Editor's note: Attached are videos of Susan Zaraysky explaining her language theories and work in English, Russian, French, Portuguese, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, and Italian. One subtitled video incorporates all of these languages.
Want to learn a new language? Start by putting aside verb memorization charts and listening.
That’s the core advice of Cupertino polyglot Susanna Zaraysky, who speaks seven languages with little to no unnatural accent.
As both a former student of, and now Spanish substitute teacher in, the Cupertino public school system, Zaraysky has too often seen children become frustrated with rote language learning. She penned both Language is Music in 2008 and its Spanish predecessor El Idioma es Música in 2010 to aid kids and adults in absorbing not just the structure, but also sounds and flow, of a new language. In effect, they can listen to language like they would music.
“Music engages more parts of the brain than language does,” said Zaraysky, who is currently working on a Portuguese translation of Language is Music.
Born in the former Soviet Union and raised in Cupertino, Zaraysky learned English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Serbo-Croatian, and Italian through mimicking the sounds of language the same way she would musical notes. Language, like a song from childhood of which one somehow never forgets the lyrics, stuck with her.
Using her language skills, she has taught English in Buenos Aires, Argentina, designed economic development projects in war-torn Bosnia, and worked as an election observer through the U.S. State Department in countries such as Ukraine and Tajikistan. A prolific traveler who has been to over 50 countries and lived in nine, she also wrote Travel Happy, Budget Low through her own publishing company, Create Your World Books.
“The ability to communicate is such a huge barrier for people,” said Zaraysky. “Knowing how my family was able to leave the Soviet Union gives me the drive to encourage people to learn languages.”
The following are some language-learning tips from Zaraysky, who is currently working on her autobiography, One-Eyed Princess in Babel: Seeing the World With My Ears.
•Listen, listen, listen. Trying to learn a language without listening to it first is like trying to memorize musical notes without knowing what the music itself sounds like. “You can't reproduce a sound you’ve never heard,” said Zaraysky. “People need to expose themselves to a language before they start studying it,” she added. Babies do not begin speaking a language until they have absorbed its sounds, and neither should anyone new to a language.
•Incorporate the language in day-to-day life. Learning Japanese? Make it your “homework” to watch Anime videos. Make grocery lists in French. Turn on one of the many radio or TV stations in Cupertino broadcast in another tongue.
Zaraysky picked up Portuguese largely by listening to Rádio Comercial Portuguesa, the Portugese radio station based in San Jose, while doing day-to-day driving. “I want people to realize that they don’t have to travel to the country, or get a private tutor to learn the language,” she said.
•Speak (and do not worry about sounding like Tarzan at first). When babies begin speaking a language, they produce a jumbled cacophony of sounds. No language learner will sound anywhere near perfect on his or her first attempt either. Zaraysky encourages language learners to speak the language as much as they can—ideally to native speakers, but also through language groups held through Meetup.com or at local community colleges and universities. Especially in Cupertino, she said, there are many chances to converse with native speakers just through frequenting a Chinese market, or visiting an Indian cultural event.
•Love the language. You may know the logic behind learning a growing world language like Chinese, but if you do not enjoy how it sounds, absorbing it can be difficult to impossible. “People have to find something they like about a language,” said Zaraysky, who admits to giving up on studying Hebrew because she simply did not enjoy it enough. “There has to not only be an intellectual but also emotional draw."
An interview with Zaraysky will play on the English-language community affairs show, Comunidad del Valle, on KNTV on Sunday August 7 at 10:30 am. For Comcast Cupertino, KNTV airs on channel 3.