How to learn and speak many languages?

It’s not easy for me to answer the question: “How many languages do you speak?”. There are some that I only speak on a very basic level, while with others I am more comfortable. It all started because my favourite book as a child was the World Atlas. I dreamt of travelling the world. Studying languages has been an avenue to help me communicate during my stays in lands far and wide. As I approach my 50th birthday next year, I look back and feel satisfied that I have been able to visit more than 100 countries. In eight of these countries I’ve been able to spend extensive periods of time as a sojourner of several weeks or months. In seven countries, I’ve resided.

The languages listed are in chronological order of when I began contact with them. Each language has its own journey as well as its own personality and story. Some of them do not appear in the article for lack of space, but the infographics show a few of the places where I used different languages as I lived, sojourned or travelled in different parts of the world. I also write at least one special thing about each language.

ENGLISH

Although I grew up in the United States, I haven’t lived there as an independent adult and I haven’t everyday contact with people who grew up there. That means that my spoken English often doesn’t sound like standard American English anymore. When I write, my default computer settings bring out -ise, -our, -re, and the double L, as in the United Kingdom. So I prefer: travelling, realise, colour, and theatre rather than traveling, realize, color, and theater.

Something special about English:
It’s the only language I speak which has a capital letter for the first person pronoun: I. How did ‘I’ become so important?

GREEK

Because I grew up far away from Greece, I didn’t have exposure to the language outside of the Greek community. Thanks to classes at the Greek Orthodox Church, I learned the Greek alphabet how to read and write the language. As a Greek citizen, I enjoyed the years living and working in Greece and using the language daily.

Something special about Greek:
Greek has evolved slower than other modern languages I’ve studied. Byzantine Greek texts not so difficult to read, compared the original The Canterbury Tales, La Divina Commedia, Cantar de Mio Cid, or La Chanson de Roland.

Greek uses declensions. So we can be creative with the word order and people will know which is the subject and which is the object. People still understand us and we are still grammatically correct.

FRENCH

French is the language of my best friends during my last year of high school. Thanks to these two friends, I reached conversational level while still in high school. It was a rewarding experience that led to a scholarship for me in France to improve my French in Angers, France. It was also the main language of my four-month journey from Morocco to the Ivory Coast.

Something special about French:
French has a literary past, le passé simple, which you can use in literature, historical writing and formal documents. You wouldn’t use this form of past tense when speaking.

ITALIAN

Italian is the last language I had a foothold in before I became an adult. It is the language I’ve used a lot during my work as a tour leader in Ticino, Switzerland and in Italy.

Something special about Italian:
Italian has a broad array of modifying suffixes, such as -ino, -one, -etto, -accio, -ello, -olo, -otto, -uccio, and -astro. which can make something small, cute, dear, large, ugly, bad, and so forth. You can classify them as diminutives, augmentatives, terms of endearment, and pejoratives.

RUSSIAN

Russian is the language of my three-month people to people exchange in the Soviet Union. It is the language of the country that I wanted to see with my own eyes rather than just via the news reports.

Something special about Russian:
Russian, and Slavic languages in general, doesn’t have articles, such as ‘the’ and ‘a’
When you speak or write in the past tense, you have to reveal your gender.

SPANISH

Spanish is a language I’ve used for travel, work and daily life. The richness of the differences from country to country and from region to region are aspects I enjoy.

Something special about Spanish:
In some areas such as Argentina, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, it is common to us vos instead of tú, for the familiar singular form of ‘you’. The plural form of familiar ‘you’ is vosotros in mainland Spain. In the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, ustedes is the familiar plural of the second person.

SIGN LANGUAGE

This is the language that I had once dreamed of learning because I was thinking of its potential as a universal language. During my course of American Sign Language, I learned that there were dozens of different sign languages across the world. This news disillusioned me because I wanted a universal form of communication. Instead I found another language limited by geography. I still want to develop a universal sign language to make it easier for everybody to connect with anybody, anywhere. So that is project that I’m looking forward to embarking upon in the future.

Something special about sign language:
Sign languages also incorporate facial expressions. Sign languages do not represent spoken languages. For example, British sign language is different from American sign language.

MANDARIN AND CHINESE CHARACTERS

This is the language that fascinated me when I was a child. It seemed daunting to learn and I didn’t know how to go about it. Because I landed a job in Taiwan, my opportunity to study Mandarin finally arrived. The first week of study, all I did was learn how to pronounce the tones. The basis to form characters is through 214 radicals. Once you start, it is a never-ending learning story.

Something special about Mandarin:
Because words are often just one syllable, many of the same sounds are repeated. A couple of features help distinguish one ‘ma’ from another. 1) tones, which help you know whether you are talking about mother, horse, hemp or curse. 2) classifiers, which are like having an addition to the article ‘the’ or ‘a’ in English, which would demonstrate the shape or form of an object. Some classifiers are even more specific. For example, there is a classifier that is only for people and another classifier that is only for horses.

TAGALOG

This is the language that I studied independently while studying a Master of International Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. It’s my first Malayo-Polynesian family language.

Something special about Tagalog:
There is an inclusive ‘we’ and an exclusive ‘we’. In languages in Europe if one says ‘we’re going to the market’ it’s not clear whether that means ‘you, I and they are going to the market’ or ‘I and they are going to the market (and you’re not)’. Tayo is the inclusive we and kami is the exclusive we.
This feature is common in Malayo-Polynesian languages. It turns out that some dialects of Mandarin have this, too, but I didn’t learn about it while I lived in Taiwan.

BAHASA INDONESIA

While studying for my first masters degree, I had a roommate from Indonesia. So I decided to begin learning Bahasa Indonesia. The language is based on the neighbouring Malay language. It’s purpose is to unify Indonesia, which has more than 500 different home languages.

Something special about Bahasa Indonesia:
To say something in the plural, you just say it twice. Rumah = house. Rumah rumah = houses. If you say two houses or some houses, you don’t repeat rumah. Sometimes there is a hyphen between the two words and a new meaning emerges. Mata = eye. Mata mata = eyes. Mata-mata = spy.

TURKISH

During the time period where I was taking tour groups to Ephesus and Istanbul, I decided to study Turkish. This is the language I studied because I thought at one point that the only thing I would do in my life was to bring groups back and forth between Greece and Turkey.

Something special about Turkish:
There are two versions of the letter I. One always has a dot above it and not the other. They have a very different pronunciation from each other. Using the international phonetic alphabet, the letter I is pronounced /ɯ/ and the letter İ is pronounced /i/. Turkish changes the word ending when the noun is accompanied by a nationality. For example: araba = car; almanya arabası = German car.

CATALAN

Some non-Catalan speakers wonder why I bothered studying it. Yet native Catalan speakers are usually delighted that I make an effort to speak Catalan.

Something special about Catalan:
The difference between the past tense and the future is a matter of just the letter ‘a’.
For example, to say “I will go” is “vaig a anar” and to say “I went” is ‘vaig anar’
There’s also a double L in Catalan with a point in between each L. For example, collection is
col·lecció . Also, we are used to countries having their own Internet domain endings, but in Catalan also the language that has its own domain ending: .cat.

DUTCH

Dutch has complex grammatical rules, but not as bad as German, because they abolished their cases and they merged the masculine and feminine into the same gender. Dutch still has the neutral gender. Dutch can also have long words such as the committee for planning a children’s Carnaval parade: kindercarnavalsoptochtvoorbereidingswerkzaamheden.

Something special about Dutch:
From a historical linguistic point of view you might say that Dutch is the only language of the old west Germanic language group on the mainland of Europe that maintained its pronunciation while adopting a many loan words over the centuries. Roughly 75% of the entire vocabulary is borrowed. But in the average newspaper, about one in three words is borrowed.

NORWEGIAN

This is the language where everybody’s dialect is accepted. People who grow up in Norway get used to the many ways the language is spoken throughout the country, whereas those who don’t grow up here struggle to understand the many dialects that are spoken throughout the country.

Something special about Norwegian:
There are two written forms of the language in use today. Bokmål, is so similar to Danish that you can take a few spelling rules and easily convert it to Danish with little effort aside from certain words that only exist in one language or the other. Nynorsk is a creation to distinguish Norwegian from Danish. It is based on a variety of dialects spoken in the country.

ESPERANTO

Esperanto is a synthetic language with the most logical structure of any language I’ve ever studied. The so called ‘table words’ are the epitome of logic, where every word follows along a predictable sequence. Where, how, why, (kie, kiel, kial) for example are connected to: there, that way, because (tie, tiel, tial) and to nowhere, no way, and for no reason (nenie, neniel, nenial). On a virtual team for a project I’ve been on, Esperanto was the working language.

Something special about Esperanto:
Some people say Esperanto doesn’t have a culture, but Esperanto has developed a culture with music, literature and its own sense of humour.

Dimitris Polychronopoulos

S.A in Interlanguage & Intercultural Communication at OSI Occidental Studies Institute and Director at Founder Institute. Greece/Norway.