Gina grew up speaking French and Creole, and she studied many languages to various levels throughout her life, including English, Spanish, and German. Now she’s preparing for a trip to Korea to research their traditional recipes. She studies Korean with Glossika, lives in Costa Rica, gives online health consultations, and hosts retreats.
We talked to Gina about how she uses languages in her daily life and career, how her children learned five languages from a very early age, and what she finds challenging about language learning.
Overcoming the language barrier
I'm originally from Haiti, and I learned two languages from birth: French and Haitian Creole. My parents spoke French with me, and other people spoke Creole, and all the songs were always in Creole.
Of course, when I went to secondary school, it was obligatory to have English courses. I had four or five years of at least four hours of English per week. It was not easy for me. And I also took a year of Spanish and it was hell. I thought I didn’t have a gift for languages.
In school, you only do grammar. You don't really get to speak the language. And it's a bit demotivating. You feel like you're not getting anywhere and you don't catch the logic of the language. And the worst, of course, is the pronunciation. At school, my teacher had a strong French accent. So I still have an accent when I speak English.
But eventually, I got a relatively good level of English. After graduating, I left my country at 18 and went to study in the US where I lived for 12 years. I studied electrical engineering there at the university.
You know, we have so many barriers in life — a sex barrier, a gender barrier, an age barrier, a racial barrier... But when I went to the U.S., I realized the language barrier was the strongest. There were students from different countries, and people were divided into groups. So all the French-speaking people were together, and the Spanish were together, and so on. Because of French, I could perfectly communicate…and not only with words. With words, I can communicate with somebody who speaks English. But with French, I can communicate to another level. I could make a real heart-to-heart connection. For instance with people from (say) Morocco — and I had never met people from Morocco before. That's why I know the value of speaking a language and that's why I want to learn languages
In the U.S. I met my future husband, who is from Germany. Later we moved to Costa Rica together. When I came to Costa Rica, I had only a little bit of Spanish. Where I lived in the countryside, few people spoke English. I like to talk to people, and I suddenly couldn’t. It was a big problem at first. I wanted to cry! But it was also good motivation. I decided to watch soap operas and read the newspaper. I tried to do that every day. And, you know, one day I was fluent. But it took me about four years to become completely fluent in Spanish.
How to teach your kids five languages and not mess up
My children speak five languages fluently. I always spoke French with them, but I would sing in Creole. And my husband always spoke German with them. Everybody else in Costa Rica spoke Spanish to them. My husband and I always spoke English to each other. And to my shock, my children picked up all of those languages. It was unbelievable! (Note: this strategy is called OPOL, “one parent one language”.)
My older daughter did not talk early, not until she was three. But she was just processing. So one day I remember she said to me in French “Mom, I would like to have some fried green plantains”. And I didn't even realize she spoke. And then I automatically said, “ask Elsa.” (Our nanny.) And she turned and said the exact same thing to Elsa in Spanish. And then I realized she was talking… and not just talking but talking two languages at the same time! She could also speak German with my husband.
One day I remember I told my husband in English, it was time for our daughter to go to bed. And she was three or four then, and she replied in English: “I don't want to go to bed”. I nearly had a heart attack, because we thought we could speak English when we wanted to say something that we didn't want her to understand! So we're like, oh, God, what language are we going to use? We have no “secret language”!
Now she seems to be able to separate the languages very well. So whenever she needs to say a word in French that she doesn't know, she will pause and think. And she will say something that could be French, maybe a Spanish word and remove the O or the R at the end. You know, she would make an effort to say something that could exist in French. But usually, she avoids doing this and makes a huge effort to find the word in the language or the word that she knows the person will understand in that language. Somehow, maybe because, you know, she had to learn five languages at the same time.
Since I was raised in Haiti and we learned two languages at the same time, for me it was normal.My parents would only speak French to me, never Creole — although they knew it. But I had a friend in the US. His parents were from Mexico and did not really speak English. Nevertheless, they would speak English to him because they wanted him to not be like an immigrant. They only spoke English with him… but they could not speak English well. And so when he went to kindergarten, he was put in speech therapy. He didn't speak either Spanish or English. That stuck with me.
My children have never lived in a French-speaking country. All the same, it was important for me to teach them French, so they could communicate with my family. In the beginning, my youngest daughter would tell me that she didn't like French. But now she says, “Mommy, thank you so much for teaching me.” Now, she’s gone to study in Germany, and she has become good friends with a girl from an island called Mauricius. It’s in the Indian Ocean, near East Africa, and they were colonized by France. They have found that they can really connect through French. The biggest barrier is the language barrier.
How languages fuel professional passion
When I lived in the US, I got the flu. I had never gotten the flu in Haiti. And then a doctor gave me antibiotics for three months. In the end, they ended up doing severe damage to my digestive system, liver, and kidney. So from that point on — for the last 35 years — I have been studying alternative medicines. When you enter this world and you're trying to redo yourself, you study all that you can find. Now I teach people what I learned about what it takes for the human body to redo itself. This is my passion.
I tell my patients, don't invent things. Just imitate the traditional lifestyle as much as you can, especially for food. I’m very interested in the traditional food of different cultures, and I research traditional food principles.
Many years ago, I went to a South Pacific island, to Bora Bora. I remember they have a special ferment for food there. I needed to learn how to make that ferment. My friend found an older man on a faraway island. I went there and spent three days with this man. He taught me how to do this ferment from scratch. But you need to know the native language to have an experience like that. They speak French there, thank God.
And of course, I need to know these languages to give consultations. I have patients from different countries and use different languages every day. When I have patients from Mexico or Costa Rica, I speak Spanish with them. Some are from Haiti, so I speak French or Creole with them. And then I have some American patients or people from other countries — of course, it’s English with them. Basically, all day long I'm using English, French, Spanish, and occasionally Creole.
But now I’m very interested in Korean traditional food. My goal is to go to Korea to learn about their fermented food and their food in general. I realized that Koreans ferment everything. So I have tried to make Kimchi, and it didn't work whenever I tried. My kimchi was so sour, it nearly melted my teeth. So I thought I needed to go to Korea and see how they ferment things. And when I go to a country, I always try to interview old people about the food they had when they were children. I need to speak their language to do that. My goal is to spend six months in Korea.
Never bored learning Korean
For Korean, I had to start with a different app. I learned the basics there, like the alphabet, and maybe, hello, how are you — that sort of thing. But I didn’t want to go through formal language courses. I have taken courses many times in my life. It's always grammar, it's always books. For me, it seems like grammar should come afterwards, not first. That's why I was interested in Glossika. When you want to speak, the best approach is to be immersed somehow.
And I think Glossika has more of that approach. And then, since I have studied so many languages, I was not afraid to start Glossika. Many people — they have this fear, you know, because they've never learned another language. But my children learned all these five languages just by hearing them. Not by studying grammar. And that’s how Glossika approaches, too.
That's a huge plus with Glossika — you get to hear native speakers. In the beginning, I have to say, when I heard these Korean voices, I thought I would never be able to make it. But I thought I might as well try.
Now I'm watching soap operas in order to hear more, to get used to the sounds of the language. And from time to time, I catch a phrase because the sentences that I am learning now (on Glossika) people use fairly often in these soap operas. Maybe it was in the second month that I started catching some things. I remember I watched a soap opera and this lady — she lost all her money in the stock market. And she told her broker: “Are you sure?” I had just learned that phrase on Glossika, and I recognized it. I was so happy. Before, when I was watching my soaps, it was all one big noise. No separation between words. Now things are getting more and more separated. And every time I realize that, I feel happy.
For me, learning Korean is also a hobby. I find it so exciting to learn something from a place that’s so different than mine. And when I watch the soap operas, you know, I'm fascinated about how they talk, what they do, their way of entertaining themselves, the way they relate to their children and elders. It's just fascinating.
It's such a wonderful feeling to speak another language. For me, learning a language is a distraction. But it cannot be one with a grammar book. That's not a distraction. That's painful. But with Glossika, I have to say I really enjoy learning Korean.
Basically, the only thing that Glossika didn't teach me was the alphabet. On the internet, though, there are many places where you can first learn the alphabet. Then you can start right away with Glossika. You don’t feel discouraged. How can you be discouraged with Glossika? I mean, just repeat after the audio. It cannot be easier than that. Really, anybody can do it. So it's very motivating for me. Ever since I started Korean, I don't have a second to be bored.
And to be honest, I don’t want to stop at Korean. The next thing is Mandarin. It's time for Chinese now. Now that I speak English and Spanish all of the American continent is covered. And a lot of countries speak French. Now I’m ready to move to an Asian continent.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.