My Conversation with the excellent Vaughn Smith, hyperpolyglot

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  In case you don’t know, Vaughn is arguably the world’s leading polyglot.  Here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss how he began learning languages, the best languages for expressing humor, why he curses in Slovak, why he considers Finnish more romantic than Portugese, what makes Hungarian so difficult to learn, the best way to teach people new languages, how to combat language loss, why he’d like rural Mexicans to have more pride in their culture and way of life, his time as a roadie for a punk rock van, the most rewarding job he’s had, why he wants to visit Finland, how enjoying films from different eras is similar to learning new languages, the future of English, and more.

And an excerpt:

SMITH: When I study a language, the grammar is super important to me. I don’t have a problem with pronunciation. I can learn different writing scripts — that’s fine. I think the two biggest challenges here for me would be something that’s a very complicated grammar. For example, Estonian or Finnish, Hungarian, Lithuanian, to me, are grammatically very challenging.

As far as orthography and writing systems, certainly kanji or Chinese characters, Mandarin characters would prove difficult because there’s a lot more to memorize.

COWEN: What do you think has been, for you, the hardest language to learn?

SMITH: The hardest language for me to learn — I would say Hungarian.

COWEN: What makes Hungarian so hard?

SMITH: Several noun cases and a very rich vocabulary, very large vocabulary. A lot more words are in regular use to say specific things, more so than, say, any of the Germanic languages.

An opposite of that would be, for example, Norwegian, which is super easy. You just have one little word. It doesn’t change, it doesn’t inflect the verb. Let’s see, the person or the verb is the same, no matter who is it that does it. There’s simply the infinitive form. There’s the past participle, and then there’s the present, which you just put the letter r after the vowel of the infinitive. That’s grammatically, just giving an example of how easy it is for me to learn Norwegian grammar.

Everything is difficult about Hungarian, as the case is knowing what case — the singular, the plural form. The verb changes with the recipient of the verb. If it’s in the first person verb, it changes when the recipient is in second person singular. Szeretnélek instead of Szeretnék, for example. Szeretnélek: “I like you.” Or Szeretnék: “I like.” These little nuances and all these exceptions to rules and irregularities make the language grammar very difficult.

Excellent throughout.  Vaughn, although he is a rug cleaner by profession, is a first-rate podcast guest.  Every answer substantive and to the point.  And this was his first podcast appearance, ever.  He should be a lesson to you all.


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