Learning Languages I

This post is from my newsletter. Some time ago I decided to put down to (virtual) paper the stories of how I picked up the languages that I speak. I think it makes for an interesting reading, so here I share it again.

After reading my Coaching and Playing email, Scott, a reader of this newsletter, pointed out that perhaps there is similarity between teaching a language and learning a language in the same way there is similarity between coaching and playing chess. While I have never taught a language, I have managed to learn a few and this comment spurred me to write the story of each language I have learnt.

There is no direct chess connection in this email, but if it wasn’t for chess I would have never been in all these situations where I was exposed to the languages I eventually learned.

I speak 7 languages: Macedonian, English, Serbian, Bulgarian, Spanish, Italian and Russian. I understand some French and I can say a few things in it, but I don’t really count it as a language I know. While Macedonian is my mother tongue, all the others have a different story how I came to master them. Here are their stories in chronological order.

The second language I learned was English. I was always in contact with the language since I was a child, even though living in Yugoslavia this wasn’t always that easy. I think it was my father’s interest in western culture that brought the language in the house. Both him and my mother went to English courses and they knew to speak it. I think an important factor in my grasp of the English was that when I was 6 or 7 my parents bought a ZX Spectrum computer and I was fascinated by it, even more so by all the games I could play on it. The computer worked in the computer language Basic and I learned some of the commands and how to write simple programs in it. The games were also in English (my favourite was Football Manager) and I was forced to learn in order to be able to play them. I was constantly asking my father what something meant and we also had two huge volumes of English-Serbo-Croatian and vice versa dictionaries that I quickly learned how to use. A bit later, when I was around 10 my parents sent me to the School for Foreign Languages which I visited until I was 18. Long before the end of those courses I spoke, read and wrote English without a single problem and this only made my University studies in English Language and Literature more pleasant and easy. English became an integral part of me so much that I often think in it and I even don’t remember a time when I didn’t speak it in some way.

Serbo-Croatian was the official language of the country I was born in, Yugoslavia. I was constantly exposed to it when I was a child as there were many books, newspapers, comic books and TV shows that I was consuming that were in that language. Similarly to English it didn’t feel like a foreign language and I never felt like I had to “learn it”, I just understood it. When I started going to tournaments in Yugoslavia as a junior and I got to know people from the country I started to speak it. The language has cases, unlike Macedonian and English, but this has never been a problem for me even though I never learned them – in fact this gave me some problems in school later on when we were learning the cases as I couldn’t really be bothered by the grammar when I could speak the language without mistakes. Generally, and this applies to all the languages I speak, I never liked grammar and never studied it, always relying on the exposure to the language and speaking it myself.

[Curiously enough, I also struggled when I had to learn “logical languages” like Latin in high school and Old English at University.]

Bulgarian is a language I also assimilated quickly. In the early 90s there were many tournaments in Bulgaria which were easy to go to and were rather cheap to play in. Bulgarian always sounded to me as mixture of Macedonian and Russian and I never had problems understanding Bulgarians when they spoke to me. This led me to conclude that they can also understand me when I spoke Macedonian to them, but while this was mostly true for the chess players, it wasn’t so for the other people. So what usually happened was me speaking Macedonian to the chess players, them speaking in Bulgarian and we understood each other perfectly, while I spoke Bulgarian to people outside the chess world. A bit later, at the beginning of the new century, I had a Bulgarian girlfriend and I was spending a lot of time in the country, which only made me more comfortable with the language.

These three languages were the only ones I spoke for quite some time. As a child I was also exposed to Russian, because of the many Russian chess books we had at home and my father also knew some Russian. He even made the Herculean effort to translate Nimzowitsch’s My System from Russian, writing in a notebook, so he can read it while we were going over the book. After a while I started to read the chess books in Russian myself, but as I later found out a funny thing happened with this “reading.” While after a while (bugging my father for the meaning of the words and later constantly using a dictionary) I could understand 100% of the chess books I realised that this wasn’t the case when what was written wasn’t about chess. I discovered this when I attempted to read Botvinnik’s memoires about his life. I saw that when he was talking about chess I could understand everything, but when he was talking about other topics I understood very little. Another issue was that at that time I didn’t realise that what was written was not pronounced in the same way as the letters used, a bit similar to English. I was rudely awakened to this difference when I first heard Russians speak at a tournament – it all sounded like “nyanyanyanya” to me! So I couldn’t speak or understand spoken Russian until 2005 when I spent one month in Russia.

In the next installement I will tell how I learned Italian, Spanish and Russian.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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