Susanna Zaraysky is a self-proclaimed “language geek,” a speaker of 7 languages, and the author of Language is Music: Over 100 Fun & Easy Tips to Learn Foreign Languages. She has been featured on CBS, BBC Radio, CNN, NBC, and Univision, and now thanks to me, the world’s most famous podcast! Just kidding. In our interview, we discuss the weaknesses of traditional language education, the power of music in language acquisition, the importance of developing a resonance for one’s target language and culture, and the fact that you can learn any language, anywhere.
Susanna Zaraysky was born in Leningrad (now called Saint Petersburg) in the former Soviet Union. As Suzanna jokes in the interview:
“All of my official documents say that I was born in a city and country that no longer exist!”
She moved to the United States at the age of 3, but continued speaking Russian at home. She refers to herself as a “heritage speaker” of Russian, with native level fluency in the spoken language but weaker literacy skills. At the age of 11, she started learning French, going on to do a home stay in Pornichet, France at age 15. During her two months there, she developed strong French skills and an even stronger love of crêpes salées (“savory crepes”).
While in France, she also started learning Spanish (all students in France are required to learn English one other foreign language of their choice), a language she went on to study more intensively when she returned to the states. The language came quickly for her as she had already been exposed to a great deal of Spanish growing up in California, and likely thanks to Spanish’s many overlaps with the French she already knew.
In college, she started learning Italian purely for fun, but opted to study on her own instead of falling asleep in early morning Italian classes designed for complete beginners.
After college, she took up Portuguese for no particular reason that she can remember. A friend suggested Com Licença!: Brazilian Portuguese for Spanish Speakers to her, which she used as both an educational tool and sleeping pill. She jokes that despite speaking 7 languages, she finds grammar study quite boring. I definitely second that!
From 2000 to 2001, Susanna worked in post-war Bosnia where she quickly picked up Bosnian. The language’s membership in the Slavic Language family (to which her native Russian also belongs) gave her a big head start in the language.
Susanna’s Language Learning Tips
You have to be willing to take on (and develop) a different personality when learning a new language.
“If you don’t feel open to moving your body in a different way, being a different a person, then that is a surefire way to fail at language learning.”
Use music as much as you can in language learning. It’s not just fun to listen to good music; music actually activates more of your brain than languages and is one of the best ways to improve your pronunciation, accent, timing, and even grammar. Spanish music, for example, is one of the best ways to learn the subjunctive as many songs talk about doubt.
“The reason people have strong accents in other languages is because they are playing the music of the foreign language in the tempo and rhythm of their mother tongue. It’s like dancing the waltz to cha-cha music.”
You can learn any language, anywhere. Use whatever resources are available to you and don’t underestimate your access to foreign languages in your backyard. As Susanna observed in post-war Bosnia, people managed to learn foreign languages using whatever radio or TV signals they could pick up.
“If someone can, in a war situation, learn a language under an extreme amount of duress, and very few resources for obvious reasons, then when people tell me, ‘Oh, I don’t have $2,000 to go to Costa Rica and pay for Spanish classes’, I just want to smack them on the head!”
You of course need to learn a language’s grammar if you want to reach a professional level in a language, but shoving grammar down your throat in the early days is probably not the best strategy for most people. It’s better to get a feel for the language first and develop a strong emotional resonance.
Get as much listening exposure as you can to your target language. This is the way children learn, and adults need to train their ears, too. As Dr. Paul Sulzberger demonstrated in his PhD thesis at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, listening to a language before you begin formal study of its vocabulary and grammar better prepares you to recognize words.
More About Susanna
For more information about Susanna, check out her excellent book Language Is Music: Over 100 Fun & Easy Tips to Learn Foreign Languages, her YouTube channel, and her website, Create Your World Books.