The International Association of Hyperpolyglots - HYPIA. (c) 2019

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Interview with
Cesar Espinoza

Name: Cesar Augusto Espinoza Fuentes
Nationality or Ethnicity: Peruvian
Where do you live?: Lima - Peru
Languages: Spanish (native language), Portuguese, Italian, English, French, Catalan, German, Galician, Russian, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Romanian, Quechua and  Modern Greek

In a lesser degree but with a good basic knowledge anyway: Arabic (modern standard Arabic and a bit of the dialects mainly the Egyptian dialect), Hebrew, Farsi, Basque, Turkish, Hindi, Urdu, Mandarin, Japanese, Yiddish, Esperanto, Polish, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Indonesian, Aymara, Welsh.

 

1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?

Well, my story started when I was a pre-teen, at 12 years old, that was when I fell in love with languages but it didn’t happen suddenly, it was the consequence of a previous story of interest in other things related to cultures and countries. Since I was 4 I was fascinated by maps of the countries and my father bought me an atlas with all the countries of the world with the names of their capitals and cities, and since I was already able to read perfectly at the time, I could memorize all the names and capitals of the countries and I started traveling all over the world just with my maps and drawings, that was fascinating for me, then, I developed many other passions in my childhood years, like a passion for zoology, palaeontology, anatomy, watching dramas and soap operas and world history, and that’s when my passion for languages started up, because I wanted to imagine how the ancient peoples spoke in their original languages, and my passion for soap operas and films also made me become very fond of dramas and I wanted to become an actor or something like that, so I imagined that if I could learn the original languages I could understand and feel more vividly the films and shows that I used to watch on TV and cinema, by the way at elementary school I was very proficient in Spanish grammar and spelling and I won several times the award for the best spelling in my classroom, I could grasp the Spanish grammar quite well and easily and when I was taught English at school at 5th grade elementary school,I was able to assimilate English very easily, I discovered I enjoyed playing with words and grammar, it was not an ordeal to me as it was for most of my classmates, so I can say that at 12 years old when I was at 1 grade high school I was a proficient speaker of my native language (Spanish) and I was number 1 in my classroom in English, then at that time back in 1981 many Brazilian soap operas began being aired on the Peruvian TV and every time I saw the cast of actors and heard some songs of the soaps I was fascinated to see those exotic letters and hear those exotic words which sounded to me like half Spanish, but were also kind of mysterious and impossible for me to understand, from that moment on I felt an increasingly growing passion for languages and one of those months I found a record that my mother had with the compositions of the Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky whom my mom admired a lot, and I discovered that the introduction to the record was written in English, French and Russian, to me it was as if I had found a Rosetta stone, because I could finally try to figure out the Cyrillic letters by comparing the proper nouns with the ones written with Latin letters in English and French, and that’s what I did, I started deciphering each letter of the Cyrillic script by comparing them to the English equivalents and I made a list of more than 40 words of Russian words just like Champollion, and once I did that I made a similar list for the French words I was able to compile and in this case the task was much easier because I realized that a lot of the French words were similar to Spanish or to English, the only problem here was to know how to pronounce the French words and back in the early years of the 80’s there was no internet or satellite channels or any of the resources that we have nowadays to learn languages so my learning process was at that point really a titanic but precarious effort like someone trying to build a house in the middle of the desert, but I never gave up, and soon after those first efforts I asked my mom to buy me a French-Spanish dictionary that I had seen at a book store in Lima downtown, my mother at the beginning did not support my idea and new passion, she said I might go crazy for trying to learn on my own such a difficult language at 12 years old but I said, mom, come on, nothing of that will happen, I’m strong enough to overcome this challenge, and as I got the dictionary I felt the adrenaline of having a French dictionary in my hands, I learned a lot of French vocabulary in the last months of 1981, just reading my dictionary, and the next year, in the summer of 1982, I borrowed a book from an aunt of mine who had a French grammar, I devoured the book in three weeks and at the same time I started researching about Portuguese and Italian (I left Russian aside for a while because I found it to be too difficult), in May my mother bought me a Portuguese-Spanish dictionary and at the end of that year, when I turned 14, my mom bought me an Italian grammar book and dictionary and a magazine in Italian and in Portuguese to practice the theory I had learned in my grammar books, little by little I was piecing together the puzzle, then in 1983, at the age of 14 I was able to speak, write and understand Portuguese because I started listening to short wave Brazilian broadcasts every day when I got back from school, I also started listening to and recording beautiful Brazilian music that I began to love and those songs helped me a lot to catch the rhythm of the pronunciation and the right accent, I think that my earlier passion for soap operas helped me a lot in this because I felt now that every time I spoke Portuguese and the other languages, French, Italian and English, I was putting on a different dress or I was playing a different theatre role so I discovered that I didn’t feel the same when I spoke in Spanish as when I spoke in Portuguese with the carioca accent, and I felt a different person too when I spoke in Italian, French and English. When I turned 15, I was already proficient in English, Portuguese, Italian and French but suddenly I discovered I wanted to add more languages to my list, so I discovered that in Spain there are other languages which are not Castilian (Catalans, Galicians and Basques) which was a surprise to me but fascinating at the same time, “Spaniards who don’t speak Spanish”, what??!! Unbelievable, so that’s how I discovered in the first place Catalan, with its half-Italian, half-French style, and I started to learn it also using the same rudimentary process I had used in my previous learning processes with Portuguese and Italian, so in a few days, just by compiling all the words I could find in a dictionary I had a 50-word list of Catalan words, it was not a lot but at least I had laid the foundations for my later Catalan learning. Shortly after that I started learning German after my parents bought me a German-Spanish dictionary, but at the start the German grammar looked terrible to me, the declensions and syntax were something completely new and unfamiliar and I didn’t have any grammar books available at the time other than a few old-fashioned grammar books which didn’t help me much in that, so for a while I gave up a little bit about learning German and I felt a bit hopeless but some years later I would overcome the challenge …so, by the time I graduated from high school at the age of 16 I had an incipient degree of familiarity with German but I had added to my language list two more languages, these were two exotic ones: Latin and Quechua, the national native language of my country because it was the official language of ancient Peru, the language of the Inca empire, I grew up in a time of strong indigenistic effervescence and nationalism in Peru, after the military government and in the seventies many national TV programs had encouraged the use of Quechua on TV slogans and even TV lessons, and Quechua was about to be taught in the schools as a compulsory language for all Peruvians, but even if afterwards that plan failed, Quechua had remained in my spirit as the national language of my motherland and as a Peruvian I felt I was obliged to learn that beautiful language, but I discovered it was quite a big challenge, because it’s an agglutinative language, totally different from all the other languages I had already learned, but it is quite logical and expressive and since I had the romantic motivation to learn it, it took me just one month to grasp the basics of the language, once I got to do it, I started practicing it at the marketplaces in Lima where my family used to do the shopping every weekend, and I discovered that I could really be understood by native Quechua speakers, that was unbelievable to me at my 16 years old!! Many native Quechua speakers praised me on my Quechua and I had more chances to practice it with native speakers than with other languages, because Quechua speakers are scattered everywhere in Lima because of the migration waves that brought Quechua speaking immigrants to Lima in the 60’s and 70’s. I also started to learn some vocabulary of Latin, but just like in the case of German, that stuff of noun declensions was too far for me, and my parents really didn’t have the money orthe interest in supporting my “eccentric passions”, actually, they didn’t approve too gladly my increasingly more and more growing passion to become a hyperpolyglot and they and my other family members often asked me why I was learning all those languages and for which purpose, they said all the time it was a waste of time and energy and usually told me I might go crazy, they didn’t really understand what I felt, until now in my family I’m the only hyperpolyglot, nobody else in my family has ever had any interest in becoming a hyperpolyglot, only some of them speak English and just ne f them speaks Portuguese and one speaks Italian, and that’s it. At this point I want to stress that all my language learning (except for Spanish and English) has been entirely as self-taught, on my own. Well, in 1985 I entered college, the Catholic University of Lima, I decided to study anthropology due to my humanistic interests and my greatest amazement came when I discovered that in the huge library of that university, there were grammar books and dictionaries of so many languages that I could have never imagined before: Latin, ancient Greek, Russian, Catalan, Galician, German, Guajiro, Vietnamese, several Quechua dialects, Aymara, Maya, Nahuatl, Japanese, etc. it was amazing!! I became addicted to the library and I used to spend more hours at the library reading and copying grammar books and dictionaries than attending my career lessons, I even neglected some subjects and failed some exams, my languages had become my drugs. In that year, 1985, I made a huge leap in my language learning process and my language list was hugely increased, because I started borrowing home books of Catalan, Russian, Latin, ancient Greek, German and Japanese, and I can say that it was at that time when I finally understood the German grammar and the noun declension system, I had finally overcome the German challenge. As for the pronunciation and sounds, I started using the same method I had used with my first language, Portuguese, listening every night to several short wave radio broadcasters from France (Radio France internationale), Germany (die deutsche Welle), Russia (Radio Moscow), and suddenly one day I discovered a radio broadcast in a language that sounded similar to German but was not exactly the same, it was Dutch, and I fell in love with the sounds of that language at once, so at the age of 17 I spoke Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, Galician, Quechua and some Russian, some Latin and some Japanese. The following years (from 86 to 90) my spectrum of languages grew more and more and my motivation was not only the pleasure of playing with different sounds and grammars but also my love for History and anthropology and foreign cultures as well as the prospect of traveling later on all over the world and working maybe in the tourism sector which was growing more and more in Peru in the 90’s after the terrorist movements were defeated and there was more safety in my country, a country that has alot to offer to the world: an extremely rich cuisine, awesome landscapes and sceneries, an amazing millenary history, warm people, etc. in those years too I decided to take different tests and exams to get the certificates from official language teaching institutes to back my knowledge of each language I had learned, and I took the evaluation exams for French, Italian, German, Russian and Portuguese and in all of them I was sent to the last cycle, they said I had learned those languages so well that I didn’t really need to study all the cycles, just the last one was enough. After getting all those language proficiency certificates, I changed my career (in 1990 I decided to quit studying anthropology to study a more practical profitable career: translation and interpretation) I continued with my language learning in the 90’s, brushing up the languages I was already familiar with, learning new ones like Arabic, Hebrew, Modern Greek, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Aymara (the second major indigenous language of the Andes), Mandarin, Esperanto and Rumanian. Learning all those new languages now was very easy for me because I had developed strategies for language learning and maybe my brain was more elastic and my memory worked with not much strain. In the last years of the last century I had some health problems that prevented me from travelling and accomplishing my plans and dreams and in my house there were also some sad events (death of my father and my grandma, a terrible disease of my mother) so there was a time of speeding down my learning, but my passion was always there, alive, and one of the things that motivated me to carry on was my passion for History, so I combined both passions, language and History and after finishing my career as a translator I started studying philology, mostly romance and Germanic philology aiming at writing a book about the origins of Indo-European languages, etymology became my passion too and I started researching about the origins of words in different languages of the world, that took me to exploring new language families like Basque, Turkish, Korean, Indonesian, Farsi, Hungarian, and more and more. What a delicious cocktail: languages combined with history, anthropology and theoretical linguistics. After the turn of the new millennium, between 2001 and 2010 tourism grew in Peru a lot and I started meeting a lot of tourists in Lima and I could talk to all of them now in their languages and show them my city and also I took them sometimes to Cusco and other Peruvian regions, some of them became friends, some of them became my guests at home, similar to AirBnB now, all kinds of experiences, even some love affairs, due to some financial problems in the last ten years I haven’t been able to travel all over the world, but nowadays internet and YouTube are blessed resources for us who love languages and mainly Wikipedia which is a marvellous invention of the XXI century, since we can learn everything in those articles and at the same time practice our multiple languages and deepen more and more our knowledge and proficiency. In the last decade I can say I’ve increased my language list by adding some new languages that I have much interest to learn even if I don’t have a very high degree of grasp yet, like Turkish, Welsh, Irish, Hindi, Farsi, Indonesian, Baltic languages, Polish, Occitan, Icelandic, Italian dialects and other Slavic languages, Panjabi, Nepali, Bengali and Basque…..well, that’s in short, hahaha, my 39-year history, or maybe love affair, with languages. Currently I could honestly say I speak very well 12 languages, 8 at medium level, and 10 just at a basic but improvable level. I’m also always interested in dead languages and in reconstructing dead languages due to my passion for history and philology.

 

2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?

Mhhh, there are so many languages I feel many times I don’t practice enough, but I could say Turkish or Farsi because I like them but I ‘ve found very few opportunities to practice them in my city, Lima. I feel like I’m missing a great party when I realize I don’t practice them daily in my life, another could be Swedish or Norwegian, I haven’t had too many occasions to practice them in my language experience but I try to compensate this by reading often newspapers in these two languages or reading the Wikipedia (that marvelous blessed knowledge tool) in both.

 

3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?

I think in the future I’d like to learn Nahuatl or Maya or maybe Hungarian or Baltic languages that I know superficially at this point but I’d like to learn at a deeper level in the future, also some dead languages like Ancient Egyptian, Akkadian , Aramaic or Old Persian, and Sanskrit too.

 

4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?

 I don’t know exactly, maybe Italian because of its musical chanting intonation but also the London Queen English, the posh British accent, it seduces me a lot.

 

5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?

My greatest pleasure is to feel a citizen of the world, with fewer limitations to understand other peoples and cultures because I can get really deeply into what many people in the world say or write and not just rely on hearsay, I feel that I can reach to a larger audience than most people cannot, and I feel happy to be able to be sometimes like a bridge conveying culture and important information from one culture to another.

 

6. 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?

I don’t think that this will be so dramatic as people say now but definitely many currently endangered languages will die out unless we don’t take steps right now to avoid that, so our responsibility as hyperpolyglots and language lovers is to care for each and every language in the world to prevent extinction by progressive decrease of the number of speakers.

 

7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?

I tell them to get rid of any fear or insecurity about learning any languages they want to learn, guys, if you really want something you can do it, forget shyness, forget embarrassment, just go ahead and reach what you dream of, find a motivation, then lay out a learning plan so that the process can be more effective and coherent, try to practice in every way possible in every situation you can with whoever you can find and you feel confident and comfortable with, the important thing is that if you feel that you were born to become one of our team, the hyperpolyglot team, don’t miss the chance to fulfil your potential and never hesitate, if you do so, you’re going on the right path.