Carlos Yebra Lopez
Name: Carlos Yebra Lopez
Nationality or Ethnicity: Spanish
Where do you live? New York City
Languages: Spanish, Judeo-Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, French, Italian, English, German, Serbian, Arabic*
What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
Spanish is my native language and since I was born close to Catalonia, Catalan was also part and
parcel of my everyday life during my childhood (e.g. I would watch TV series or read comics in
Catalan). I came into contact with Judeo-Spanish while pursuing Holocaust Studies in Israel and got
hooked on it mostly because of the wide variety of linguistic influences I was able to recognize within
a single sentence (French, Turkish, Hebrew...) and how each of them was a window into a fascinating
period of History. I studied English and French in Primary and Secondary school, but did not get
proficient in any of them until a couple of linguistic stays in Cambridge and Paris/Charleroi. The one I
did in Cambridge left an indelible impression on me, since I was fortunate enough to meet an
excellent teacher who exposed me to the cultural, political and social ramifications and subtleties of
language like never before. I began to find learning languages more and more interesting and since I
was majoring in Philosophy at that time, I decided to start learning German in order to read Nietzsche
in the original version! Step by step, all of this translated into new career and personal prospects,
which made me take the plunge and decide to take it to the next level: learning somewhere between
five and ten languages. Thus, when I travelled to Serbia shortly afterwards I began learning the local
language so as to understand a famous philosopher (Slavoj Zizek) in his own terms (his native
language is actually Slovenian, but he did learn Serbian at high school, since he was born in
Yugoslavia and it was common to do so back then). Then, as a Fulbright scholar during my time at
Missouri Western University, I met a very nice group of Brazilians. We became friends fairly soon
and that got me interested in learning Brazilian so that I could get some of the frequent in-jokes they
were cracking. Italian has always struck me as a very elegant language and since my previous
experience with Latin-based languages had been very rewarding, I decided to go for it. I’m currently
learning Arabic as part of my PhD research at New York University, which focuses on understanding
the role of Islam in Europe.
Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Probably Judeo-Spanish, and the main reason for this is that unfortunately, there are not
many people in the world who are proficient in it.
What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
East Asian languages, particularly Chinese and Japanese.
So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
I am inclined to think that this, and related questions, such as what is the most beautiful or difficult
language in the world depend, to a great extent, on what your native language is (since it is this fact that
frames your perception as to what the standard language is/should be, and every other language is then
judged, understood, filtered or processed against this backdrop). Power is also sexy and cool, so those
languages that are spoken by the wealthy class tend to rate higher in people’s estimation of what counts as
sexy or not, as do languages that are spoken by people or nations that are considered physically attractive
(think of Ukraine, Russia and why not, Spain!). Having said that and as far as I am concerned, French is
probably the sexiest language.
What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
My linguistic stay in Cambridge happened at the same time I began reading some works in cultural Marxism (all of which emphasized the link between language and power) and also Wittgenstein, a famous philosopher of language who claimed things such as “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”, “philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language” and “to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life”. These experiences represented a true turning point vis-a- vis my prior perception of the language-learning process. It was at that moment that I fully realized that learning a language was no longer an object of study or a snobbish luxury item, but a real-life activity, a process of self-discovery and awareness expansion which could be temporarily instrumentalized, like a weapon, with momentous and unpredictable consequences. In short, the greatest rewards I get from speaking so many languages are the ability to further critical awareness, to interact at a global scale and to touch other people’s lives. And I suppose extra money, new relationships, travelling the world and making great memories can’t hurt either.
Some people say the world is really just going to have a few languages left in a 100 years, do you think this is really true?
According to some studies, there are still more multilingual than monolingual people in the world. However, globalization in general and colonization in particular (not to mention national linguistic planification) have increased not only the number of people that speaks just one language, but perhaps even more importantly, the number of people who perceive speaking just one language as being more natural or even legitimate than speaking two or more. So, yes, I believe that in the world at large there is a clear tendency towards speaking fewer and fewer languages. At the same time, of course, I don’t feel that I am in a position to judge what will happen in 100 years. No one really knows.
What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
If you are reading this, it’s because somewhere within you you have been, are, will or would like to be a
language learner. Great. As you begin this process, I would like to invite you to consider the fact that speaking a language is not a barrier, is not an assignment and is definitely not a special skill. Instead, think of language-learning as a journey and an everyday activity, a life-changing experience that will modify the way your brain works and the way you see the world and other people, as well as the way other people see you. Hopefully it will bring you access to more money, new relationships, amazing travelling experiences and unforgettable experiences. But even if none of this happens, it will still be worth it. You’ll understand when you get there. Oh, and one more thing: beware of the language industry. Once you have mastered your first foreign language, never spend more than 100 dollars in learning any other language. Instead, use free, online software, volunteer, find a language partner and more importantly, challenge yourself every single day in your path to linguistic greatness.