The Mezzofanti Guild: Donovan Nagel on solving the mystery of language learning

Donovan picWhen people choose to become polyglots, they don’t simply do it to add linguistic skills to their CV lines. Rather, they do it to adopt a totally new lifestyle involving, on the one hand, endless hours of strenuous efforts and tongue-twisting exercises, and on the other hand endless opportunities to travel, meet people and get to experience other cultures. Today, we bring you a man who took the leap and dove deep into languages. Donovan Nagel is Australian-born but became a citizen of the world. He was raised in a monolingual environment but can now think and talk in several languages. He is an active blogger and an ardent lover of languages and everything associated with them. Here is what he told us about his language-learning experiences!

Donovan, you seem to have a particular affection towards ancient languages. Why do you think that is?

I do indeed. My first college major was actually theology and I took Koine Greek as my first elective subject (this Greek was the global lingua franca between about 300 BC – 300 AD). I enjoyed it so much that I decided to take Ancient Hebrew as well. Overall, I studied and translated both languages for several years. It became such a buzz for me being able to hear the voice and emotion of people who lived thousands of years ago through ancient text. Just as you can’t truly connect with a person today unless you speak to them in their own tongue, you can’t fully appreciate and connect with an ancient writer  by reading modern translations.


You are determined to help raise awareness about endangered minority languages.  However there are many examples of “dead” languages in linguistics. Would you say that this is a natural process?

In a sense yes. Languages will always evolve and smaller groups will inevitably suffer under the dominance and pressure of larger groups. This has been the reality for many languages throughout history whether the dominant group actively seeks to eradicate them or through unintentional pressure to conform. This is simply unavoidable and groups who live under the cloak of an inclusive society will always feel pressure to some extent.

However what we’re witnessing today is unprecedented. Due to many modern factors (globalization, technology, etc.) we’re experiencing the most rapid and pandemic loss of languages in our history. It’s a natural process when a tree dies and falls to the ground but we certainly we wouldn’t call it a natural process when thousands of square miles of forest get cut down which I think is a good analogy for what’s happening with the world’s languages.


What exactly can be done to save these languages?

The question to ask is not ‘what can be done’ but ‘whether anything can be done’ I think. We live in an increasingly globalized world where communities who only a short time ago were completely isolated linguistically, culturally and even geographically now have smartphones and Internet access among so many other things.

Ironically, in an effort to bring the world together in unity for peace and prosperity, we’ve subsequently sped up the demise of thousands of people groups around the world. Young people no longer see a need for their traditional way of life and languages. They want to participate in the global market, travel the world and enjoy American entertainment. Ultimately, it’s up to them.

We outsiders can study their languages, gather resources and plead with governments for more funding for language education but this will inevitably prove fruitless if the young generations of those communities don’t have a desire to fight for their identities.

Employment is key. Our job first and foremost should be to encourage them and help create employment opportunities in those languages. More jobs requiring those languages = more need for them = more people wanting to learn them.


How do you go about learning a new language?

I hold the view (based on solid research and years of my own trial and error) that languages are naturally learned by acquiring and piecing together whole lexical chunks through repeated exposure and usage rather than memorizing grammar rules.

Outdated, ineffective methods which teach grammar first have produced nothing but legions of students who are unable to speak a language that they’ve studied for years. I study grammar only AFTER I’m able to speak a language at least somewhat fluently.

Here are two other very crucial things I do:

1) Learn a little at a time and use it a lot. Focus on just a handful of new expressions at a time and use them repeatedly until they become habit. It’s much better to master a few things at a time than to try and take in everything at once and learn very little.

2) Speak very early on as much as possible. If you wait until you’re ready you’re wasting time. Use what you know now even if it’s grammatically wrong at first as this is the best way to improve.


Once the basic knowledge of a language is acquired, what tools can one use to enrich their language skills?

There are so many tools available to help you but it really depends on what your own needs and interests are. I personally don’t spend much time at all using anything other than conversation with people when I’m able to. I might occasionally use Memrise for vocabulary practice or listen to some dialogue from a series like Assimil but learning from people is always going to be superior to everything of these things.


What can languages teach us about the people that speak them and their societies? Can you give us examples based on the languages you speak?

Languages and cultures are intertwined and this is why it’s such a tragedy that so many languages are on the brink of extinction. They teach us so much about the cultures.

For example, you only fully start to understand and appreciate the incredible complexity of the social hierarchy in a place like Korea when you learn the language. In Korean you have to learn different styles of speech and honorifics which vary depending on who you’re talking to, their age, position and so on.

The Arabic language is full of religious expressions which are used in just about every single context imaginable. Whether you’re angry, pleased, cursing someone, blessing someone, relieved about something, arriving somewhere, leaving to go somewhere or whatever, you can almost be guaranteed there’s an expression that involves God or some kind of spiritual invocation for it. This is because religion is as much cultural as it is religious in that part of the world and the language reflects this.


You have learned Hebrew and Arabic, two languages belonging to the same linguistic family. Can you make a comment on language and peace? Can the first be used to address the second?

Languages can certainly be wonderful bridges between peoples and I think that when governments place importance on language learning it does send a powerful message that we do indeed care and value those people.

My first Arabic teacher was a Palestinian and he was introduced to me by a Jewish Israeli woman in fact. He was fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew and when I asked him where he learned Hebrew he told me that he picked it up from his Jewish friends in the playground as a child.

I think it would be overly hopeful to think that languages alone can make a dramatic difference since these are such complex issues but as in the case of my Palestinian teacher and his Israeli childhood friends, it’s one step toward putting an end to the ‘us and them’ mentality.


Tell us more about your blog and your current and future goals!

So I’ve been running a personal blog for several years now called  The Mezzofanti Guild – An Online Community of Serious Language Learners which started as a hobby initially but now supports me enough to travel around and continue learning languages while encouraging others to do the same.

The idea has always been to create an online place where real issues about language learning and revival could also be shared and discussed without any hype or sneaky financial motives.

I pride myself on being frank and honest. There’s always an opportunity there to make big bucks by promising people fast fluency and so on but I’m always careful not to endorse a product unless I own and use it myself. I plan to continue to running The Mezzofanti Guild though I do hope to start putting more of my time and energy soon into Arabic, the language I’m most passionate about.

On that note I’d like to share that a small team of Arabic native speakers and I are currently adding the finishing touches to an exciting new project for Arabic learners which is definitely worth keeping an eye out for. I’ll announce it on my blog and Facebook page soon so keep checking back for it.

To learn more about Donovan’s work visit his website.