“The opportunities that come along with speaking languages are priceless”

Michael Rahbar is a 20-year-old American student currently pursuing his Bachelor degree in International Relations and International Organizations at the University of Groningen. He is a freelance language learner, a world traveler and a polyglot. Speaking 7 languages, Michael has traveled in 16 countries across the world, the last on his list being Morocco and the next one Belgium. “I am an American, so I have a great love for ethnic pluralism and diversity.”

What are the languages that you speak and how have you managed to learn them?
“I speak English, German, French, and Persian most proficiently, after that I can speak, Mandarin, Arabic and Russian elementary. In the States, my Associate’s Degree allowed me a lot of freedom in terms of choosing classes, which allowed me to take a semester of Arabic, Persian, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and three semesters of French. Also in high school I studied German and Latin. I enjoyed German a ton because having been severely monolingual, the new letters, pronunciation, and morphological agglutination (clumping together different unchanged elements to form one large word) were really fun. I study independently a lot, namely Russian and I’ve started learning Dutch in my free time.”

Being American and already speaking the global language English, what motivated you to learn these different languages?
“We English-speakers have a bit of a monopoly on the global linguistic scene which is of course useful but it’s also very detrimental because we are not put into positions that will benefit us in the future. Take the example of somebody growing up in Luxembourg: just to live there they have to learn Luxembourgian, French, German, Dutch and then to be part of the global community they are going to learn English as well. It’s useful that we grow up being able to communicate with a huge majority of people in the world, but it’s detrimental that we often don’t grow up in a multi-linguistic environment, because learning languages as a child is an effortless undertaking.”

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Searching more about your current activities, I have seen that you are Director of the Cultural Committee of Public Relations UNICEF Groningen. Is it connected to your language learning?
“Indeed, I am one of two Public Relations Committee Directors. One of my biggest regrets in high school was not being involved in many extracurricular activities and being here in Groningen, in such an international city is the perfect opportunity. Whenever I want to practice a language, to learn about a culture or history, everything is at my fingertips. Perspectives from every corner of the world: Indonesia, Moldova, Brazil, anywhere are brought together and this is something that I really have to take advantage of now. For instance, if I went for an internship in Florida, it wouldn’t be very often that I would practice my Chinese. I feel UNICEF’s allowed me become more involved in international life here. You should take advantage of the opportunities that you have now. Carpe diem!”

What is next on your language learning list?
“I have a list of everything I plan to study. I definitely need to keep working on my French and German. I’m also studying Italian here at the university, so of course I need to keep practicing it. In terms of really expanding lexical territory, it’d really be Arabic and Chinese which I’d focus on.
But, if I were to learn something completely from scratch it would be Kurdish or Yiddish. Kurdish due to the political environment in Iraq at the moment and Yiddish because of my Jewish heritage.”

How do you choose the languages that you are going to learn?
“Really indecisively. I lose interest very easily. It’s probably the aspect of things that are foreign that entices me the most. To me today, the prospect of learning Greek is so much more interesting than learning German because it’s something I’ve had a lot less exposure to. For me, the most appealing thing of learning foreign languages are two key points: if it’s appealing in how it sounds  and if I don’t know much about it. I’ve always been interested in unfamiliar things.”

What is your algorithm of learning languages?
“Well the very, very first thing I do is learn the verbs to be and to have. That’s the very first piece of grammar I touch upon. To be, to have and then I learn lists and lists of vocabulary. I use Quizlet, Anki, and other flashcard apps, and I also keep a notebook for each language I study where I write down all new vocabulary. That’s the first step. Once you’re able not only to form sentences, but to form coherent related sentences, when you’re able to communicate stories that are more than just one or two sentences long that’s when you should start conversing with people and that’s when you move from sitting alone at the desk to being able to talk. “

What is your favorite part of learning a new language?
“One of my favourite things when learning languages is learning a new alphabet. I think it’s really cool that when you need to write down notes to yourself, without people being able to read them, then you can write in a different alphabet. If I’m ever in class and I need to jot something private down quickly, I can just write it in the Cyrillic or Arabic script.”

Have ever had a case of miscommunication while learning a new language?
“Yes. One of them was when I started learning German and I’d confused the verbs to like and to want. Thus, I saw a lady with a really beautiful, colourful handbag and in my intention to tell her that I liked her bag I mistakenly told her that I wanted her bag which of course left her suspicious and it also left my friends with a great time laughing.”

Finally, could you give us some advice or resources for learning new languages?
“The first and most important thing is that you need to have motivation. Besides that, flashcards work really well for learning basic vocabulary. It is important to get accustomed to the pronunciation, therefore it’s great to listen to songs, learn and memorize the lyrics and of course understand the translation. Personally, I think that rap songs are great in learning a language, as they use super colloquial speech, that you are most likely to come across when conversing with people, and because you learn to understand the language spoken very quickly, which is essential for languages like French.”

Interviewee: Michael Rahbar
Interviewer:  Mihaela Breabin

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