de la Peña
Name: Enrique López de la Peña
Nationality or Ethnicity: Mexico/Hong Kong/China
Where do you live?: Mexico City
Languages: Spanish, English, French, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Arabic (MSA + Levantine dialect), Hebrew, Portuguese, Modern Greek, some Russian, and a little bit of Irish, Hindi, and Korean.
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
This is going to be a very long answer, so please bear with me. Alternatively, here’s a TL;DR if you don’t wanna read the whole thing: My family, friends, and life circumstances taught me to wholeheartedly love our world, its myriad cultures, and its wonderful people. Learning languages, for me, is one of the best ways to express and share this love.
I trace back my curiosity and love for languages to my early childhood, when my mom and I first started doing jigsaw puzzles together. The back of the puzzle boxes usually had instructions in 10 or so different languages. For some reason, there was something about all these different writing systems that I found very aesthetic so, when I got bored, I would copy all these texts into a notebook even if I didn’t understand them at all. Another important factor was the influence of my grandfather, an educated and well-travelled man who worked for the Bank of Mexico and the United Nations for several years. He sadly passed away when I was 3 but, in a way, I’ve kept him alive through my mother’s stories about him. I inherited his banknote and coin collections, as well as his love for traveling, world cultures, and social justice. Over time, I came to realize that geography and any language-related subjects were the ones that made me happiest and the ones where I had the strongest potential at school. The rest is history.
Whenever I decide to learn a new language, it’s never “just because”. There’s always something —or someone— that triggers my motivation. I see each language as a one-of-a-kind treasure, if not a new friend in and of itself. For this reason, I think my “relationships” with each language I speak all deserve a brief overview.
Spanish: I was born and raised in Mexico City, so Spanish is my native language. My mom is a Spanish teacher, among other things, so she taught me to cherish my language and gave me thorough understanding of even the trickiest of its rules from a very early age. After learning linguistics and making new friends from all over the Spanish-speaking world, I was able to balance this knowledge with a less prescriptive appreciation of Spanish sociolects and their immense richness. This is an approach I try to share with my students whenever I have the opportunity to teach Spanish as a second language. Doing so allows me to remain connected to home when I’m abroad and forces me not to lose proficiency in my mother tongue, which is something I’ve unfortunately seen happen many times.
English: I was blessed enough to attend schools where English as a second language was decently taught, thanks to the enormous efforts that my mom —a single mother in a highly misogynistic environment— made for my wellbeing. Yet, in fact, I would attribute most of my English knowledge to all the Hollywood films and TV shows that I’ve watched since I was a kid (as well as two summer camps that I spent in Canada and the UK at age 9-10). Leaving aside what underlies Hollywood in terms of US foreign policy, I’m extremely grateful to English because, for better or for worse, it’s still the world’s main lingua franca. No other language has opened more doors for me (notably, the chance to get my Political Science B.A. at NYU Abu Dhabi), and after using English so much, it has gained a very special place in both my brain and my heart.
French: All the schools I attended before high school taught French as a second foreign language. However, the level was quite mediocre, as we would basically study the exact same thing (present tense) every single year. I wanted more, especially because I originally planned to study at the Sorbonne University in Paris, so I started taking more advanced courses at the Alliance Française on Saturdays. Unfortunately, this is where things started to go downhill: being bullied by my classmates there severely hindered my learning. What’s worse, in middle school, my French teacher really disliked me for some reason and, one day, she yelled at me in front of the whole class saying my pronunciation was horrible and I had no talent for French. I felt so humiliated and devastated that I developed a strong resentment against the language, fearing that I would never be able to learn it properly. But fate had other plans for me: a couple of years later, flying back home from Beijing (see below), I had an 8-hour layover in Paris. I’d never been there before, but after seeing the city all covered in snow and interacting with really nice people in what little French I could remember, I realized it wasn’t fair to resent a whole culture or language because of a negative experience with one person. What’s more, I fell in love with France and decided to spend the second half of my gap year at EF Paris to recover and improve my French. I’ve been postponing my DALF C2 exam for a while now, but I’m planning to take it as soon as possible.
Mandarin Chinese: This is probably the story that’s closest to my heart. My maternal grandmother was born in Minatitlán, Veracruz, but her parents were originally from Hong Kong and from a small town called Kaiping in Guangdong (Canton). Growing up in a small town at the beginning of the 20th century, my grandmother endured extremely painful forms of racism on a daily basis, so much so that she always refused to speak to her daughters in Cantonese, lest they would fail to assimilate into Mexico and thus have to endure more racism. As per the law back then, she also had to cast away her Chinese nationality in order to be able to work as a surgeon here. I was furious when I first came to understand this. It felt like a precious chapter of our family history had been stolen from us. Because I grew up only with my mother, I’ve always identified as half Hongkonger/Chinese even if I’m technically only 25% Asian and both of my last names are Spanish. Many have labelled me as “a clown” for identifying as such, or they’ve said that I “don’t look Asian enough” but I think those people are judgmental and don’t know my story or my heritage better than I do. Still, an argument I often hear(d) from them was “Well, you don’t even speak Chinese!”. So I decided to learn the language to prove them wrong. I started with my grand-uncle (my grandmother’s youngest sibling), who taught me the most basic characters as a child, having learned Mandarin Chinese by himself for reasons similar to mine. I tried to continue in middle school, where Mandarin Chinese was temporarily offered, but my teacher back then (a young girl from Taiwan) was so badly mistreated by my classmates that she quit her job and flew back home after only a couple of months. Shortly after, in 2010, I was able to visit China and Hong Kong for the first time thanks to a newly made friend who is also Mexican-Chinese and lives in Shanghai. We travelled around the country for 18 days and she taught me a lot, so much so that I was somewhat conversational by the time I came back. Then, I discovered the Confucius Institute in Mexico City and continued my studies there. After that, I was one of the winners of the Chinese Bridge (汉语桥, a language competition for foreign secondary school students), thanks to which, long story short, I was able to travel to Chongqing for the finale, and I won a scholarship to study Mandarin Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University (a.k.a. BLCU, or Beiyu). These were the events that made my foreign language studies exponentially. (Also, does Beiyu Chinglish count as a language? I feel like it should, lol.) Today, my Mandarin Chinese isn’t perfect yet, but I’d say it’s very decent.
Italian: Some of the best friends I made at the Chinese Bridge (see above) were Italian. While our native languages are so similar that we could understand each other perfectly well by speaking as we naturally do, I decided to study Italian a bit more systematically once I returned home (especially when I got bored in high school, with the help of some books and a very friendly assessor). Two additional motivations to do this were 1) my vigorous love for Italian cuisine, and 2) my aunt, uncle, and cousin who live near Venice (especially my little cousin, who was 5 years old when I first met her and refused to talk to anyone unless it was in Italian). My semester at BLCU was also surprisingly useful for this. Back then (2012), Chinese was extremely fashionable among Italians, so there was a great number of them on campus at the same time as me, and many became really good friends of mine, too.
Russian: Among the closest friends I made at the Chinese Bridge (see above) were also some other folks from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, but especially three lovely girls from Russia, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. I wanted to be able to talk to these girls, who became like my big sisters during my time at BLCU, in their own language. Also, before the Chinese Bridge, I didn’t know that Russian was still so widely spoken in post-USSR countries, so this was a hugely motivational realization (because it implied that, if I learned Russian, I’d be able to communicate with so many more people than I initially thought.). But I’ll also admit that an additional factor were movies like Salt and Agent 86. I love spy movies, and I find bilingual or polyglot agents to be the most “badass” ones.
Japanese: This is a funny one. My apartment in Mexico City is literally around the corner of a really good Japanese language school. At age 6, I told my mom I would love to take classes there, but unfortunately, they had a policy not to accept anyone below 15 years of age. At age 14, after I begged for permission to study there at least once a year, the school’s principal finally agreed to make an exception and let me start earlier. I studied there for roughly five years and it was a bliss. But why Japanese? Well, I mean, who doesn’t love Japan? Its food, its people, its architecture, its landscapes… and the writing system! It’s 3-in-1, and one of those 3 is Chinese characters, so Japanese is definitely my favourite writing system in the world (and the one I most enjoyed copying into my notebook from the puzzle boxes as a child).
Arabic: As a passionate LGBTI+ rights advocate, and as someone who grew up in a place where lots of negative stereotypes exist about Islam, I confess I was somewhat afraid of getting too closely in touch with the Arab World. This fear started to decrease during my time at BLCU, when I became roommates with a nice guy from Libya. Then, when I moved on to Paris (see above), I did homestay with a Muslim family, originally from Morocco-Algeria. It was thanks to them that I became curious to learn a lot more. Concurrently, my time to choose a university was approaching. In an earlier trip to New York, I had visited NYU with my aunt (long story) and loved it but didn’t find it a realistic option because of its extremely high tuition rates. Some time later, I learned that NYU Abu Dhabi offered full scholarships (plus the opportunity to do crazy amounts of travel and to live among people from virtually every country, all for free). It sounded like a great place for me, so I applied and, fortunately, I was accepted. Part of what excited me the most was seeing the Arab World, which back then felt like an entirely new planet to me, and forming my own point of view about it a posteriori. I was also dying to visit Burj Al Arab (as I really love architecture, too). And, because I’d heard from other people how hard it was to learn Arabic, I figured there would be no better way to learn it than living in a country where it has official status. To my surprise, I found Arabic to be used much less than English in the UAE (at least among non-Emiratis), but my experience was still extremely enriching, linguistically and otherwise. My Arabic teachers were the absolute best, and they organized all kinds of fun activities to help us learn. Indeed, I learned a lot about the language and the culture. In addition to Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), I decided to take one semester of Levantine Dialect because, as a social scientist in formation, the Levant was especially interesting to me due to its political history (notably, the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict). I was so happy to learn at least one dialect because colloquial Arabic has allowed me to connect with people so much better than MSA.
Hebrew: Also because of my interest in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, I spent my first college semester abroad at NYU Tel Aviv (NYU has 15 campuses around the world!). This interest was fuelled by one of my favourite films, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (which I strongly recommend, by the way, as it relates deeply to language and its potential to unite people). I had learned a lot about the conflict from an Arab perspective and, although I strongly disagree with Israel’s policies on this issue overall, I was curious to learn about how Israel people have experienced the conflict. Suddenly, I was struck by the realization that I knew practically nothing about Jewish culture at the time. While there is a significantly large Jewish community in Mexico City, I hadn’t had the chance to interact with its members over extended periods of time. Lots of things were unclear or entirely unknown to me. It made sense to spend one semester in Tel Aviv and bridge that cultural gap. Of course, for me, there could not be a better start to this process than learning Hebrew. But being in the UAE, in the complete absence of native speakers or any stores that could legally sell materials to learn Hebrew, finding resources was tough. Fortunately, I managed: With the help of a couple of books that I borrowed after someone got rid of at a secret room on campus, an app called Mango Languages, a few Israeli movies that I somehow found at the library, and a friend I met online (the first Israeli friend I’d ever made), I was able to learn the basics after working very hard. I think I did a pretty good job because, once I got to NYU Tel Aviv, I took a placement exam and placed into Intermediate II. After one semester of classes and being almost entirely surrounded by the language, I made dozens of new friends and gained lots of confidence when speaking. But one curious thing that I’ve noticed about Hebrew is that the sole fact of learning the language can be very controversial. Many people have made (completely wrong) assumptions about my political views, and some have even stopped talking to me entirely, based on the fact that I speak Hebrew.
Modern Greek: As obnoxious as I know this sounds, I sometimes feel that I was Greek in a past life. I’m nearly obsessed with Greece for some reason I can’t quite pinpoint. Maybe it’s thanks to my mom, who is an actress and gave me Greek mythology books to read at age 3 or so. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve always loved Greek food. Maybe it’s because of the close relationship that Greek and Spanish have at an etymological level. Or perhaps it’s simply the beauty of Greece and its people. Anyhow, this borderline obsessive love became even more intense in 2017, when my dream of visiting Greece finally came true.
Portuguese: I’ve never studied Portuguese formally, but it’s so similar to Spanish that I can understand pretty much everything I read and hear (unless the person is speaking too fast or using too many colloquial terms). In December 2010, I visited Brazil with my mom because it was one of her biggest lifetime dreams, and she had learned a bit of Portuguese because she really likes it. We have a local joke that she was Brazilian in a previous life just as I was Greek in a previous life (see above). My friends from Portugal and Brazil are good sources of motivation to learn the language but, ironically, they can also be a source of demotivation, since they all speak Spanish perfectly and we can easily understand each other anyway. I’d still love to improve my Portuguese, though.
Irish: Ahhh, this one’s a bit sentimental, too. I took one semester of Irish at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House. Long story short, I was pushed into this course by destiny and I enrolled on a whim. My ultimate intention, besides doing something new and fun while in New York, was to surprise a person from Ireland who was my best friend at the time, whom I eventually realized —largely because of this course— that I was in love with. Sadly, this story had a painful and chaotic ending, but in retrospective, I’m very happy that I took part in a new adventure, which was also a worldwide movement to revitalize a truly magical language. Being able to visit Ireland and practice it there the following year made it all even better.
Hindi: I probably know less than 50 phrases overall, but I’ve studied the whole writing system and I absolutely love it. Also, I have lots of good friends from India, and I had the chance to visit in 2015 for a friend (my Mexican-Chinese friend who lives in Shanghai)’s wedding to an Indian man. I’m also very curious about India because we unfortunately have close to zero immigrants from South Asia in Mexico. I’m interested in Indian politics. I love Bollywood movies. I love paneer masala. I love how Hindi language sounds. You get the idea.
Korean: I have a close friend from Seoul, I’m very interested in the Korean Conflict, and I LOVED Parasite. Enough said. (Plus, I can learn it for free at the cultural center where I teach Chinese.)
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
I love all languages equally, but because of my lifetime dream of working at the United Nations, I’d like to have more time to perfect its six official languages (Spanish, English, French, Chinese, Arabic, and Russian). My Russian in particular needs to improve. I find it to be the hardest, by far, out of all the languages I’ve studied. This is mainly because of its multiple grammatical cases and verbal aspects, which are concepts that don’t even exist as such in the languages I know best. I’ll share an anecdote to illustrate how my command of Russian was unfortunately far lower than desirable: In 2016, I visited a country where Russian is widely spoken (as a second language) and, on an empty square, I saw a man who started to strangle his female companion for no apparent reason. I interpreted it as a case of domestic violence; it was really scary to witness. I ran to the nearest police officer to try to explain what I had seen, but. By the time he understood me, the couple was nowhere to be seen.
On a less dramatic note, I guess it would be cool to have someone to talk to in Irish. This would be useful to go over what I learned in New York, and it would help keep the beautiful language alive.
Also, Palestinian Arabic and Hebrew. I feel like I’m forgetting those very quickly ☹
And Greek. Once again, for some reason I can’t really pinpoint.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
I wouldn’t say no to any language, obviously, but there are a few that I particularly have in mind:
Cantonese: Needless to say, as this is the language that was actually originally spoken by my family. I feel quite embarrassed for not speaking it yet.
Hawaiian: I love Hawaiian music (my mom used to dance at a Hawaiian restaurant when she was my age). I love the natural beauty of Hawaii. I love how the language sounds. I love poke. I had the chance to visit Hawaii in 2018 and loved it. I have Native Hawaiian friends. And so on.
Nahuatl: (Or Yucatec Maya, really.) For the sake of patriotism, and to reconnect with a part of my centuries-long roots that has been practically eradicated as of now. In fact, I think it’d be great if all schools in Mexico offered lessons in at least one indigenous language.
Turkish: Because if Istanbul was a person, I would have proposed marriage to it already. That’s how much I like it. Not just the city itself, but its people and food, too. Also, forming words in Turkish sort of feels like doing a puzzle, and I love doing puzzles. Also, it would be a useful stepping stone to learn other Turkic languages later on.
Icelandic: Because Björk. Also, Iceland is a gorgeously beautiful country. I’ve never visited, but I know many who have, and I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t loved it.
Swahili: I love how they sound, and I have close friends from Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda. It would be great to be able to talk to them in a language that’s closer to their hearts. (Actually, learning Kinyarwanda would be amazing, too.)
Turkmen: I did a research project on Turkmenistan’s statebuilding process last year and I’ve been quasi-obsessed with it ever since.
Thai, Tamil, Telugu, Inuktut, Nuosu, Mongolian: Their writing systems are more than enough reason. They’re just so pretty!
Breton: If there’s a silver lining to this hellish, Kafkian nightmare of a quarantine period, it’s the fact that I discovered Nolwenn Leroy, an amazing Breton singer, thanks to Spotify. I’d like to learn Breton to be able to sing along.
Slovak: I’ll keep my reasons undisclosed for this one ;)
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
For me, sexiness has a lot more to do with the person speaking than with any specific language as such. That being said, I’ll admit I do have a weakness for Colombian Spanish and Greek ;)
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
All the wonderful experiences I’ve lived, all the amazing people that I’ve met, and all the deep connections that I’ve been able to form with people thanks to the languages I know. But also, the satisfaction of being able to help people who cannot speak each other’s languages and would otherwise be unable to communicate. I find that feeling of being “useful” to be incredibly uplifting.
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?
Unfortunately, hundreds of languages nowadays are in serious risk of extinction, and this is a well-known, documented fact. In Mexico alone, I’ve witnessed the tremendous stigma associated to speaking minority languages (by the way, my favourite movie, I Dream in Another Language, deals directly with this issue; I recommend it 110%), and the overwhelming pressure to learn “the global languages” to avoid losing job opportunities, etc.. I would say this is, undeniably, one of the major caveats of globalization. On the other hand, I’m not entirely pessimistic. I would point to cases of endangered languages like Irish, Breton, Cornish, and Hawaiian, which have been through massive revival efforts in recent times, and I’d say it’s working! I’d also point to countries like Aotearoa/New Zealand, which have done a commendable job in restoring dignity and equality to indigenous languages and their speakers. Even in places like Mexico, where there is definitely a lot more work to be done, similar initiatives are starting to gain momentum. What comes to mind specifically is the National Indigenous Languages Fair, held every summer in Mexico City since a couple of years ago. The fair involves a series of conferences, workshops, artistic performances, movie screenings, and booths where people can buy handicrafts made by speakers of indigenous languages, or delicious meals prepared by them. Last year, the guest country was Canada. A lovely Inuit lady who came as a speaker gave me a handbook to learn Inuktitut and this made me hysterically happy. So, you see, it’s these little things that help me keep a positive outlook despite the difficult panorama.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t, or that you aren’t good enough. In fact, don’t let people’s negative comments in general get to you. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard from people —including my own mom— that they’re reluctant to learn a new language because they’re “too old” or “not talented enough”. Sure, talent and a young brain can make things easier, but motivation is HUNDREDS of times more important. I’ve had classmates and students in Mexico who decided to start learning languages as different as Chinese or Japanese at age 60, 70, or even 80, and believe me, they’ve done an amazing job!
On the note of motivation: Some may disagree with me, but I’d discourage you from learning a new language if it’s just because you feel like you have to. If the interest isn’t genuine, or if you feel uncomfortable or unhappy, it’s just not going to work out. That said, don’t give up before pondering your situation carefully. I’ve met many people who’ve developed a strong aversion against specific languages because they’ve had mean teachers or otherwise bad experiences with them before. If this sounds like you, trust me, I’ve been there too. Which is why, precisely, I’d direct you to my experience with French further above. I can’t even imagine how many friends and opportunities I would have lost if I had continued giving unnecessary importance to that teacher’s hurtful words. So that’s the bottom line: Please, let’s not generalize. There are good and bad people everywhere. Please don’t let one negative event or person spoil a whole world of incredible experiences that are most definitely in store you if you choose to carry on.