Interview with

Claudia Arnfield

Name:   Claudia Arnfield
Nationality or Ethnicity: German
Where do you live?:  Munich
Languages: German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Chinese, Russian (in decreasing order of fluency). I have also dabbled in, and forgotten almost all, of Swahili, Turkish, and Czech.

 

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

I guess I always just liked language. My other tells me I was speaking in complete sentences before I could walk. Strangers would apparently always look for a non-existing older sibling because they just couldn’t believe the way that baby talked. My mother, who’s no linguist, then taught me some basic English and bits of French when I was bored at age 4 because I wasn’t allowed into school early.

When I finally got to school, I went on to study English, French and Latin. At age 13, I decided I wanted to learn English so well that no-one would be able to tell I wasn’t a native. I just wanted to fit in and make that ‘English’ identity mine. In fact, more precisely, the identity was Yorkshire and my exchange parents told me after a couple of years (yes, I kept going back and to this day, my exchange partner is a good friend) that I’d now achieved ‘broad Yorkshire like uus’ status.

I then turned my attention to French but I just didn’t have the same drive to achieve native-like fluency as I’d had for English. I got bored quite quickly because I realized I didn’t have the same desire to adopt another cultural identity. So I then decided that I should aim for other languages next.

At age 16, I enrolled in evening classes for Spanish and Russian, in addition to school, and in my early 20’s, I added Italian and Swahili, each in preparation for a journey.

Then I had kids, and languages took a back seat for around a decade.

When I decided to get back into languages, I decided to brush up on my Spanish and bought a CD Rom from an obscure, Munich-based outlet called ‘digital publishing’ – and I loved the self-study offers so much that I decided to apply for work with this company where I am now a training manager, in charge of developing language courses.

Then I discovered duolingo and that’s when I became an addict. I added Portuguese, Dutch, Norwegian and Swedish just for the fun of it, while getting frustrated with the layout of the Czech and Romanian courses and ultimately quitting these. My recent quest to learn Chinese is now keeping me more than busy enough.

 

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

 

I wish I had more time to practise all of them but Chinese will have to take the top spot.

 

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

I honestly have no idea in these uncertain times, and right now, I’m happy plodding along with Chinese. But that may change, especially if I do get increased opportunities to travel in the future. If I learn a language, I want to try it out in real life 😊.

 

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

I’m not all that fond of stereotypes so I won’t write French, and I couldn’t say what makes a language sexy. I find it incredibly attractive when I can identify a language by its rhythm and identify it even though I have no idea what the people are actually saying.

 

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

For me, the greatest pleasure is in two completely unrelated things: One is just keeping my brain busy. When I do housework, I often listen to foreign-language podcasts, or I tell myself stories in another language. What’s most fascinating, though, is the myriad connections you find between loan words in different languages, and discovering which are false friends and which are straight-up translations – or those where the connotations change. The closely related English-Dutch-German triangle is particularly rich in such ‘almost-translations’.

 

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?

Sadly, I think this is a very real danger. As we grow ever more interconnected, the drive to speak a common language and participate in larger-scale culture and commerce is likely to be just too overwhelming. Languages, like the populations of endangered species, also need a minimum number of speakers to survive. There is, however, an increasing backlash and local dialects are sometimes taught in schools again. Ultimately, I think it depends on the strength and resilience of each local community. Those who have the resources to teach their language will increasingly be able to do so whereas those that lack strong internal cohesion may choose not to. I highly doubt that we’ll be left with 5,000+ languages, though.

 

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

You can do it if you really put your mind to it – but don’t think of ‘learning a language’ as a single concept. It’s like learning the piano. You can learn a language for everyday purposes, to get by on your holiday, just like you can perhaps play a couple of simple chords or scales – or you can aim to understand everything and participate in the most intricate academic debates, which would equate to playing Beethoven. This last goal is likely to get you frustrated if that’s all you focus on. There are so many intermediate steps! Be tolerant of ambiguity and when you don’t understand, dare to ask!

In addition, don’t start too many languages at once. I find that once I can recognize the melody of a particular language in my head and ‘tune’ into it involuntarily (something that, for me, happens at around level B1), I am ready for the next language.

Finally, to be successful, do things you enjoy doing in that new language. My best-kept language learning secret is that I ADORE trashy novels - but I would never read these in a language I know well. Reading linguistically simple but plot-wise compelling novels in a language you just about know enough of is endless fun and the best excuse you can get for reading that trash you wouldn’t normally touch.

The International Association of Hyperpolyglots - HYPIA. (c) 2020

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