their heart. I love the Language Stories concept, the video and the audio component. Where did you get the idea from? It’s so unique to hear about the language itself, not necessarily the country or how to learn the language. Was this something you became interested in through uni or do you think it was something you always felt close to?
It’s all evolved quite naturally. We knew we wanted to take this trip – we initially thought let’s just go! But we have a house, let’s be sensible here! So we thought let’s go for a year – my husband is a primary school teacher so he could get a year off and then come back. If we were only going for a year, I thought I did not spend 15 years of my life learning Spanish not to explore Latin America. I’d only been to Costa Rica before at that point. It would be easier for Ash – my husband too, cause he can just focus on the one language – Spanish. So that’s why we decided to really focus on Latin America.
One day at my tiny, local library I was in the language section and I pulled out this Dobuan language book. I needed to discover where this language was spoken! So Dubuan is spoken in Papua New Guinea – so this could be the end of our big trip! We could make a film about it – my husband’s degree is in media production, specialising in film, so we could perfectly combine our interests. So that’s where the idea came from – it could be this big epic documentary about this one little language spoken in PNG. But of course, as our ideas changed, so we moved to make smaller films instead. so that’s how Season One of Language Stories evolved.
About 6 weeks into our trip we decided to go to Asia as well, and Season Two will be focussed on our Asian travels.
Lingo Mama – I love this, that you can both bring your skills together to create this series.
I wanted a creative element myself, but I really wanted him to be part of it too. So maybe the podcast would be my creative output. It’s interesting because every time we go away and edit our episodes, using the same content – what we end up with is always so distinct and unique. And this has been one of the most interesting things about this project.
Lingo Mama – So we have a Season Two to look forward to, do we?
Yes, coming in November 2018.
Lingo Mama – you probably get asked this a lot, but I think it’s worth asking anyhow. Because you have been able to study and learn a multitude of different languages, throughout your childhood, uni, adulthood. Do you think you are blessed with some kind of language learning gene or do you think your motivation is something different and there’s not necessarily a special skill that you bring?
It’s a very good question and I don’t think I get asked it as much as I would expect. I don’t think there is a gene for language learning. There’s a lot of emphasis on children and language learning and that does have an importance. I don’t mean necessarily we all have to raise our babies bilingually, or trilingually, I just mean that when children grow up appreciating and understanding that other languages exist and other people have different ways of doing things. I think that is the core that begins the openness to other languages and language learning. I remember at school, in year 7, I’d already done French in primary school and I thought it was fun and I knew all the basics. But we were learning ‘Bonjour’ means ‘Hello’ and I thought … oh.. I can do this, but no one else could, because no one else had been to the French club in primary school. They were all sitting there saying I don’t’ want to learn French, I’m never going to go to France – There was no reason that was clear to them why they should learn it. So just that idea for children and young people to understand that you never know when knowing another language might help you, or it might make you feel good in your future life. I think that can be a real game changer. I don’t think raising a child as bilingual or trilingual is the only way – there has to be an understanding and being open to the idea.
I think as well the thing about languages is people say ‘oh you’re a polyglot’ and I say oh maybe! OK well, you can call me that, but I can’t say it about myself, because there’s this element of ‘will I be tested?’ Will I pass the criteria? There is no test – it’s just a label that some people choose to give me and to give others and that’s totally fine. But I think the thing that is often ignored is you just see the number – wow you speak xx number of languages, that’s amazing.
But the more languages you learn the easier it gets.
1. you understand language and what bits are important
2. you understand how best you learn a language – so you’re not wasting time buying all the stuff to learn Korean to see what sticks, you know that the phrasebook is where you’re going to start and that’s going to help you get to the next level and you just get better at it.
3. the more you do the easier it gets!
Lingo Mama – people have said to me I speak a little bit of French so am I better off learning something like Spanish because there are some similarities, but I really want to learn Japanese because I love the food. It’s kind of hard because my advice would be go with what your gut tells you because if you have a strong motivation to learn a language because of a love of the food or music or movies or whatever it is, it will probably make you a more committed learner. But on the other hand, I can totally see that picking up a language like Spanish because you’ve got some French behind you would also be very logical! Has your language learning career followed that kind of path? Or have you jumped a little illogically??
That’s very true what you just said. It has followed quite a natural path, French, then Spanish. I was listening to Shakira and thought I could learn Spanish! Being similar languages that helped. So after that Italian. At the same time as Italian, I did a year of Mandarin Chinese – and I thought this will be a different challenge – I know how to learn languages now, so it will be easy! Nope! Nope! Different beast altogether! German happened next, then Dutch sprung off from there. Then Portuguese – came from there. So it did evolve quite naturally, until Japanese and this was the next Asian language I studied to some intensity, and that was a lot easier because of the Mandarin. Following that some Korean, and there are some lose connections between the three. So I guess Guarani is the odd one out! Not sure where that might lead next!
Lingo Mama – there might be a sister to Guarani that might appear down the track. I heard on the podcast that you co-host with Kerstin Cable – The Fluent Show, you were talking about immersion. I love to talk about travelling to the country to learn the language and what a great motivation it is an incentive and a reward. But what you said was important – it’s not always the easy option we want it to be. I’m curious about this – if you have advice to people who want to do an immersion trip, what should they do or (not do!) to get the most from it?
So we were talking about immersion on the podcast, in relation to my husband who was learning Spanish for 9-12 months before we left for Latin America, and the first Spanish speaking country we were in was Cuba. Notoriously difficult Spanish, but we went there first! But interestingly he said it was one of the best places to arrive first – we didn’t have much access to the internet, which meant we weren’t really working. We were also staying in casa particulares -like a B & B. So every morning over breakfast you are conversing – your order for breakfast, or general conversation. I was conversing in Spanish and he could listen and chime in occasionally. From there we went to Mexico, and we were working intensely trying to catch up on everything and we were in our own little apartment. The only time we interacted with people was at Walmart! And then it was only ‘Hello’ ‘Thank you’ ‘Goodbye’
So there was this big difference between those two experiences which became really noticeable when we went to Guatemala. Where we had a mixture of accommodation types. And we got the chance to speak to people. That showed – this was the difference between Cuba and Mexico for Ash and his Spanish. So I think my tip is immersion doesn’t just mean going to the place – I’m here, boom why isn’t the language sticking in my head!? It’s about co-existing with people that live there, speak the language, and getting to be a part of it as much as you can. There is an emphasis on immersion, as that’s all you need and in a week you’ll be fluent! I think it’s important to recognise the idea of active immersion. Rather than relying on being there, you’re actively thinking what was that word she said if you can learn ‘can you repeat that?’ ‘what is the word for xx’ You can get a little notebook and write it down and you’re actively using the immersion experience and getting the most from it.
And you’re planning a trip to Vietnam? I imagine it will be very much like that?
Lingo Mama – yes they’re great tips and so important. It happens naturally that you can get a bit stuck in your routine and you know how to order your coffee and your lunch, so it’s important to step outside of my comfort areas to stretch and grow my ability. It will be the first time my husband will be doing language study too. So that will be interesting too and an extra challenge. It’ll be great we both get to do it.
One other question is about the Women in Language conference which you co-hosted with Kerstin and Shannon, which was amazing let me say. So that was in March 2018. Do you think you’ll do something in the future? I loved the format – it was online – great for people in Australia so we could participate, and it wasn’t a cost prohibitive thing either. How did it come about?
It happened because I thought wouldn’t it be great to celebrate women in language for International Women’s Day. I was thinking how would it work? Would it be online? Sessions? Talks? I just thought women who do stuff in language on International Women’s Day would be a really cool one-day event. I mentioned the idea to Kerstin, and she said ‘oh yes!’. Let’s get Shannon on board, let’s do it! Having the three of us work together was so good, because we could make it happen in March 2018. We were all working on the project together, if it had been me working on my own it wouldn’t have happened so soon. I’m very grateful that we had the three of us to work on it. There are a lot of male voices, strong male voices in the online language learning space, and we knew from Instagram and general internet-ness – there are amazing women out there doing things with language, and most of whom we hadn’t heard speak before. We had a few people we’d heard before at previous events – Ellen Jovin and Judith Meyer, but most people we knew online, and we wanted to hear from them. It was a huge success, beyond all of our expectations, so we were all really happy.
We’re going to do a big event in March (I think I’m allowed to say that now!) and hopefully make it an annual event. And in November – we’ll be doing a special event as well! So watch this space! I’ll keep my mouth zipped on the details for now!!
Lingo Mama – a huge congratulations again, it was such a great event and really stoked you put it all together, and I can’t wait to see what happens next!
My last question is what are your language plans for the future? What do you want to focus on in the next year or two? Adding additional languages or consolidating what you’re learning already?
Hmmm good question! I thought I would come back from the trip and Guarani would be done, and I’d want to move on to something else. But I came back with a renewed enthusiasm and I bought books and I’m eager to get back into it. So this will be a long, slow project for me. I’m also learning Korean at the moment. I started to learn in 2016, with Shannon – we were study buddies! We were planning a trip together, but of course, I went away on our big trip, so we put it off for a few years. But I’m back into it again, I find it quite a tricky language to learn, but I’m doing my best, slowly making breakthroughs.
You said about consolidating, I’ve studied so many languages in the past – it seems a shame when people ask ‘how many languages do you speak?’ And I say I don’t know…! Because what does it mean to speak a language?? I’ve studied this many, but if I say I can speak it will you test me? Will I have to prove myself? So I think I should revisit some of the languages I’ve studied – some of which I’ve studied to quite a good level. There’s a few that interest me. I started picking up a language book in each country – I’ve got a Lao book, Malay, Kristang (a language spoken in Malaysia and Singapore). Other languages really intrigue me and will happen at some stage in my life – so we will see!
Lingo Mama – I love that! Thank you so much Lindsay – thank you for your time. And all the best for what’s coming up in the future!
Thank you for inviting me on. It’s been great!
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Until next time,