Talking about Talking: Rolf Weimar of Silly Linguistics

06/22/2020 14:32  Pai Language Learning 

I think learning Linguistics has been the most useful. Knowing how things work definitely makes learning a language easier. If you know what agglutinative is or what ergative is makes it much easier to learn a language that has that feature because you will already be familiar with the concept beforehand.

-Rolf Weimar

In this article, we will be interviewing Rolf Weimar, the founder of Silly Linguistics, and the creator of the popular Facebook page “Steve the Vagabond and Silly Linguist“. As a long time member of the online language learning community, he’s seen it’s a massive increase over the last 5+ years, and as a key figure in that community, he has a unique perspective on it and language learning in general. Rolf was born and lives in South Africa, where he has dedicated all of his time to running Silly Linguistics.

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

Ubuntu. It is a word in Xhosa and Zulu that mean a spirit of togetherness. Xhosa and Zulu are closely related languages of the Bantu language family. They are agglutinative languages. The “ntu” part means “people” and “ubu” turns the word into an abstract concept like turning “see” into “sight” or “free” into “freedom”. Ubuntu is about seeing and celebrating our common humanity and was championed by one of our former president Nelson Mandela in South Africa. I got into languages because I was fascinated by the diversity of languages and studying languages has made me feel more connected with my fellow human beings and I think the word “ubuntu” sums that up perfectly.

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

I like weird sayings. In Swedish they say “det är ingen ko på isen så länge rumpan är i land”. It means “there is no cow on the ice as long as the buttock is on land” and it means the coast is clear. There is probably some weird origin story to that. I love sayings. They get fossilised and people don’t know where they came from but still use them because they have an associated meaning and I think that’s cool.

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

I love listening to songs in a language because I love music and while you are listening you are already learning the language. I got my start in Swedish just by watching Disney movie songs over and over.

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

Learning about comprehensible input has been a great addition to my language learning repertoire. It means focusing on material you can actually understand rather than trying to jump into the deep end. If you understand what you are reading it will increase your confidence and it will make the stuff you are reading stick in your brain much better. It takes a while for a word to cement its place in your mind and going over stuff, again and again, is a great way to make your knowledge more solid.

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

I remember talking to my German relatives and they remarked that my German sounded a bit old fashioned. I guess the textbook I was learning from was a bit old, or maybe they just taught formal German which sounded a bit stilted to my relatives that lived and breathed German. I was a bit embarrassed because I wanted to sound like a native but they saw through that straight away

What did you learn from that moment?

I decided after that that I wanted to learn natural German. So I started watching German TV and watching movies in German. That way I can hear how German is actually used.

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

I think learning Linguistics has been the most useful. Knowing how things work definitely makes learning a language easier. If you know what agglutinative is or what ergative is makes it much easier to learn a language that has that feature because you will already be familiar with the concept beforehand.

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

I just revel in weird language stuff, especially from my own language. English is actually quite unusual in a lot of ways. We say “It is raining” but most languages just say the equivalent of “Raining”. I mean, if you look outside and its raining, do you really need to specify what exactly is raining? And “it” doesn’t add much information. It’s just that in English we must have a subject in every sentence so we get “it is raining”. I find weird stuff like that fun to discover.

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

I think it was when I realised there was no time limit to learning a language. Now I just take my time and I don’t get anxious or worried about what level I am at. I just have fun and take things as they come.

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

I would say don’t stress yourself out. Just try to have fun. Watch a foreign film with subtitles. Try to get some children’s books in your target language. Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. Just take your time and keep going. You will get there.

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

I think bad advice would be just to buy a language learning book. They are a great addition to your language learning arsenal but they won’t take you all the way. Some reference books are needed if you need to clarify parts of the grammar but you need to actually experience the language. Watching movies, listening to podcasts, reading articles. These are the types of things that get your brain used to engaging with the language. Reading a language learning book will not by itself make you proficient in the language.

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

I just try to immerse myself in the language. I try to get my hands on some memes in the language. The text is usually really short and they are quite fun in any case. As I said before, I just try to have fun. This creates good associations with the language which helps in the long term.

How do you maintain motivation when learning a new language?

I find that making the language learning process fun is the best way to keep motivation. If you feel like learning a language is a slog or a struggle you will find it very hard to push forward with it.

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

Any activity related to the language will help you. Learning linguistics has helped me improve my language learning. I read memes in my target language and I watch music videos. Don’t push yourself. Try to have fun and try lots of different things in the language. You will be fluent before you know it.

If you want to see more of Rolf’s work, why not check out his website, his page on Facebook, and if you’re feeling extra generous, why not check out his Patreon.


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