Talking about Talking: Matias Barmat

07/06/2020 13:51  Pai Language Learning 

Every learner has their own learning time, their own learning curves and, if we talk about self-learning, their own methodology. My method is neither the best nor the worst, just suitable to my needs.

Matias Barmat, Hyperpolyglot

Today we are talking to Matias Barmat, a systems analyst with more than ten years of experience as a web developer and a sports journalist specialized in basketball. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Matias is considered a specialist in basketball stats and analysis by both local and foreign media. Matias is a Hyperpolyglot, a speaker of 12 languages, and since August 2018 he is the Director of Recruitment for HYPIA (Hyperpolyglot International Association), an online NGO committed to spreading multilingualism in a non-political and non-partisan framework. Matias is also the creator of the website www.worldhoopstats.com, considered at one time the largest basketball stats database in the world.

Let’s see what we can learn from him!

What’s your favourite word in any language, and why?

I can tell you a lot of words from different origins, from different languages, that I personally like a lot due to their etymology, but if I had to choose a word I should listen to my heart. I’m Jewish, and my favourite word by far is “hizdamnut” (הזדמנות), which is Hebrew for “opportunity”. It contains the word “zman” (זמן), meaning “time”. That is, in Hebrew, to have another chance is to take advantage of ones available time.  

Do you have a favourite saying or phrase in any language?

To study languages means to expose yourself to different cultures, different world views and different ways of thinking and feeling that enriches you. 

One of my favourite quotes comes from the film ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’: “Don’t let your past dictate who you are, but let it be part of who you will become.” Also, there is another quote from Catalan that resembles who I am a little bit better: “En cap cap cap el que cap en aquest cap”, a tongue twister that roughly means “In no head fits what fits in my head”.

What’s your favourite resource to use when learning a language and why?

Although I prefer to read PDFs full of grammar and vocabulary, I also watch a lot of YouTube videos (mostly from sports media) in order to keep my languages as fresh as possible. Half of the languages I have learned through private lessons, however, I also use online apps like Bluebird and websites like Babadum.

What’s the last thing you discovered that has positively changed or affected your approach to learning languages?

I used to be too math-oriented, as natural languages have a close connection with programming languages; languages can be easily computable. A very simple example: In object-oriented programming, we have elements called objects that have properties or attributes, they also perform functions or methods, and they respond to events or circumstances. Well, translating into natural languages, the objects are nouns, the properties or attributes are adjectives, the functions or methods are verbs and the events or circumstances are adverbs.

But I discovered that other Hyperpolyglots have another approach that is much more natural. They need to feel the languages. To kiss, to hug, to make love and to dance with them. To eat and drink with them. So I learned also that living a language means to be involved actively in a community who speaks it and learning from their culture.

Is there a favourite mistake or awkward situation in your language learning journey that you remember?

Uuuuh, I have a lot of them! For example, I remember one night in a Mundo Lingo meeting last year in Buenos Aires, when I was talking with two Brazilian female friends who were almost monolingual in Portuguese. They didn’t speak Spanish well, so when I made an introduction of what Mundo Lingo consists (an NGO that organizes language exchange events in bars) those girls felt a little bit uncomfortable at first, but later they understood and could have some fun interacting with others. Although my accent in Spanish is very open, my accent in Portuguese is very closed as I am used to speaking European Portuguese. In both standards the word “a gente” means “the people”, but in most of the Brazilian accents, it means “we” or “us” too.  In the variety spoken in Portugal, we refer ourselves as “nós”, while in Brazil for describing an abstract group of people they also say “as pessoas” (the persons) for clarity. So it’s very funny if you deal with Brazilians with a good command of Spanish, however, in very rare occasions like this, it could be a little bit embarrassing.

What did you learn from that moment?

Every language has its cognates, its false friends, its specific vocabulary and its specific lexicon, its specific jargon, but also its specific nuances that can only be understood properly if you know their culture. That lack of initial knowledge drove to me to those awkward situations, but I don’t care if I keep doing this and keep making mistakes as it’s a part of the learning process. 

What’s the most worthwhile investment you ever made during your language learning journey?

Time. Enjoying spending time learning languages, and the chance to open my world by learning all the information about the culture associated with them. 

What is an unusual thing related to languages, or a specific language, that you love?

Catalan. It has the sensitiveness and charm of Italian and it’s as refined and romantic as French. 

In the last 5 years, what new belief or behaviour has improved your ability to learn languages? 

I use to watch a lot of Youtube videos, listen to foreign music, and read and watch the international press media (both general and sports media) in their respective language of origin to keep my languages fresh. I don’t care if my understanding of languages is not complete, but it’s very important to have as much language exposure as possible. Also, Mundo Lingo meetings (https://www.mundolingo.org) are very useful to socialize and to speak at least five or six languages three times a week for free with foreigners while having fun and drinks.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to teach themselves a language? 

The turning point from being a polyglot to becoming a hyperpolyglot is when you can easily decode every grammar structure as well as begin to associate thousands of word roots from every language to build your vocabulary. I used to describe languages as “swimming pools” where the pool itself is the grammar and the water is the vocabulary. I don’t care if the pool is only quarter full, I jump anyway from a 10-meter platform. So don’t feel afraid and try it anyway.

What bad advice, opinion, recommendation or idea about languages or language learning do you often hear?

When I hear about positions as private language teachers, it’s almost always required to be a native speaker.  Interacting with a native speaker doesn’t guarantee by itself that you’ll learn the language or you’ll acquire fluency, at least they will know how to teach it. Also, there are a lot of non-native speakers that achieved a near-native level while obtaining a language-related degree. I don’t think that the only way to learn a language is through a mainstream structure that teaches a mainstream language with mainstream native teachers; they show often that they are not as effective.

When teaching yourself a language, how do/would you approach it?

Every learner has their own learning time, their own learning curves and, if we talk about self-learning, their own methodology. My method is neither the best nor the worst, just suitable to my needs. I begin decoding the grammar, the word order and the parts of the speech in my head and memorizing tons of vocabulary. When I get the basics (more or less about 150 verbs and 2000 words) I begin making sentences in my head, thinking by my own of actions as basic as “I have to go to the bathroom” or “I have to make my breakfast” when I wake up. The more you do this, the quicker you’ll arrive at the point of thinking in that language, and this empowers you. 

How do you maintain motivation when learning a new language?

I want to speak the language of my peers, no matter what. Knowing other languages gives me the chance to access other cultures and to access other sources of information beforehand, that otherwise would be ‘lost in translation’.  It’s not the same to greet a Senegalese friend with“comment ça va” in French rather than saying “Maangi fi rek!” in Wolof. In the first case, I am only asking him how he is, but in the second case I am wishing him “peace be upon you”. As Nelson Mandela used to say, if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

Finally, if you could send a message or a piece of advice to everyone learning a language right now, what would it be?

Languages are communication tools: different communication vehicles that transport information which is interpreted by different codes we establish as a convention. Knowing languages represents a clear advantage to accessing other sources of knowledge than otherwise we could not.

However, there are many reasons why we study languages; some of them are very personal. Being a national of a multilingual country or being a member of a certain community, working abroad, travelling, but also knowing other people and how they think. Their culture, their idiosyncrasies, also means a different way of creating concepts and ideas, and a different way how we concrete or abstract them. And knowing their natural language is the natural vehicle to do so. Language learning means to raise awareness of the importance to preserve the language richness and the culture of peoples.

Make sure you go and check out HYPIA for more information on the Association of Hyperpolyglots. Great advice? Got any comments? Who do you want us to interview next? Let us know in our Facebook group or on our Facebook page.


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