FTLOL: Tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, what you do, and how you got into learning foreign languages.

Interview to Andrea Mucciolo, founder and CEO at Lingostan

Learn a language online with native speakers

I was born in Rome, which is where I currently live. I work in SEO (Search Engine Optimization). I have my own company with a partner here in Rome. Actually, I came late to languages, even though as far as I can remember, since I was a child, I used to read all the ingredients on food cans in other languages, and the translation in each language of owner's manuals. Now I feel rather old, even though I’m just thirty nine.
When I was, let’s say, sixteen years old, there was no Internet, so the opportunities for learning and most of all practising languages were confined to a grammar book and a dictionary and even then just for very common languages like English, German, French and Spanish. I could find some bookshops in Rome selling novels in those languages, but nothing more. There was no way to find a language partner on some websites like we are accustomed to do nowadays. So, it all started two years ago, both for passion and for business. Sometimes I work with foreign companies, so I need to know at least the basics or even just the alphabet of some languages to better work with the keywords and the HTML code.  Until two years ago, I could speak only English, but now I can have a conversation in five languages (English, Spanish, Indonesian, French and German) even though at different levels. It’s something I always wanted to do.

FTLOL: What languages can you currently speak to a good conversational level, and are you studying any others at the moment?

AM: To a really high conversational level, besides of course Italian, I speak English and Spanish. I can also have a conversation at a good level without much problem in Indonesian, French and German, even though I still have to improve in these languages. I can also read Portuguese, but when I speak I mix it up too much with Spanish, since I did not really practise this language. Currently I’m learning Chinese. I can already speak a little bit but I still need to work on my tones. Anyway I’ve already got all the basics since I’m able to read books HSK 2.

FTLOL: How has your personality affected your language study over time?

AM: I don’t have a middle way of doing something. This might be a good thing or sometimes a flaw. When I start learning a new language, I can’t wait to start reading and speaking, so I start making cards like crazy for the vocabulary. I read books even though I understand 20% of what I’m reading, I listen to songs, translate newspapers’ headlines, everything. When I start a new language, for the first month at least, for me, there is only me and the new language. It’s a full time hobby, not something I do when I remember; it wouldn’t work that way. I’m not able to follow regular steps, I just let my desires guide me, and that’s why the learning process, even at the hardest and most challenging times, is never painful for me, but stimulating and thrilling.

FTLOL: Do you have a chance to use any of the languages you’re learning at work? If so, how so?

AM: Every week I speak English and Spanish on Skype, since I’m doing business with some British and Spanish companies. It’s really rewarding and stimulating to actually use the language for something so tangible, important and essential like your job, without making some sort of trite role playing. For all the other languages, I search online in order to find websites where I can speak with native teachers or language partners. I always like to meet new people and speak their language. There is always something new to learn, due to different dialects and accents.

FTLOL: Have there been any language learning materials or courses that you’ve personally found to be critical to your language learning?

AM: I still wonder why so many people don’t use Graded Readers, they’re just awesome. You can start to read from the first day, without burying yourself in grammar (grammar matters, but for me learning a language entails no more than 20% of grammar) enjoying real stories, albeit quite hackneyed at the beginning. I think this is the best approach. We need vocabulary. I don’t believe when people say you don’t need too much vocabulary. You might not need to know the word for “spleen” but if you know only very basic words, the first conversation is okay, but then, are you going to say the same things over and over again? What you like, where you’re from? So, when I started to learn Indonesian, I found out that of course there aren’t many resources compared to other languages, and no Graded Readers, so it was really tough at the beginning to try to read books for native speakers. But I found out that children’s books can sometimes replace Graded Readers. You can improve quickly with them, so I always try to boost my vocabulary. I don’t think bad pronunciation is a big problem, not like not knowing a word. Sure, you can look up a word you don’t know in just a few seconds searching online, but then, what’s the pleasure of knowing a language, of having it really inside your head and heart? I think this can be expressed by the words of Kató Lomb (1909 –2003) a Hungarian polyglot, interpreter and translator, who wrote a book about language learning which I find inspiring:
“[…] Languages are the only thing worth knowing even poorly. […] Solely in the world of languages is the amateur of value. Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still build bridges between people. Asking in broken Italian which train we are supposed to board at the Venice railway station is far from useless. Indeed, it is better to do that than to remain uncertain and silent and end up back in Budapest rather than in Milan.”

FTLOL: Have there been any specific people who have had a great impact on you or who have influenced your language learning  journey?

AM: I can say everyone I have met has left something inside me. I met so many people looking for a language exchange, we texted, chatted, spoke on Skype; I learned from everyone. I don’t have a real model which I follow, since, far from being a great polyglot or genius, I always had languages inside me, that is, the strong longing for them, so over time I acquired and most of all polished my own personal way of learning languages.

FTLOL: You’re currently working on developing an online language learning platform called Lingostan. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

AM: For me, it’s almost the ultimate goal, even though nobody should ever say something like this. It could mean the chance of combining in the most effective way my greatest passion with my job, to really use everything I learned until now mostly for fun. Basically Lingostan is a platform for independent teachers who want to work online teaching their native language.  We don’t sell courses, so people are free to choose a teacher even if they just want to talk in their target language. Moreover, it’s a good job opportunity, since every teacher can freely manage their schedule and we retain just 10% of their fees in order to market the company and help teachers to find more students.

I have many ideas regarding this project, so while there will be of course the most spoken languages, there will also be less common ones, since I noticed that it’s really hard to find professional teachers for some languages. For instance, I don’t think you can get a professional teacher of Maori or Inuit online, and for some languages like Chinese, if I were not fluent in English, it would have been really hard to find a native Chinese speaker fluent in Italian, and I mean really fluent, able to explain to you the nuances of the language. So, I really want to open Lingostan as much as possible to every native speaker in the world. My dream is to reach even the most rare and weird languages, because it’s not true that there aren’t enough students for such languages, but the opposite: there are not enough teachers! I think you can always add something new to what you do. I’ll work hard to bring something more, to build something which I feel is close to my views and thoughts. We are counting the days. We are now at  —30 days for the official launch of www.lingostan.com, but, you know, even Microsoft has its own bugs for a new version of Windows, so this website is rather complex, and, to be fair to our first students, we’ll give some lessons for free during the “beta test period” in order to test our platform.

FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might be struggling to start learning a foreign language?

AM: First of all: use Graded Readers if you want to learn one of the top ten languages in the world. Whereas, for all the others, it’s a little more difficult to find this kind of resource.
Try to use the language every day for something useful and real, for example, what I do is this: I follow Facebook pages that teach the language I’m learning, daily newspaper’s pages, pages I’m interested in, like animals (and so I learn how to say all the animals in that language). I also send friend requests to people I find in specific groups, in order to interact with them, to read every day a few genuine lines from real people on their wall. Moreover, I really try to think whenever I can in the language I’m learning. If I’m about to have lunch, I think: “Do I know how to say ‘lunch’ in Chinese?” And if I don’t know it yet, then I look around me and try to say everything I know in Chinese, so I discover that actually I know how to say “wash” and then I also know how to say “eat”, ”meat”, “fish”. So as a matter of fact I know many things related to that moment, and so on. In every situation I try to think about the language. I need to live the language all day, every day, inside myself. That’s the best advice. Make this language enter your daily routine.
Honestly, I don’t believe in apps, they seem so trendy nowadays but I find them quite boring, and not so useful. I prefer instead to watch some series that I know well dubbed in other languages, so for instance I watched “Small Wonder” (yes, I’m stuck in the 80s!) dubbed in Spanish when I was just beginning, and it was really fun! I just discovered that Chinese people dub movies, so I‘ve found some Italian movies dubbed in Chinese, it’s really cool!

FTLOL: What’s next for you in terms of language study? Will you take on any more languages in the future or just stick with improving the ones you’re currently studying?

AM: Now I’m really into Chinese, I guess that the time it takes to really reach a good level both in reading and speaking could be spent in learning two or even three “normal” languages, that is languages with an alphabet and without tones. In fact, I had to give up Arabic for the time being and it was a shame, since I really liked that beautiful writing (I used to handwrite too).
At any rate, my desire would be to learn Bulgarian, since I really fell in love with Bulgaria. I already know the basics, and it’s not that hard. I also try to improve the languages I already know so, again, I use Facebook. On my wall every day I read something in all the languages I know, and most of all, I’ve got Facebook friends from several countries, so there’s always a bit of every language. Of course, there’s no need to quote the saying “use it or lose it”. It’s one of the biggest truths in the field of language learning.

Andrea Mucciolo