Michael Heim, professor of Slavic languages and literatures at UCLA, says he's never learned a language just for the sake of learning it, and he tells why experts write the worst textbooks.
CWL: I’m here with Michael Heim, who is a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at UCLA, and is a well known literary translator and an exemplary language learner. So, I guess I’d like to start by asking you, could you tell us how many languages you know?
Michael Heim: The answer is no and I’m not trying to be coy. It’s just that the concept of what is a language changes with the historical situation. I started learning a language about 25 years ago – a language that was then called Serbo-Croatian, and it’s now called Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin. So did I learn four for the price of one, or is it still only one? That’s an ideological question; a more linguistic question is whether you can consider the three Scandinavian languages as one. I studied Danish but I went the extra mile to learn how to read Norwegian and Swedish as well, but I can’t speak Norwegian and Swedish. I don’t know if there is anybody who can speak all three of them, because they are very very close, so it’s not actually clear. I say that I work actively with about ten languages, and when I mean actively, I mean that I use them professionally.
CWL: When did you first get interested in studying languages?
Heim: I started by studying French, because at the time, which was in high school – I started when I was a freshman in high school – French was still considered the international language. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up and so it seemed like a natural way to begin. Then, I proceeded to German. That was a very personal thing. My grandmother lived in Hungary, my father was born in Hungary, and we knew that Hungarians of that generation – fairly well educated Hungarians – all spoke German. We had been corresponding, my mother and I, had been corresponding with my grandmother in English, so when I was able to study some German, I thought, well I would write to her in German and I would write directly, and I did do that. Now there was a perfect goal. And then in college I decided I was going to major because I was very interested in philosophy. But I was particularly interested in whether man was born good or evil, and Chinese philosophy seemed to be the most interesting in that respect, so I started studying Chinese. My advisor happened to be a Russian specialist, and he said if you’re studying Chinese you can certainly learn Russian, and this is the cold war so you’ll have the two languages of the cold war, and I started studying Russian for that reason. Eventually the Chinese fell by the wayside because we couldn’t go to red China, I remember that’s what it was called at that time. Then other languages came up – Spanish for example. I worked as a guide at Columbia – that’s the college I went to in New York – and we had to take around prospective students. But we also had quite a few visitors from Latin America, so I proposed that we give tours in foreign languages as well. Well, I had French – we had a few people coming from France, but we had a lot of people from Latin America – so I had to learn Spanish to be able to do that. So once I had finished learning a language to the degree where I could actually use it, then it was time I could go on and do another. I went to graduate school where I had studied Russian and I needed to study another Slavic language or related Slavic language and that was Czech, and so on. So there was always a reason for learning them. But I’ve never learned a language just for the sake of learning a language. I don’t think that works. If you are thinking of learning a language and your reason is, oh, it would be neat to speak X, then I think you’re going to have trouble making progress. But if there’s a specific goal you have in mind, then you can tailor your study and your learning techniques to that goal and you will make progress. So, there was always a reason for learning them. The most recent one isn’t Chinese, because I started it all the way back then, but it’s Dutch. And the reason why I studied Dutch is that people assumed that I knew all languages, which is of course ridiculous, but the editors in New York would send me books in various European languages and ask me to write what they call readers’ reports about these books. And a reader’s report is, in this instance, a summary of the book’s content and an evaluation of it as a work in English. Will it sell here – that’s what they want to know – does it have any relevance to our society. And for some reason, within a few months I got several requests to read books in Dutch, and I had to write back and say I’m sorry, I don’t know Dutch, so they sent me those books in other languages. They had been translated into, let’s say German or French, and I would read them in German or French. And I realized, these Dutch have very interesting literature, and it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea if I could read enough Dutch to be able to read the novels that they send me in Dutch and write readers reports. So I started doing that, and then the next thing I knew I was translating something from Dutch, so my first translation in Dutch is coming out in a few months. But again, there was a goal involved; there was a reason to do it. It wasn’t just, oh Dutch won’t be hard. And it wasn’t hard; it’s between English and German, two languages I know. But Chinese by far has been the hardest to learn, and it was one reason why I didn’t go on. It was a cowardly reason because I saw that it would take a lifetime. And I’m right because I know people who’ve done it and it has taken a lifetime. And the reason is not that Chinese is a more difficult language at all. The reason is that a language is difficult for us in terms of how far it is from our language. So Dutch, for example, is easy for an English speaker to learn, but it isn’t going to be easy for a Japanese speaker to learn. So my hat’s really off to any English speaker who learns Chinese – well I’m always very jealous when I see them. But the opposite is true too. My hat is really off to a Chinese speaker who has to learn English because it’s just as hard for them. It’s simply a different way of looking at language, and that’s why I say that it’s important to learn a language – because you realize how differently people look at the world when you realize how different the means of expressing the same or a similar idea can be.
CWL: When you study a new language, do you start ... it sounds like you construct your own textbook. Do you use a textbook, do you start with any kind of classroom instruction, or does that vary from one experience to the next?
Heim: In a sense I’m creating my own, what we would now call, virtual textbook. I haven’t had the luxury of classroom instruction for most of the languages that I’ve learned, because I was out of school. I wasn’t out of school because I was teaching, so I was in school, but I wasn’t in the back of a classroom. I was in the front of the classroom, facing the students, so it was a different situation. Actually, now I am actually going to write a textbook, not of elementary Chinese, but of how to help foreigners learn the Chinese characters. And what I’m doing is using the techniques that I learned all those years when I wasn’t studying Chinese, and when I was there for beginning Chinese, but they are techniques that I think that I can apply. The reason why I feel I can write such a textbook is that I’m really learning the language almost from scratch, but I’m observing myself learning the language after studying and teaching languages for almost 50 years, so I think I have something to offer that other people don’t have. When they write a textbook, they either know the language as their native language – so they’re not going through the process of learning it – or they’ve studied for a few years, have already mastered and forgotten what it was like to learn it. I always think of that in terms of learning a new computer program. The people who write the computer manuals already know how to use it, and so they don’t write good manuals because they leave out steps. And in a sense I’m learning everything, and I would be a good person to write a computer manual because I don’t know how to use it. Well, that’s what I’m doing with Chinese; I don’t know it, and so when I do learn something, I am able to put it in terms that other people can understand.
Go here for Part 2 of podcast