Live Life Multilingually: An Interview with Elle, from Speaking Tongues

With around 86 million people – in the US alone! – listening to podcasts at least occasionally, it’s definitely a fast-growing medium. We’ve covered before how you can use podcasts to learn languages, including some specific suggestions for Quebecois French, but did you know there’s a whole world of language-adjacent podcasts out there, where you can learn about languages you may not have ever heard of? Elle Charisse, host of the podcast Speaking Tongues, has a new guest on every episode to talk about the language(s) they speak. She’s covered languages ranging from Ladino to Yoruba to (most recently) Native American language Gullah Geechee. So, we decided to ask her about it!

How did you first get into language learning?

My first real brush with learning another language came in High School Latin class. I loved Latin and I took it for 4 years. I fell in love with Latin being the root of so many words that we have in English. I had a great teacher who was one of the first people I ever knew who was “multilingual” and that really inspired me to want to learn so many modern languages.

We know you’ve been learning French – but what about other languages? Are you learning others right now, or even just dabbling in some?

Yes, I also speak Italian (and much more fluidly than French right now!) I started learning Italian in college and at one point spent time abroad in Italy. I think Italian is the language in my heart. In the past, I have also studied Spanish and Latin in school; I have also tried self study in Portuguese, German, Greek and Arabic but didn’t get very far on any of those. 

That’s a lot! So, are there other languages you’d LIKE to learn?

For sure! I think the next language I want to try is Arabic. I think Arabic is such a beautiful language. Or, I might be interested in taking Spanish seriously so I can form independent thoughts and have conversations with my friends! 

Sounds fun. What about learning, then; have any of your hobbies helped you learn languages better?

I have a number of varying interests and one way or another they’ve involved passive learning of languages. For many years, I was taking samba dance classes and was listening to a lot of music in Brazilian Portuguese. Though I didn’t learn the language, it did help me pick up some vocabulary and understanding of pronunciation. I also really enjoy food and wine so that’s helped me with Italian as far as trying new recipes and wine tasting. And if you consider traveling a hobby, I’ve been able to practice French when I’ve traveled to France, Belgium and Montreal!

What inspired you to start the Speaking Tongues podcast?

podcast?I was inspired to start the show after conversations with my multi-lingual friends. As a native English speaker, I had been struggling for years to gain any fluency or fluidity with the languages I wanted to learn to speak. I’m always curious and I wanted to talk to other people who have been able to learn languages and find out how they were able to do it, and try to figure out where I’d been going wrong for so many years. I’ve also always been curious about culture around the world and what other people are doing in other countries. I thought a podcast like this would be a great way to examine both and feed my natural curiosity. 

What was it like when you first got started? Scary? Exciting?

It was terrifying and exciting at the same time! I didn’t know anything about audio production and had to learn so much along the way. But, I still felt determined to produce this show. The thought of making the show and the idea of what it can become is so thrilling.

Your show format is you speaking to a guest every episode – how did you go about finding people to talk to?

At first, my guests were friends who were so gracious to help me get off the ground. Those conversations were so easy going because it’s easy to talk with your friends. After a while, I started to approach people that I’d seen online who were making language related content that I liked; people who seemed interesting and unique. Occasionally, I get interest from people who want to talk about their languages. I try to make sure I don’t overload on languages that are widely spoken unless the person has a one of a kind story. I’m determined to include as many African, Indigenous, Endangered and Creole languages as possible.

How’s the podcast going now?

Things are going well and the show is growing. I’m really excited about the episodes remaining in 2021 and I can’t want to figure out who I’ll be chatting with in 2022. There is so much more to come from me and in this show so I’m really excited to see where it will take me.

What do you think makes Speaking Tongues different to other language-related podcasts out there?

tAs far as I know, I’m one of the only black women out there podcasting about language and culture consistently. I think because of my ethnic background, I have an opportunity to share authentic stories that originate from black people and other people of color. I think my show is one of the few shows about language that isn’t really teaching or coaching a language but more exploring the nuances of learning and how learning a language can connect us to a broader culture. I also think Speaking Tongues stands out for its breadth of guests from learners and dabblers to third culture kids to teachers and even professionals within the language community. I’ve had conversations even with people who use language in their lives but aren’t really “learners” per se so it’s been humbling to actually speak to people from all over the world about their lives and stories and how language and culture have made an impact.

What do you most enjoy about doing the podcast?

I love that we live in a world right now where we can get on a video call and talk with someone living on the opposite side of the world. I always get a little bit of joy when I realize this is possible. I enjoy hearing everyone’s stories and I consider it a privilege and an honor to do this show. I’ve gotten some wonderful feedback from listeners about how they love the storytelling aspect and hearing how other people have gone through struggles and ups and downs with a language just as they have. And that’s the point of the show, right? To show that we all have more in common in spite of our differences. And to show that when it comes to learning a language, it’s normal to struggle and it’s normal for “fluency” to take time but we’ve all been there and it’s ok.

And on the flipside, what is the part you least enjoy?

Editing! I’m not a fan of editing episodes because I can still only do the basics. I would love to be able to send it off to an editor who can do it faster and more efficiently than I can.

What do you want listeners to get from it?

I want listeners to feel like they are just eavesdropping on a conversation between two people in a cafe, or listening to two old friends catching up. I want to inspire my listeners to stay curious to the world around us and stay open to understanding others and celebrating our differences. I want someone to listen to an episode about language they’d never even thought of and come away from it wanting to learn more about it and its culture and maybe even wanting to travel to the places where the language is spoken. I also think it would be fantastic if they picked up the language if it aligns with their personal goals but I understand that it might not be the most realistic request! 

Was there ever an episode that had you really dying to learn the language you’d been talking about after it was over?

There’s so many! Sicilian, Swahili, isiZulu, Hawaiian are the first few that come to mind but I really want to be able to understand a little bit in every language. The French language episodes I’ve done were integral in getting me back into learning French and made me feel like I can just do it if I make an effort (I’d barely been making an effort before, tbh). The Arabic episodes are what really made me want to learn Arabic. I’d tried it once after college and didn’t succeed through I’ve always thought Arabic is incredibly beautiful. So those handful of episodes where we’ve talked about Arabic made me decide that it will be my next language. I can’t wait!

What’s your best tip for someone who wants to start learning a new language?

The only advice I have is to put aside your ego and try to work to get over your fear of sounding stupid and making mistakes. I’ve learned over the past few years that the only thing holding me back was my fear of sounding like a foreigner and having an accent. But I slowly started to realize that I am a foreigner and I do have an accent and that’s ok. As long as I can communicate and be understood and understand what is being said to me, that is worth focusing on. I had a big fear of speaking French and of practicing and failing. I finally got sick of my own excuses and decided to go into language exchanges before I was ready and just stand in discomfort that I felt. It eventually went away and now, I feel a lot more confident to say the wrong things, get corrected and learn to say the right things. It’s part of the process.

What do you think the future might hold for you and your business?

I’m open to see where this show and platform will take me. I am dedicated to being the best global citizen that I can be and sharing stories of people from around the world and celebrating our cultures.

Check out Speaking Tongues here, or find it on your favourite podcast app!

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