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Interview with Canadian hyperpolyglot Axel Van Goud about Russian language

Liubov G.
06/04/2017 0 0

Speak the same language.
Keep your mind open to the world, and the world will open back to you.

“The most interesting people in the world live in Russia, that is one thing I’ve learned from Gabriel Garcia Marquez” – this is how Toronto hyperpolyglot Axel Van Goud approached me with a request to teach him the true meaning of Russian collective psychology and culture a few months ago.
At the time, I was struck by the force of conviction and unhesitating way in which this young Canadian professor of languages placed us, Russians, at the top of the pedestal for the relative amount of interest that different peoples of the world command. Over the space of the following months, I garnered some additional precious insights into his and other Canadians’ worldview about Russians, as a whole, and out culture.
It is these very insights I wish to share with you in the form of adapted answers to some of the grander questions concerning our country as well as the skills and premises required to master foreign languages.

1. How many languages do you currently know and which ones are they?

I currently know 22 languages, most of which are Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages. Some exceptions include such languages as Hindi, Urdu. I am currently working on improving my knowledge of the Farsi and Chinese languages.

2. Why does the Russian language occupy a special place in your heart?

This might be already a bit of a well-known phenomenon, or even a truism that Russian opens up a unique worldview and gives one access to the products of some of the greatest minds that mankind has ever produced, yet there is also another reason too.
However subjective this may seem, I found that engaging with Russian-language texts is a completely different experience than other languages: it was at the same time more mentally stimulating, more challenging, more interesting and the content itself revolved around topics that seemed to reflect/explain the human condition better than other bodies of literature.
The few other Canadians I have run across who have studied Russian for a while readily agreed. There is also a distinct other category, however, which gave up on reaching (reading) fluency due to the inherent complexities of the language.

3. When was it that you started learning foreign languages?

I have started as of the tender age of three, given that I was born in a family that knew several languages. My mother’s family, for instance, was originally from northern Greece, whereas my father himself has a diverse background.

4. How do you go about learning foreign languages?

Well, this is really the one-million-dollar question isn’t it? On average, I get asked this question up to 5 times per day. If only this could be answered in a way that is both succinct and clear to all those aspiring language learners. Let me put it this way: The bad news is that there are no shortcuts and that the road to fluency is a long and arduous one, yet on the plus side, there are also immense inherent satisfactions for those who put in the effort and nothing is worth having that is easy, as they say!
Another way of putting it and part of my actual approach to any new language is that I try to mimic or fast-forward through the full “life trajectory” of any native language learner, starting from the nursery rhymes, “azbuka’s”, onward to the fairy tales, children’s and teenagers’ literature up to genuine literature for grown-ups and the daily press. Once I get there, I stop and only concern myself with maintenance, by making sure I incorporate a sufficient amount of reading as part of my schedule. Simple, right?? ï??

5. According to you, what is the most effective method of learning a language?

Aside from what I have mentioned above, it is one’s attitude that makes a huge difference as well as the ultimate goal for one’s learning. As a rule, learning for one’s personal enjoyment and self-growth leads to much better results than studying for a test or imposing on yourself a strict and completely unrealistic goal such as “I want to be fluent in the Russian language in X amount of months.”
Putting a time limit on it often expresses a subconscious desire to get it over with quickly and move onto something else you would rather be doing.
Self-discipline is very important in language learning as studying and improving language skills can be a very difficult and somewhat solitary activity in the very early stages. It is unsurprising, therefore, that this is when most people give up on the project of learning a language.

6. What was it that made you want to learn the Russian language?

Well, to be perfectly frank, my starting to learn the Russian language 6 years ago started more by virtue of a natural process of elimination than anything else. I had not yet focused on any of the Slavic languages and “Pushkin’s language” was my first exposure to this fascinating family of language. As a child, I had thought German was a very difficult language, so much so that I almost gave up on it. As a young adult, Hindi and Urdu completely changed my perception of what it meant to have trouble learning a new language: until Russian came along!!
Before I scare anyone off, I will say that despite, or maybe precisely because of how complex, elaborate and exquisite it is, it is probably one of the world languages that is MOST WORTH knowing.

The Russian language is characterized by a phonetic beauty which is only rivaled by French and Italian and its spirituality runs very deep, why, it is almost philosophical, especially since it is very different to that of other European languages. Given the complexities of its grammar, it is
While English has long become the dominant global language and French, Spanish and, more recently, Chinese are languages that attract a lot of prospective learners, I would make the point that Russian is very worthwhile learning because of the unique richness of its literature, (which I think is unparalled in the world thanks to its hard-to-define quality of “melancholy” and longing), the cultural universe it will grant you access to and the warmth of its people, whether in the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Belarus or the many other Russophone countries.

7. How do you use your knowledge? Is it easy for you to find work? Do you work as a translator or how else are you involved with languages?

Well, the interesting thing about my language knowledge is that the knowledge of the language as such in itself plays a secondary role to its having made available a “whole new world” of exciting discoveries for me. Languages enable me to see through to the root of a people’s values and beliefs as well as get closer to recognize the common values of a “universal human consciousness, globe-wide.”
Yes, especially here in Canada, knowing French or other languages will make finding a job much easier than otherwise. I used to work a written translator in the past, then as a verbal interpreter before moving into management. I have switched careers for a number of years now and I work as a language professor in Canada, at local colleges in Toronto.

8. How do Canadians feel about Russians? What is the general impression the average Canadian has about Russia, as a country?

This is perhaps one of the most revelatory topics that will surprise most Russians, since it works in a counterintuitive way: it is not at all the case that Canadians see Russians through the prism of their political leaders or the on-going Crimean crisis.
Regardless of where one comes from, Canadians view people as unique individuals and judge and treat them on the basis of their individual merits, with little regard for the place of birth.
This means that, as a well brought-up, polite person with kind manners and actively seeking to work hard and make friends, Canadians will be just as hospitable and welcoming to you as towards most other nationalities.

9. Have you travelled to many countries? If so, did knowing languages help you with getting to know the cultures and traditions of those countries?

Yes, certainly! I can proudly say I have been to all earth’s continents, Antarctica included! Language is the key element, the “access card” or entry ticket to other countries, in the absence of which I feel you can not really understand the minds of the locals. It is also fair to say that you cannot separate knowing a language from getting to know the culture, as the two are inextricably connected along a culturo-linguistic continuum, hence yes, knowing languages has been the primary instrument of my enjoying and making the most out of my travels.

10. What advice would you have for those seeking to take on the Russian language?

Other than all the above, I would like to emphasize the importance of having daily reading or speaking practice, as this will make the learning journey considerably easier. Probably the single greatest benefit to knowing Russian well, which I have not mentioned up until now, is that, in our era of increased globalization and merging of cultures and the seeming dominance of English, Russian speakers are ones of the few who will still genuinely be surprised, impressed and appreciative of that a foreigner has invested the time and trouble to study their language. Compare this to the indifference of the English, French, etc. to people knowing their language and you will soon understand what a great difference such recognition from the native speakers can make to your motivation to continue to learn the language and get better at it.


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