Does public speaking give you nightmares? Have you been learning a language for several years but the cat gets your tongue every time you encounter a native speaker? Hyper-polyglot and three time TED-Talk speaker Sébastien Roger de Nuñez would like to share his simple but effective advice with you.
Sébastien grew up in France with an Argentinean mother, and has travelled and worked in several countries such as Argentina and Romania. Sébastien is a linguistic mastermind. He speaks 12 languages including fluent French, Spanish and English and managed his own language school for several years. However, what makes this polyglot really stand out is how he allies his language skills with other forms of communication. Sébastien applies his skillset as an improv actor to his current position as a communication coach; offering one-to-one classes and organising workshops which are the key to success for business people hoping to get their voices heard amongst the crowds of competition.
Amongst his language studies, acting and public speaking pursuits, Sébastien directed an award-winning documentary film, What music do you speak?, in which he embarks on a road trip from Buenos Aires to the north of Argentina. Sébastien’s work is organic and authentic. His documentary film allows ordinary local people whom he encounters at village festivals and local bars the chance to share their remarkable stories with the unimposing camera. Sébastien’s approach as a director is to listen, follow and weave together a logical sequence of events; whilst equally reflecting the spontaneous beauty of the trip. This endeavour would broaden Sébastien’s understanding of the art of communication. In his film, he demonstrates that music is a language which transverses all linguistic and cultural borders. It unifies us whilst celebrating our differences. Embodying the universal nature of music in Argentina, Sébastien shows us that in Argentina, you do not need a fancy piano, nor a qualification, nor even an ounce of natural talent to pick up an instrument.
One of Sébastien's striking abilities is his positive energy and a can-do attitude which has inspired his 223,000 TED-talk viewers to take up language learning. In his talk ‘Un polyglotte sommeille en vous’ (‘The Multilingual in You’, in French with English subtitles), Sébastien explains that he was never born with a natural gift for language acquisition. He struggled to make any progress learning Japanese in the classroom environment. The real turning point was when he decided to start to speak the language from Day 1, focusing on what he already knew from languages that he had previously acquired. Sébastien’s no-frills approach is all centred around communication; if you are understood, he says, you have succeeded in your mission.
Hi, Sébastien. Thank you so much for offering to share your experiences with The Definite Article today. First, tell me a little bit more about your background and your studies.
Hi, it’s a pleasure to be here. So, I grew up in France and my father is French but my mother is Argentine. Since my father’s Spanish is very limited, French was the main language in my household growing up. Although I did understand some Spanish, I certainly did not speak the language perfectly. In terms of my studies, I actually completed an engineering degree but as soon as I graduated, I knew that it was not the right career for me.
Well, an engineer doesn’t really exchange with other people and I had a thirst for a career which would enable me to socialise and communicate with others. I had already started to learn English and Japanese whilst I was at engineering school before I went to live in Argentina for 2 years. By this point, I had got the bug for language learning!
Why are languages so important to you?
For me, languages open the door to understanding diversity. Human beings speak multiple languages simultaneously; not only on a linguistic level but also an emotional, logical, physical, spiritual, visual and auditory level.
The French and the UK education systems both have very poor reputations when it comes to language learning. Why do you believe that so many students never succeed in obtaining a reasonable level of second language acquisition by the time that they leave school?
In France, I would say that it isn’t the teachers’ fault, as they are very qualified. The problem is that the main objective which the school system is geared around is getting good grades on a piece of paper. The school system focuses on what you ‘must’ do; you ‘must’ get good grades, you ‘must’ learn a certain way, etc. and students conform to these rules out of fear. In contrast, in order to succeed in language learning, you must first encourage the learner to want to learn the language. You cannot force the student to be enthusiastic. Instead, you must create situations that will gently encourage them: for example, by setting up a debate in the classroom.
This is interesting because there is a common belief that children under eight years old are a lot more capable of naturally picking up other languages. Do you believe this to be true?
I don’t think so as I can learn a new language in three weeks! The more languages you speak, the easier it becomes to pick up new ones and that’s why I was able to start to understand and form some basic sentences in Dutch and Polish very quickly. I saw that my mother had reached fluency in a foreign language after just five years. This taught me that it was possible to learn a new language, which fed my positive mentality. I disagree that children learn languages very quickly; a child is completely immersed in a native speaker environment and is forced to learn the language in order to interact with the world around them. Even then, it takes them three years to start to maintain basic conversations in their mother tongue; compared to the three weeks that it takes me to start to speak a foreign language! The moment that you decide that learning the language is a priority, you are able to quickly make progress. When I was at university, I learnt two foreign languages without ever having the intention of going to the countries. Of course, I ended up giving up because if the idea does not seem rewarding, you will never have the motivation to persevere with your language studies.
How did you eventually manage to motivate yourself?
It was travelling which really inspired me to learn languages. You see, when you close your eyes and imagine your end achievement and you can’t help getting really excited, then you know that you have the motivation that you need to succeed! I absolutely fell in love with travelling and working abroad. For me, learning a foreign language is ultimately acting; broadening the horizons of who you can be and how you are. It is a road of self discovery in which you embrace unfamiliar things along the way and embed yourself in another culture and an alternative perspective on life. This ultimately broadens your own vision of yourself and the world around you.
Surely not just anyone can speak multiple languages like you! Where does natural talent come into play?
I truly believe that anyone can do anything. This doesn’t mean, however, that your upbringing isn’t important. For example, if your parents never really spoke to you, then you are bound to experience some setbacks when learning to communicate yourself. Not everyone has the talent to be excellent at something. For example, anyone can play a musical instrument but very few people can play like Mozart. Languages are exactly the same but this certainly doesn’t mean that we should let others down by refusing to try to communicate with them.
I’m sure that I am not the only Durham student who has found that when I make an effort to speak with natives in the target language, they instantly switch to English as they are keen to practise! How would you act in this situation?
One of the very first phrases that I absolutely master when I learn a new language is ‘I don’t speak English.’ So when someone starts to speak to me in English, I put on this really confused face (lowers eyebrows and looks around) but you have to really use your tone of voice and your body language to make them think that you are totally lost! You can also fake your nationality, you (pointing at me) could say that you were Dutch, for example. You also have to be really, really stubborn. If they start to try to speak to you in your native language, continue to speak in the target language and don’t give in! Although this depends on the situation, of course. For example, if I meet a German person in France, I know that they are going to really persist in order to be able to practise their French with me. On the other hand, when I’m in Germany, I make an effort to exclusively speak in German.
Beyond language learning, it is often said that the new generation has appalling communication skills in general because they are constantly glued to their smartphones. Do you agree?
For me, the fact that the new generation is addicted to their smartphones is the symptom; not the cause. Actually, technology has allowed us to communicate more. The problem with today’s society is that we are too afraid to look at ourselves in the mirror. In the Middle Ages, it was only the king who was granted the authority to speak but nowadays, everybody has a microphone, everybody has the power to project their voice on social media. However, we cannot shift that lump in our throats knowing that an invisible audience lies behind our computer screen.
What is it about public speaking then that sends shivers down our spines?
It all comes down to human instincts. Our biggest fear is to be rejected by the rest of the group as in the forest, rejection meant inevitable death. When you start to speak in front of a crowd, you are asking the audience to judge you, which we naturally consider to represent a threat to our survival. However, we no longer live in the forest! If one group rejects us, so what? We can just stroll over to the next group! We must remember that it is not about us, but rather it is about them, our audience. We, the speakers, are just there to serve. All you need to imagine is that you are standing around a campfire and it is your turn to get up on stage and share your story.
So many incredibly intelligent scientists and mathematicians, for example, really struggle to get their message across and share their knowledge with others. Why is this such a problem for them?
A lot of people wear a mask to fool people into thinking that they are not afraid of judgement. For many people, this mask is the PowerPoint which is their way of saying ‘don’t look at me, look over there at the slide’. Their shield is their suit and their tone of voice which all help to put on a professional front. Even if their presentation is boring, this isn’t a problem for them as they are simply providing the audience with what is expected of them. After all, the audience cannot criticise what the scientist or mathematician is saying, as they are supported by the figures projected on the screen.
So, how can you prepare yourself before facing the audience?
A master doesn’t need to prepare! You see, there are several stages to mastering. First of all, there is ‘unconscious incompetence’: when you don’t realise that you’re not good at something, for example, children fall into this category. Then comes ‘conscious incompetence’: when you realise that you are really bad at something. Next comes ‘conscious competence’: when you can do something really well but it takes effort. The final stage is ‘unconscious competence’: when you would still be able to do it perfectly even if you were woken up during the middle of the night to do it. For example, musicians and athletes are so good at what they do that they make it look easy. It is quite simply a myth when people tell you that you won’t be judged by the audience when you go up on stage. You must prepare to be judged; people will naturally question if what you are saying is worth their time and trust. The ball is in your court if you are happy with where you are standing and you understand that the audience is there to help you to grow.
How can the audience help the speaker to develop?
Well, you need to listen to the audience’s feedback and opinions in order to reflect on your own performance. This doesn’t mean that you have to apply what they are saying, but you need to at least be open and listen. This means that you need to be able to accept compliments (rather than resorting to the default ‘no biggy’ response) and take on criticism (without blaming the fact that you were tired or anything else). Dare to face resistance head on, start off by recognising that people have different points of view and you will then earn their trust. This will clear the way for you to share your own opinion.
Finally, what direction do you think that your career will take in the future?
My journey as a communicator has now moved on beyond pure language learning. Now, my mission is centred around helping people to deal with resistance, own their own lives, love their jobs and make money. I aim to combine my expertise as a communicator with the general life skills which I have developed in order to help people to ask themselves ‘how can I shine the brightest?’
Find out more about Sébastien’s work by clicking on the links below
Speaker reel: youtu.be/b7xanl6KUJs
TEDx Langues: youtu.be/vdImQveEI0c
Film trailer: https://vimeo.com/151503011
FREE full film in English: https://vimeo.com/154847574
Purchase DVD: www.whatmusicdoyouspeak.com
(Interview conducted in both French and English on 22nd March 2019. Sections translated from original French to English by Clorrie Yeomans).