Don’t let lack of resources stop you being resourceful


This week we were lucky enough to get an interview with Ernestine Lyons, life-long language learner (Mandarin, Hindi, Russian and Arabic), and recent speaker at the international polyglot conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Languages have been a passion for Ernestine from an early age, helping her think beyond the confines of the Detroit neighbourhood she grew up in, travel the world and find her confidence. Now she is dedicating herself to helping other kids in Detriot start along the same journey with her new social enterprise, Linglobal.

Linglobal is focused on providing educational resources to students in the Metro-Detroit area to acquire new languages and experience new cultures.

When did you first realise that you had a gift for language learning?

“I think it was when I discovered I had a gift for imitating peoples accents, I was around 9 years old when my mom gave me and my siblings a language to learn. My brother was assigned German, My older sister French and I was given Spanish.

I had fun trying out my Spanish accent and memorizing phrases. But when I discovered I could be understood by Spanish speakers in Detroit I was thrilled to make new connections. Languages were now fun and a way to escape the tough neighborhood I grew up in.”

What is your favourite language and why?

“I have a hard time choosing between Mandarin Chinese and Russian. Probably because I spent a considerable amount of time in both countries and learnt the languages ‘in real life’.

Weather it was getting lost alone in the streets of St. Petersburg at 2 am and having to bravely ask for directions or it was starring in a Chinese TV commercial and having to memorize my lines, immersion brought out the best in me!


What is the biggest advantage that language learning has given you?

“I think it has given me the gift of perspective and determination. It’s empowering knowing that I am brave enough to put myself in uncomfortable situations, speak to strangers, potentially say the wrong things, but nonetheless be understood and get by.

Language transformed me from a shy kid to an outgoing and adventurous woman.”

I feel like I have been given a voice because of languages and I never let a lack of resources keep me from communicating. I use the words I do know to describe the words and concepts I don’t know. ”

What learning achievement are you most proud of?

“Being able to show kids from the inner city I grew up in, how learning a new language can offer you a way out of poverty and help you imagine a better future.

As an American, I want to dispel the apathy that we have around the usefulness of learning a second language. It is a lot of work, but it’s worth it!”

As an adult learner you quickly realize you won’t speak your target language overnight. So it helps to have a positive and forgiving mindset, you have to know that it will be a long while until you see meaningful strides in your language growth.

Try to connect with people who speak or are studying the language as much as possible as this is a great way to stay motivated. When you enjoy the journey and are not obsessed with getting to the destination it helps you to keep on track.”

How do you motivate others to learn new languages?

“I show them how not to let a lack of resources keep them from being resourceful! The most important thing I like to teach is to be brave enough to just speak, not to worry about getting it perfect but to keep going.

Of course, you also have to put in the hard work. We often hear motivational pep talks encouraging us to increase productivity at work. I think language learning is the same; you have to set a goal and then work diligently towards it, believing, no matter how bad it is or how hard it gets, you are going to make it on your language journey. I show them that language is something tangible that they can measure and achieve.”

Can languages make you financially rich as well as spiritually richer?

“That is a great question and its one that I don’t think I have the answer to. I’m not a huge advocate for “the passion hypothesis” which posits that you should go after what you are passionate about. Instead, I like to encourage people to hone a skill that is useful (and perhaps profitable) that can then finance your hobbies.

I find that I have been fulfilled spiritually by my language skills, but having a solid skill to go with your language skills is always best. Languages are an asset but they look even better on top of an existing skill like project management or marketing.”

Can you tell us about your vision for languages role in improving life chances around the world?

“Language can show you the world, it gives you a tool to connect, feel empathy for others and to ultimately feel loved. It transcends socioeconomic factors, it is the great equalizer. Language gives you equity and value, it gives you the courage to see more than what you are as you make progress towards who you want to become.

There is power in the agency that a language gives you, when you feel like you have power, you then feel important. That self-esteem can be used to create a more unified global world.”


Thanks so much Ernestine for a truly inspiring response. There are so many great quotes in your answers! We wish you all the very best with your future learning and new Detroit project. Do come back and tell us how you got on.


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About the Author Simon Goodall

Language learner, teacher and contributing author to the Rosetta Stone magazine

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