International travelers know what a formidable barrier a foreign language can be. From time to time, language spills over into the headlines – as it did last week when Fidel Castro insisted his brother’s comments about political reform in Cuba were “misunderstood.” Tom Adams knows about language barriers and how to overcome them. He’s the chief executive of Rosetta Stone. Yeah, the company with the ads featuring a hardworking farm boy and an Italian supermodel. I spoke with him recently.
Q: Can you get along with just English when you travel internationally?
Adams: You can if you’re traveling to major cities and don’t plan to really engage. However if you’re trying to go into the field and really discover a culture and a country, then yes, you do need another language. I think that anyone who has successfully learned another language knows that the benefits are tremendous. Those that experience success communicating in a new language often describe it as life-changing.
Q: Let me confess, I’m one of the people who makes fun the tourists who try to learn a language before they visit another country, or worse, they tote around a phrase book and read from it. Convince me of the error of my ways.
Adams: I would tend to agree, people that try to get by with a phrase book don’t get very far. It’s better if people can learn a language the way they learned their first language, without translation, so they have an intuition behind the language when they are actually in country. I think it is wonderful that people make the effort to try and go deeper into the cultures that they explore when they are traveling. Locals will give you points for trying and it makes life more fun.
Q: As a student of linguistics in college, I always thought total immersion – which to me always meant dating a native speaker – was the best way to learn another language. Was I wrong?
Adams: There is no doubt that immersion-based instruction is the way to learn a new language. In fact, I would challenge that those who try to learn any other way are highly likely to fail. Dating someone from another country is not enough to learn a language, though it is very stimulating.
The problem is that if they speak your language you’re likely to stay in your comfort zone and use your native language. An instructional immersion environment forces you to use the language. If you’re learning the right way with the right immersion tool or service, then having a boyfriend or girlfriend that speaks that language natively provides a great opportunity for practice – as well as motivation.
Q: Why don’t more Americans speak a second language?
Adams: Fundamentally, Americans have not had the opportunity to use the right methods. Most Americans use grammar translation and classroom solutions to memorize vocabulary, translate the language and pass the test.
Learning another language works better when it’s done in a natural way and you can leverage your own language learning ability. If given the opportunity to learn with the right tools, Americans – like others around the world – can learn languages with great levels of success. Of course, many Americans do not travel internationally as much as Europeans, for instance, so there is less opportunity to use the language – and that does not help.
Q: If you’re monolingual, and had to pick just one language to learn, what would it be?
Adams: Choosing a language to learn is a very personal decision. I decided to learn Chinese because I was being relocated to work there. I know others who have learned Russian because they are married to someone of Russian origin. It’s a very personal thing.
Q: What are the advantages of knowing another language, particularly from a traveler’s perspective?
Adams: If you want to engage a culture and feel somewhat independent when you’re traveling, then learning and knowing another language is critical. Imagine the reward from being able to greet people and have basic ways of introducing yourself and making that initial connection.
Add to that the freedom and independence when you can experience a country without being restricted to English. Imagine being in China and being able to say “I would like to buy that for a cheaper price, what can you do for me?” If you do gain real proficiency in the language and are able to communicate on a social level with friends that you make – that takes the trip to a whole new level. Someone that speaks even basic Portuguese will have a completely different level of experience when traveling in Brazil. It’s life changing.
Q: Which languages do you speak, and how did you learn them?
Adams: I speak Swedish, English and French fluently. I learned all three languages through immersion. Swedish is my native language and I learned the other two as a result of living in France and England as a child. I’ve studied Spanish by going to Spain and spending time there at a language center and living with Spanish students. I also have a basic knowledge of German and Chinese, which gives me some freedom and empowerment when I am traveling in those countries. I learned Chinese by living in the country and using an earlier version of Rosetta Stone.
Q: Which is the most difficult language to learn, from your perspective – and why?
Adams: All languages are learned by people as they grow up. For example, an Arabic boy learns Arabic just as easy as an English boy learns English. There is really no difference. And yet as adults, we try to rely on our own language to learn the new language. Whether you’re learning Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Swedish, Polish, Russian you’re really learning the same way. All languages can be learned provided that you learn them the right way.
Q: When you’re learning a new language, you make rookie mistakes. Do you have any favorites you’ve heard?
Adams: When I was learning Chinese, one of the challenges I had was that the word “is” or “am” is pronounced essentially the same way. Depending upon the tone in Chinese, “shi” means either “shit” or “am.” In the beginning of my Chinese language learning experience, I would say “I am Tom Adams.” However, I was actually saying, “I shit Tom Adams.”
Q: How many languages should a world traveler know? And which ones?
Adams: At least one other language, but preferably two. In today’s world, if you know Spanish and Chinese you’re in a great position. You can travel throughout the Americas or to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and a huge number of people are able to understand you. Chinese and Spanish are of course important for business.
Q: If you could change one thing about one language – declensions, script, inflection – what would it be?
Adams: If I could change one thing about the languages that I have studied it would be the tones in Chinese. I found using tones very challenging since it conveys alternate meaning and it relies on your aural muscles and their ability to interpret those different sounds. It takes a while but soon you get there and there is no way around it.
Christopher Elliott is a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler. For more interviews, check out his travel blog.