Name: Alésia Chevaleret
Nationality or Ethnicity: Louisiana Creole, Black American
Where do you live?: Europe
Languages: Louisiana Creole, Black American English, General American English, German, German Sign Language, French, Spanish, Hungarian, Italian
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I've always been intrigued by the unknown and tried picking up bits of various languages any chance I got. If I was ever lucky enough to cross paths with people from different places, I'd befriend them and ask them to teach me a few basic words of their native language, which is how I learned tidbits of Korean, Japanese, and Russian. While studying abroad in Baden-Württemberg, at a time when my German wasn't strong enough to tell the difference between general Hochdeutsch and Schwäbisch Hochdeutsch, I unknowingly acquired some of the local Dialekt. After my study abroad, I joined a school trip to Kerala, during which I occupied my downtime learning as much Malayalam as I could. Once I'd graduated and returned to Germany, I spent a year with a half Turkish host family and, after years of enjoying Turkish cuisine in Germany, would binge several endlessly long Turkish dramas, so I subconsciously picked up a handful of Turkish words along the way.
Parallel to these experiences, when it came to my studies, I did more than just dabble. I sought a major that would allow me to travel and explore the world. When I came across Foreign Languages, I immediately knew that was the one for me. My primary focus was on German with a secondary focus on Spanish. When I graduated, I realized my strongest asset was my language knowledge, but my languages still weren't strong enough to stand on their own. So, I opted to pursue a C2 in 2 languages, so that I could then do my Master's in Interpreting.
I'd had Spanish class on and off all throughout my schooling and never progressed past a B2. Yet, in just one semester of studying abroad in Germany, I'd advanced from an A2 all the way up to a B1. Comparing these two contrasting experiences, I realized the fastest way to reach a C2 would be through immersion. So, shortly after graduating, I moved back to Germany and, within 3 years, had my Goethe Zertifikat C2. It was time to tackle my next language!
I moved to France to begin learning French from the ground up. I didn't realize until about a year after my move that the health problems, that had slowly gone from a background nuisance to a foreground obstruction, couldn't be quickly wrangled under control. Instead of attending French class, I learned the language mostly through interacting with my doctors. Having to communicate complex health problems with unempathetic medical professionals, already opened me up to experiencing medical trauma; Doing so in a language I'd only just begun learning and had very little formal education in, only amplified my odds of being scarred by bad medical experiences. But I kept on, because I thought I could find the root of my problems and return to my normal life before I knew it. However, I soon learned disability can't be overcome by sheer determination. I couldn't cure myself, but I did learn French along the way, because I had to in order to survive.
I had planned to finish my Master's by my 5thyear in France and then apply for citizenship. Once I became a French citizen, I could decide if I'd rather live permanently in France or Germany. Ideally, I imagined finding a place right on the border between the two countries or being able to split my time between major cities in both countries. But with my illness rendering me unable to work or study, I wasn't able to maintain my French residency long enough. If I couldn't work or study, I couldn't return to Germany either. So, I began looking for alternatives.
I discovered Hungary might just be the Hail Mary I was looking for. So, I went to Hungary to learn Hungarian, thinking I might even fall in love with the country and the language in the process and want to stay permanently.
Hungary is very different from Germany and France. It was an eye-opening experience for me to spend so much time in a country that isn't a global favourite, a country whose history is filled with so much defeat. The same can be said for the experience of learning a language that isn't a global favourite – there's only one renowned Hungarian textbook and they hadn't even released a B2-level book yet! Talking with locals opened my mind to a new and very different world perspective; the more I learned about the history of the country, the more fascinated I was by it.
While exploring the archives, I found microfilm slides of birth and marriage certificates. Some of the information was written in German, because the events took place during the Austro-Hungarian empire. I tried to imagine what the world had been like back then. In an antique bookshop, I found a map (also in German) of the Venetian-Lombardi Kingdom. Or, at the time I came across it, the region that was known as "la Zona Rossa" in northern Italy.
I'm so glad I had the chance to discover these hidden treasures, but I had been relying on CouchSurfers to host me ever since I'd had to stop working and the economic situation in Hungary made it impossible for me to find locals able to host me for free. I wasn't able to keep up my class attendance either, because of how sick I was. I ended up staying in hostels and taking classes with an online teacher, but it wasn't long before both my health and finances forced me to put yet another plan on hold.
Since leaving Hungary, I've been in Italy. I'd travelled to Italy in 2011 and 2012 and, even with my Spanish knowledge, I didn't understand much Italian. When I returned to Italy in 2020, I quickly realized I understood a lot more Italian now that I speak French. I haven't been actively trying to learn Italian, but when I attempt to speak, I'm surprised by how much I can piece together.
At 25, I was hoping to settle on a city that felt like home and root myself in it by the time I hit 30. But that was before I realized my health problems were here to stay. So, had I not been sick, I doubt I would've spent so much time in Hungary or Italy or learned either language to the degree that I'm now aspiring. It just happened as a result of unenviable circumstances – I definitely wouldn't wish disability upon anyone as a shortcut to learning languages. I'm the kind of nerd who enjoys a trip to the Emergency Room, if it gives me a chance to learn some new lingo, but that doesn't make the trauma of becoming disabled in an ableist society any less traumatic.
I can attest to the fact that my experiences trying to survive on my own in France and Hungary were overall much more unpleasant than not. I was struggling too much with my health to adequately cover my essentials needs, let alone to really enjoy the novelty of exploring a new country, as I had in Germany. But of course, me being the xenophile and linguaphile that I am, the linguistic and cultural experiences are something I'd love to have more of, albeit hopefully under better circumstances.
Meanwhile, I've been wanting to learn Louisiana Creole, my endangered heritage language, for several years, but I knew I couldn't do it without people to speak with – self-study has never worked for my attention-deficit self. I recently organized a small group class with a native Creole speaking teacher and discovered, if I take my time and have enough mental energy to concentrate, I can understand almost everything through my knowledge of French. I hope the group will remain active and I'll soon be able to speak fluently.
As far as silver linings go, I know so many people are deprived of their passions, not necessarily by the disability itself, but often, bizarrely, by accessibility barriers that society refuses to remove. In my case, it's unfortunate that my illness impacts my cognitive ability, making it difficult for me to speak any language at times. But I see so many people who get sick and completely lose the things they love most, so I do feel very lucky that my languages have, so far, been able to remain an integral part of my life.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
I wanted to get my German beyond a C2 and to reach a C2 in French to be as prepared as possible for the incredibly high standards required by interpreting schools. When my health forced me to pivot, I shifted my focus to reaching a B1 in Hungarian – normally I want to take all my languages all the way to the top and don't even say I speak a language until I've reached at least a B2, but when I realized it takes 7x longer to learn Hungarian than French, I had to re-evaluate my standards.
At some point, I decided that focusing on one language per branch is enough, which is why I haven't made any effort to maintain my Spanish, since moving to France. I still occasionally get the urge to speak a bit of Spanish, like it's trying to keep itself from fading completely out of existence, but there's lots of interference now. I'd like to have reached a B1 in Italian in the next 6 months, but I'm not aiming beyond that for the same reason. Although I did make one exception to this arbitrary rule of mine when it came to Creole.
There was a law passed in 1916 in Louisiana forbidding French or Creole from being spoken in classrooms and public buildings in the state. In many families, this is the point where the language began to die out, because it wasn’t being spoken openly or passed down to younger generations. So, for many Creoles my age, our great-grandparents were predominantly speakers of French or Creole, but our grandparents and parents only knew a few phrases.
I felt a duty to my ancestors to help keep the endangered language they created alive. That's the language I've been most focused on the past few months. I'd love to get my Creole flowing so freely that I could pass it on to any children I may have. Instead of me wondering what life was like for my great-grandparents speaking more French or Creole than English, my hypothetical future kids can wonder about how life was for their non-franco-/creolophone great-grandparents.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
My first day in Germany, I made friends with an Erasmus student named Erasmia. I learned the Greek alphabet and a handful of phrases from her. At the end of the semester, I got to visit her in Greece and loved it! I've wanted to learn Greek ever since and hope I'll eventually get the chance.
But if I'm ever able to trace back to what language my African ancestors spoke before slavery, I might try going that route instead. I'd love to have the chance to go to where they were taken from and speak with the people still living there today. I've been learning so much about Black history and Creole history (the most defining parts of my ancestry) that I was never taught in school. After doing some digging, I found out there's a sound I make that's found all throughout the slave diaspora and in Africa today - it's incredible to see these Africanism have survived centuries without us even knowing! All this knowledge really resonates in my soul and I'm can't wait to learn more about the forgotten parts of my personal story with the help of genotyping tests, national archives, historical films, documentaries, and seeing what stories older family members are willing share. Now that I finally understand Black American English is in no way lesser than General American English, but rather a part of our heritage that should be cherished and preserved, I'm trying to stop auto-correcting myself and let more BAE shine through.
But I'm also coming to terms with the idea that I won't be able to achieve all my dreams in a single lifetime, because they're too many and I'm too limited by the societal barriers enforced upon disabled people as well as the illness itself; which makes me wish I'd prioritized my African roots sooner.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
For me, it's gotta be German. German has always had a special place in my heart no other language has been able to beat, which is why it's my strongest language. German is the language in which I struggle the least to find the words, form the sounds, and formulate the sentences, so I'm much more relaxed than when speaking weaker languages. Since I've spent most of my adult life in Germany, there are some things I naturally want to say in German that I struggle to translate into my native language. But even when I was just starting out and not very good, I was told I sounded sexy when I spoke German. And I'd say I've made the best.. memories in Germany too.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
I love being able to communicate with monolinguals directly, especially the elderly. I've had so many beautiful exchanges that wouldn't have been possible had I not spoken their language. And I'm nosy, so I like knowing everything that's going on without having to take someone else's word for it.
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 hope not, but I'm afraid globalization is leading us in that direction. I hope people will make more of a conscious effort to hold on to their heritage languages rather than prioritizing majority languages above all else. For example, countries where everyone switches to English as soon as a foreigner enters the room, should hold long-term resident foreigners accountable – make sure they learn the language instead of enabling them to get by with English, despite having lived there for decades. And those who isolate themselves in cultural bubbles should also seek to integrate in order to avoid having children who were born and raised in a country, while hardly speaking the majority language. Those immigrants who have integrated, needn't worry about speaking the majority language at home – if their kids attend regular schools, they'll learn it either way; so why not seize the opportunity to gift them with the knowledge of their heritage language(s)?
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
When I realized attending regular Hungarian classes was too much for me, I switched to 30-minute a week online lessons. If 30 minutes is too much, find a way to do even shorter lessons. If you suffer from an invisible chronic illness, you can find a supportive community in my Uninvisible Discord server:
The most language exposure I get when I'm unable to travel is through chatting online and watching Youtube or Netflix videos. One cool thing about Youtube is, if I watch topics in one language, it'll recommend me videos on that same topic in other languages I've watched videos in. Use tricks like this to find content that interests you in your target languages. I'm also organizing a few language classes in my Zone Linguaphile Discord server:
Embrace traveling slowly. Not only can you experience so much more, it also makes travelling much more accessible, if you're disabled and moving slower or need more time to rest. If you can afford to, you can rent a place, but you can also try your luck using a hospitality exchange site to find people willing to host you for free – if you're willing to consider less popular cities, you'll stand a better chance of finding someone with more space who's open to hosting for a longer period. However, if you have dietary restrictions, make sure to check on access to bio stores.
To hear more about how I've learned new languages since my health declined, check out my presentation at the Polyglot Conference: Alésia Chevaleret - Language Learning In Spite Of Illness