Interview with
Daniel Lopes Bretas

Name:    Daniel Lopes Bretas

Nationality or Ethnicity:    Brazilian pardo

Where do you live?:    Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Languages:     Brazilian Portuguese, English, Français, Español, Italiano, Deutsch,

עִברִית*, Русский*, 日本語*, 한국어**

* conversant



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

My individual history, as many others, is deeply intertwined with my country’s history and my family’s history. I was born in a mostly monoglot Portuguese-speaking home. In her own childhood my mother had decided to become an engineer, and as a teenager decided to become a nuclear engineer to top; hence, she went on to study some German and some English, as she wanted to achieve a PhD in Germany; she came from a countryside background and she became pretty much the first generation of the family to attend an university; now she holds a Master’s and PhD, both by Brazilian institutions, being, like myself, one of those some twenty thousand PhDs that Brazil is forming each year… Perhaps the greatest influence of the linguistic area that my mother carried on me was that it was possible to speak a foreign language. In my childhood English was often used between my parents as a secret language so that me and my brothers wouldn’t be able to get the meaning.
English was my first foreign language, and how foreign it was at first. I remember one time that my mother, unsatisfied with a English homework I wrote, criticize me so heavily on the lack of quality of work that I cried; then next day I get a B+ (8.5/10) for the very same work. I had access to a very good English school, connected with the British Council, named Cultura Inglesa (“English Culture”), but my incentive and stimuli for learning the language was an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Role-Playing Game handbook, that had by then no translation to Portuguese. Not even my mother could understand the lexicon employed in that text, and in a very natural, almost effortless way, I begin to copy and write down those foreign words as I did other activities, until those words become mine. I was maybe eleven when that process started.
Spanish come in sequence, as I was fifteen and attended a college inside a Brazilian Federal university. That college, built with British cooperation, named Coltec, was among the very best high schools in my state (maybe top 3), and had a very demanding entrance exam, but it was tuition-free, and as a reward my mother allowed me to start a paid Spanish course offered at promotional prices at the University. After a semester and a half a mix of a long institutional strike and shame of being after my classmates I gave up Spanish and my mother forbade me to took a French class, saying that I had to focus my efforts in one language, but the familiarity with Spanish stuck for the years to come nevertheless.
Third was Japanese; when I was eighteen there was the university entrance, again after a very restrictive entrance exam; I was lucky, and as the Brazilian public universities are tuition-free, my mother agreed to pay for my Japanese classes, which I, as a youngster exposed to anime and manga Japanese culture as many others Latin American or Western youngs, had a lot of interest in. Even if a great number of Japanese migrants came to Brazil in the early twentieth century, leading to the greatest community of Nikkei in the contemporary world outside Japan herself, my state was not one of the centers of such influx to Brazil. The sounds of Japanese are quite similar to the Brazilian Portuguese fonetics (way more than the Korean or the Mandarim Chinese, for instance), even if the kanji (ideograms) are quite alien, and by learning it I developed a cultural awareness that seems useful when dealing with is not Indo-European thought, including conjugations of verb in the future tense.
Then, as my undergraduate studies were followed by my master’s degree and then my PhD, things get messy; there was French, German and Latin, the last of which I never acquired a firm foothold, but in French and German I was gradually improving leading to eventually getting a Diplôme Approfondi de la Langue Française C1 and a Goethe Zertificat. Italian came late, when I was already doing my PhD and receiving a scholarship that allowed me to study what I see fit.

Nowadays I do my best to learning Russian, Hebrew, Korean, and so on. For me, learning English in such a young age was remarkably important, for English is a universal language nowadays, and thorough which instruction in other languages, even the most exotic and peculiar ones, can be found, often abundantly. As I want to become a diplomat of my country, a great mastery of French (the traditional language of diplomacy), English (for obvious reasons) and Spanish (very important in Latin America) are demanded at the exam; as a I am a writer, I find learning languages quite amusing and thought-inducing about writing in my mother language of Portuguese. I like to read Brazilian poetry of the nineteenth century, among other things to learn old words and sayings, and in reading that I am also studying my native language, which I think that everybody should do.

Languages did not came without difficulties to me, and maybe, if there is a lesson to be learned from my experience and trajectory, it would be that sometimes is best to go by incremental steps, and that it is ok to not be perfect in your beginnings.


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

All of them. English we are exposed all the time nowadays, through music as diverse as songs by Amy Winehouse or Nicki Menaj, through Hollywoodian movies and series, and maybe the greatest innovation of that genearation, through social media like Facebook and Twitter, but in my hometown in Brazil opportunities to speak foreign languages are scarce and far between. I would especially love to have opportunities to improve my Russian, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese and German.   


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

I would love to learn (both Cantonese and Mandarin) Chinese enough to read The dream of the red chamber in the original; Parsi to appreciate more of the aphorisms of Rumi; at least some Urdu; Bahasa to comprehend the economic development of Indonesia and Malaysia so unknown in Brazil… In addition, I would like to learn Native Brazilian languages, some of them are being lost nowadays, and African languages such as Swahili, or the Yoruba languages, as my country is so much connected with Atlantic Africa. I would also like very much to learn the Celtic languages such as the Irish Gaeilge and the Welsh Cymraeg, languages with which I, as most Latin Americans and Westerners, have a quite romanticized resonance. From the nineteenth century Europe we inherited a romantic view of Sanskrit as well, language I would love to learn, even if nowadays I can’t even pronounce correctly the devanagari alphabet (abugida). And I will not even say a word about constructed international languages such as Esperanto or fictional languages like Sindarin…


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

To my standards, in singing, it is the Brazilian Portuguese, closely followed by the European version of Portuguese and the French parisien accent. For talking I am very much like the Philip Roth character that find sexy beautiful women speaking with accent, with surprisingly beautiful German pronunciation.


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

Between Edward Said saying that multiple languages and culture does not divided him, but rather added, and the Greek Roman poet Ennius who reportedly said that had three souls and three hearts (one Greek, one Latin and one Oscan, meaning one for each of the languages he knew) there is plenty of beautiful possible quotations about being able to experience life by using different languages. Maybe my experience is somewhat different because I have a mother language which is the only one spoken by ninety nine out of one hundred of my fellow Brazilians citizens, language which provides me a connection to all the efforts made by generations of poets, essaists and writers to define what means to be a Brazilian human being, and my situation vis-à-vis with other languages and cultures is mediated through it. There was that beautiful quote from the movie Madame Butterfly, as a Chinese character asks the French fonctionnaire if the latter really believe that by living in houses with electricity the Chinese people have magically became Westerns, and the insight that even if we do now live in a world with global challenges and opportunities, we do face those challenges and opportunities with profoundly different cultural perspectives.


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 think that many endangered languages will survive, reborn and even flourish in the future. I certainly hope that the process would gather momentum and accelerate.  I would hate lost all the knowledge and wisdom in dealing with the world inherent to each language, as for me languages are not neutral vehicles for expression of ideas, but rather forge those ideas.


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


As far as I am concerned, even the mere desire to learn other languages already marks you. I do know that sometimes is quite difficult to become disciplined and to memorize the conjugation of the verbs, that what is being offered is dull or uninteresting. Try to find out in which ways you can improve your fluency; maybe you are not so good with grammar, but you are ok with vocabulary learning. Also, if you can, maybe you can read something about the culture and history of the people who speak or spoke that language, even if you do that reading at first in your own native language

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

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