Erik Zidowecki is a computer programmer and language lover. He is a co-founder of UniLang and founder of Parleremo, both web communities dedicated to helping people learn languages. He is also the Editor in Chief of Parrot Time magazine, a magazine devoted to language, linguistics, culture and the Parleremo community.
- Tell us a little about yourself
My name is Erik Zidowecki, and I live in the state of Maine in the USA. I have a mixed heritage of Lithuanian on my father’s side and Canadian on my mother’s, along with a few other ethnicities tossed in. I got my bachelor of science degree in Computers and have been using them for over 20 years in developing resources and materials for people to learn languages.
- What languages do you speak and at what level?
Sadly, I am a monoglot, speaking only my native English fluently. I match the old joke “What do you call someone who speaks two language? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks only one language? American.”
I started teaching myself Russian when I was in high school. After making friends with an Italian exchange student, then visiting Italy the next year to visit him, I started learning Italian.
The main reason I have a hard time gaining fluency is because I am always working with different languages in order to make resources for others. To do that, I often need to focus on that language for a few weeks, compiling vocabulary, understanding and explaining the grammar, and more. Once that is done, I move along to another language. It means I have experience with many languages, but not the full capability of interacting through them.
- How do you choose the languages you learn?
As a kid, my interest in languages began when I started seeing other alphabets and writing systems. Understanding that people actually used those to communicate was the spark that got me fascinated with languages. Of particular note were the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets, which I taught myself, and the Mayan writings.
I chose Russian because I was fascinated by the sound as well as the alphabet. It has a harsh yet pleasing feel to my ears. I was also interested in the country and people, and I took several Russian history courses while in my University.
In my high school, I was expected to learn a foreign language, but only French and Latin were offered. Latin was the far more appealing to me, especially with the history and mythology tied up in it, so I took classes for that.
The Italian came out of nowhere. While it was closely related, both linguistically and geographically, to the Latin, I hadn’t really considered it until I because friends with an Italian exchange student named Lucio who came to my school in my third year.
Even then, I didn’t start studying it. In my final year of high school, my Latin class was trying to raise money to visit Italy, and I had already saved up the money for myself the previous summer. When the class trip fell through, I decided to go by myself, to visit Lucio. That is when I started studying and applying it during the two weeks he and I travelled around Italy.
- How often do you use each language?
I gave up the Russian before getting far enough to use it (although I did spend a number of years saying “spasibo” instead of “thank you”). Latin is hard to use outside of an academic setting, but my learning it gave me 1) a basic knowledge of roots which can be applied to most Romance languages and 2) a solid introduction to declining and conjugating.
I try to read and listen to Italian when I can, but I still find I abandon it too often because of other language projects I am working on.
- Which materials and methods do you use?
I have used mostly books and some internet sites mainly. I particularly like the Teach Yourself series of courses and the Berlitz phrasebooks. I’ve used many sites, including Memrise and LiveMocha, all with varying degrees of success.
- What learning methods would you suggest to others?
I think the best advice to anyone is that they need to find what works for them. To help with that, I wrote a series of articles about six language learning methods – audio, books, classes, software, internet, and immersion – then revised them into a single book. In it, I describe the different ways and give the positive and negative sides to them, so that people might better find what works for them.
- What inspired you to create Parleremo and Parrot Time?
After I graduated from my university, I started writing a language teaching program which I distributed as shareware. It included material for Italian, Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, Romanian, Swedish, and Lithuanian. As the world wide web developed (this is around 1995), I started converting those materials into a website.
That site, along with another site created by a Dutchman, were joined to create a language learning community, UniLang. This was back in 2000, when forums were just becoming popular, and long before Facebook and Twitter.
On UniLang, we had thousands of people discussing languages while using the phrasebooks, courses, links, and interactive games of the site.
In 2008, I left UniLang and started another community, Parleremo (Italian for “We will speak”), to take the learning methods in another direction. It is always expanding and at the moment is under a major reconstruction.
A community needs a periodical, if only just to share the common news. I wanted that and more for Parleremo, so in 2013, I started producing an online magazine, called “Parrot Time“, with the core focus of it being languages, linguistics, culture, and news about Parleremo. I encourage people to contribute, since I would like it to be something that is shared by others, both in the writing and reading.
While working on these, other projects have come out of them, including a blog (“View From the Town“), a publishing company which specializes in language puzzle books (“Scriveremo Publishing“) and a Zazzle store for language “goodies”, like shirts, mugs, and buttons.
- Share any thoughts/tips you’d like with the readers.
My path with languages has been one of the odder ones. Rather than trying to learn several languages, I have instead been working to help others learn.
Over the years, I have learned much and made many friends (as well as a few not-friends), and I am grateful to everyone who has helped and encouraged me, as well as to all the people who have used what I have created. I hope to keep providing language enthusiasts with what they can use for a long time.