Anirudh Krishnan is currently working on climate change issues at a centre for mountain development in the Himalayas, involved in communicating scientific findings more effectively to policymakers. He is about to move to a research role at an institute for public health in Singapore, which may involve some degree of communication work as well. This is exactly what Anirudh is interested in: ensuring that good science gets turned into good policy.
Career-wise, language-wise, and otherwise, improving communication is one of his biggest goals. He tries to learn the languages of the places he moves to or travels to, in order to communicate better with people.
I had a chat with him for us to have an insight into his many passions and learn some language learning tips from him!
List the languages you speak!
As I’m sure any polyglot would agree, “the languages you speak” is a pretty tricky concept. I’d respond saying that I can have 2-minute conversations (and understand the majority of what is said to me in that duration) in about 9 languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Hindi, Tamil, and Malayalam.
Why these languages?
My foreign language journey started way back in middle school, with French, as is the case for many. It wasn’t taught very well, but I realised I was doing quite well without putting in much effort. I got to a very high level of reading fluency over the next few years, mostly just by trying hard to read newspapers in the language, spending hours in the Alliance Française library, and watching TV5. I didn’t realise that I had never actually learnt to speak it very well, but knew too little about language learning to know that I had a long way to go.
Soon after, I started Spanish in high school, and had a spectacular teacher who placed a lot of importance on speaking. I found myself doing very well in the classroom yet again, so I quickly decided to challenge myself and pick up something from a different language family. I did German at University for 2 years, and by surrounding myself with Germans at my University, I managed to get a lot of practice speaking.
I then spent several months in Spain as a volunteer on a farm and afterwards on a study abroad programme. That was when my language learning really took off. I discovered that I understood a lot of what the Italians and Portuguese around me were saying, and I quickly set off on a quest to learn these languages.
The Indian languages I speak are thanks to my extended family and time spent visiting India. My parents considered it important that I be able to speak Malayalam (my mother tongue), Tamil (spoken where we lived at one point), and Hindi (which you’re expected to know as an Indian).
My inspiration comes mainly from the fact that I’m insatiably curious about other cultures. Having moved around a lot throughout my life, I’ve always searched for that sense of belonging in each of my host cultures, and identified very early on the ease of achieving that if you speak and read the local language.
Are you a different person every time you switch between languages?
I’ve been asked this several times, and I know it’s something a lot of polyglots say. To claim you feel like a different person, however, is in my opinion, taking a few too many liberties with the concept of what constitutes a person. I think each person’s individual cocktail of values is what constitutes a person in this context, and that, in my opinion, does not change with the language you speak.
I’m willing to concede that for early bilinguals this might be possible, though, if they’ve always had a strict delineation between linguistic contexts, but not for the majority of polyglots who have acquired a language consciously, especially without several years of immersion in a new culture.
On the surface, however, I think we all exhibit features of a different culture when we speak a different language. I don’t at all believe that that’s because you’re “a different person” when you speak that language, but because you’re adhering to the customs and complying with the norms of that culture.
Share your funny learning experiences!
There is one particularly memorable.
In a small town in Galicia where I lived for a few months, there was a café-bar I frequented, not least because there was a barmaid with a very pretty smile whom I had a crush on. On one occasion, while we chatted, she mentioned in passing, “llevo más de un mes constipada” (I’ve had a cold for over a month). Needless to say, I was horrified. Linguistic false friends sure are a pain (seriously, no pun intended).
Jack of all trades or master of one?
I’ve always been more interested in being Jack of all trades than master of one. I can rarely stay focused on any one thing for very long, so I alternate frequently. I tried keeping politics and economics in my work sphere, and languages and opera in the leisure sphere, but increasingly, the spheres are beginning to overlap, and in creative ways. I’ve been doing opera reviews for an online website, did some translation work for another, and have been spending my leisure time doing online courses on human rights law. And I’m liking it very much.
We want to hear your language learning tips!
My top tip is: focus on pronunciation. I know this goes against what is the currently dominant method in language pedagogy, and it may not be worth it if you’re not naturally good at producing a large variety of sounds and need to spend an unreasonable amount of time on it, but there’s a good reason for why I think it’s that important.
One of the main reasons is that the more accurate and native-like your pronunciation (and intonation) is, the more native speakers are impressed, which gives you a VERY nice confidence boost. Motivation is key to language learning, and being told that your pronunciation is fantastic makes you feel two inches taller.
Another reason is that good pronunciation very often also means good comprehension. When you know how particular sounds are produced, and how they come together to form words, it’s infinitely easier to pick out words and phrases while speaking to a native, and you’re then much more likely to pick up the meaning of words and phrases in context.
To read more from Anirudh Krishnan, head over to the magazine he helped found and currently runs Unravel Magazine. For the polyglottally inclined amongst you, keep an eye out for Unravel’s February issue with a special feature on Polyglotism where writers from around the globe offer tips and observations about language learning.
He started out doing pieces on economic or political issues, but would often stray far from these topics just because it provided him with an opportunity to learn something about a new topic. He really enjoys interviewing people for stories, especially if it involves activism of some sort. A recent piece that he wrote for Unravel magazine exposed him to the world of academic journal publishing after recent events in the linguistic community caused a spike in interest in developing alternative (and cheaper) models for academic publishing. They keep in touch with their readers via Facebook. Check it out!