My name is Jan van der Aa. I’m an entrepreneur, traveler and a polyglot. I have lived, worked and traveled in over 90 countries and today I speak 10 languages to various degrees. This hasn’t always been the case…
In high school I was terrible at foreign languages. I thought that learning a foreign language was just not for me. It wasn’t until 2009 when I did an exchange program in China that I found out that learning a language, Mandarin in this case, could actually be fun and I became pretty good at it. After six months I was conversational in Mandarin and I was so excited that I wanted to learn more languages. I did research on how to learn quickly and I interviewed and studied the world’s most accomplished polyglots.
Meanwhile I taught myself Cantonese, Portuguese, and French, as well as improving my German and Spanish. I’ve learned most of the languages I speak at home, without traveling. Even when I learned Brazilian Portuguese in Brazil, I practiced most of the time ONLINE!
The languages I speak:
- Dutch – native
- English – C2 (probably?)
- Mandarin – B2/C1
- French – B2
- Portuguese – B2
- German – B2
- Cantonese – B1/B2
- Spanish – B1/B2
- Russian – A2
- Thai – A2
How I learned 10 languages
Let’s go back to where it all started. I had always been very bad at languages in school. In high school the only subject I failed was English. My English teacher at the time told me never to apply for a job that required English. I almost thought he was right when I failed most of my English exams again in college a few years later. I was always one of the worst students in the class. Language learning was just not for me and I had almost started to accept that. There was one thing that saved me…
During my second year in college I got the opportunity to study Chinese language and Culture at university in China for a semester. I was fascinated by the country. The chaos, the food, the people, their habits and the language. It was a complete different world for me and I loved it.
Instead of learning dialogues from the textbooks by heart as the teacher suggested, I focused on learning and memorizing the words and phrases that I needed to talk with the people on the streets. I used the words and phrases that I knew and I got to practice the language a lot. I didn’t do very well in exams but after six months I was one of the few students from my class that was actually conversational in Mandarin.
I became really passionate about language learning and I uploaded this video on YouTube in which I spoke 6 languages. I had to prepare the script, as I did not speak all those languages well. Soon I found out that there were ‘’polyglots’’ on YouTube who spoke more than 10 languages! This was something I found so cool and I wanted to learn more about it. I started reading about how to become a better learner and tried out many language-learning methods. I also met and interviewed some of the world’s best polyglots in different places all over the world, as you can read here.
Using various learning methods I taught myself to become conversational in Japanese, Cantonese and later Portuguese and French I learned most of these languages from my home in the Netherlands and most of them took me less than 3 months to learn!
Me as an entrepreneur
In my last year in college I was doing an internship in China. I worked for two young Dutch entrepreneurs in Shenzhen who were doing big things for their young age. This really inspired me to start my own business and before I got my bachelors degree in Marketing and Economics, I registered my first translation business.
My boss had some experience abroad and one day he asked me if I could arrange a website translation into 10 languages for him. One week later the website was translated into 10 languages for a good price and I thought if they were happy with the job, I could make this into a profitable business.. I put an advertisement on the local Ebay site in the Netherlands (Marktplaats), and within a week I received the first order of more than a thousand euros.
Since 2012 we’ve been translating packaging and instruction manuals from English into the 24 EU languages for trade companies in the Netherlands.
Although I’m not officially a translator, I’m fluent in Chinese and I’ve spent a lot of time with Chinese entrepreneurs and government officials. This allowed me to get a deep understanding of the way the Chinese make decisions and run their businesses.
I have helped Chinese entrepreneurs setting up companies in the Netherlands and introducing them to potential partners and clients. Also I’ve helped Dutch companies and government agencies organizing trade missions in China.
I regularly speak at universities, conferences and business associations about successful language learning and cross cultural communication.
As I do most of my work online, I often have the chance to work abroad, as long as I have a good internet connection, of course. Therefore I often take the opportunity to work in other countries and get to know people from all over the world. I try to visit at least 10 new countries every year.
In my free time I also like working out, reading books (non-fiction) and hanging out with friends.