Interview with

Mathew Armstrong

Name: Mathew Armstrong
Nationality or Ethnicity: USA
Where do you live?: Beijing, China
Languages: English, Spanish, Mandarin, French, German, Russian, Portuguese, and Italian

1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?

I came from a monolingual background from a small town in the US. In school they started me off with French. My teacher could also speak Spanish, so I wanted to also try learning that because I really enjoyed learning French. I also got myself into a Latin class but the teacher said I wasn’t making enough progress (with the cases) and convinced me to drop it. I continued with Spanish and French and was quite mediocre. I found the how-to-learn-any-language forum and decided I would try out a few things, like using flash cards and reading more. I quickly made it to the top of the class. I also struggled to learn other languages like Russian, Italian, and German outside of class but I wasn’t prepared really to learn on my own. In university I just kept adding onto my languages and studied more. I learned Russian in university, which made me very happy considering the trouble I had with Latin cases and how they were taught in high school. I ended up majoring in German and comparative literature.

I moved to China later to focus more intensively on Mandarin. Here in Beijing, I started to sharpen my polyglot routine of studying languages each day in a more systematic way. There are times where I end up taking breaks, but I always get back to it. I’m working now with about 18 different languages in 15-minute slots throughout the day. I know deep down in my heart that I could greatly improve some of my languages if I could be more focused, but I love the variety.

2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?

Currently I really like Farsi, Arabic, and Old English. I wish I could sleep less and still feel good so that I can add more time to studying them. I would probably just add more languages on instead of focusing more, unfortunately. With my stronger languages, I wish I could spend more time with Russian so that I could sound more confident.

3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?

Well, I am learning a lot of languages at the very early stage right now. So, I’m not sure if this question is about languages I’d like to learn more, or languages I’d like to pick up for the first time… I’ll go with the second… which language would I be most interested to learn that I am not currently working on with my measly 15 minutes a day? It would be: Greek (modern and ancient), Korean, Thai, all the Slavic languages, Hindi, the rest of the Germanic languages and Romance languages, a language from the Americas like Nahuatl (I’ve dabbled a bit) and an African language like Wolof or a Xhosa.

4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?

I really like languages that have a very different sound inventory from my own. Unfortunately for me, Mandarin (and other Chinese languages) is not so exotic anymore. I would have put that as the sexiest years ago. As far as my wife knows, her language, Mandarin, is the sexiest. But I must confess, Arabic does such a nice job with linking sounds together… as does French… But the richness in a language like Vietnamese or Thai also gets my ear drums tingling. It’s a very hard decision… The sexiest sounding must be Arabic. The sexiest script is a clear first for Arabic script followed extremely closely by Chinese.

5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?

I get the most pleasure from reading and studying on my own. When I do get to meet others, it’s really satisfying to feel that this other programming that my mind can work in was learned with hard work rather than something that was given to me by chance… where I was born in the world and when. Learning another language gives me the freedom to take more agency in my life and meet others and see the world in different ways.

6. Some people say the world is really just going to have a few languages left in a 100 years, do you think this is really true?

This is a very frightening prospect. I think that there will be more than a few languages, but likely a lot of the smaller languages that only have several hundred thousand or fewer than 10 million will likely be endangered. The hegemony of English is unfortunate. I suppose I contribute to that by speaking my own first language too much. I think we all have a responsibility to learn more languages and learn “smaller” languages. I’ve been meaning to learn a minority language to round myself out as a polyglot so that I am not speaking just the “Big” languages. I hope that the creation of societies like HYPIA can help reduce this horrible prognosis so that so much language diversity isn’t lost.

7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?

Don’t let yourself get caught up in learning about languages or learning so much about learning languages. You’ve got to get your hands dirty. If you want to learn Chinese, start studying Chinese. Find a successful polyglot online who is not trying to sell you a bunch of stuff, and follow some of his or her ideas. Try to learn an easier language to build up your confidence and then work on adding one or two more later. If you get about 4 languages that you are conversational with, then I think it’s fine to start simultaneously learning several at once. Just my 2 cents.