Interview of the Week: John Pasden

What was the first word you learned in a foreign language and how did you pick it up?
I’m pretty sure it was the Spanish word “uno.” I learned it by playing Uno. (Sorry, no semi-mystical experience here… but I think it’s at least a testament to the power of games in learning!)

What are your personal top three tricks and tips when learning languages?
(1) To really learn a language as an adult, you either need a whole lot of determination and discipline, or a plane ticket to the land where your target language is spoken. The latter is a whole lot more fun!

(2) There are some great books, software, and websites for learning languages. Use them, but don’t get too caught up in them. It’s easy to obsess over a method and lose sight of your goal.

(3) Take the time to cultivate your motivation. Sure, it’s a long, hard haul to fluency. Taking the scenic route may be less direct, but it’s certainly preferable to giving up out of exhaustion or boredom. And it might even get you there faster!

What is your favorite word of all times and why?
Hmmm, I’m not sure of “favorite word of all time”, but one word I’ve always gotten a kick out of is “Schmetterling,” which means “butterfly” in German. I’ve never learned much German, but I once picked up one of those multi-language electronic dictionaries and randomly stumbled upon “Schmetterling.” I thought it was hilarious, and I still do to this day. This experience serves as a good reminder for me of the exotic character we attribute to languages we do not speak. I know that if I were to learn German, the word would become natural to me, it would take on real meaning, and it would cease to be funny to me. But because I will likely never learn German, it remains “that crazy German word for butterfly” in my mind.

What was the funniest situation with a linguistic misunderstanding you ever encountered?
When I first came to China, I taught English at a university in Hangzhou. My foreign co-workers and I were learning Chinese in our spare time and practicing it every chance we got. One time a friend of mine met a pretty girl and started to chat her up in Chinese. He wanted to tell her that he taught “oral English,” which is 口语(kouyu) in Chinese. But he got the word confused with a naughtier word he had learned recently, 口交 (koujiao), which is… ummmm… a rather different type of oral skill.

Needless to say, the girl was quite shocked when he told her his job was to teach the latter rather than the former. It was horribly embarrassing just for me, witnessing that exchange; I think my friend almost died. (And no, he never got those digits.)

Which language teaching product / service / method / gadget … has impressed you the most and why?
Well, I’m proud of the service I helped build at ChinesePod, but I guess I should be a bit less self-promoting.

I’m very impressed by spaced repetition technology. Software like Anki is great, but it tends to appeal to the programmer types who don’t mind “serving the machine.” I’m excited about where spaced repetition will go next, as it’s mixed with video games and real-life “games” like Foursquare. This is the kind of tech idea I hope to explore more with my new company, AllSet Learning. I really believe we’re in for some very interesting times for language learning in the next decade.

About the author:
John Pasden (31) has lived in China for a decade. He has been the academic lead at ChinesePod for the past four years, maintained his Chinese-focused website and blog Sinosplice for twice that long, and just this year started his own learning consultancy in Shanghai called AllSet Learning. Follow him on Twitter @sinosplice.

You might also like: