Name: Armin Hoenen
Nationality or Ethnicity: German, Caucasian
Where do you live?: Wiesbaden, Germany
Languages: German (native), English, French, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Russian, Hindi-Urdu.
Basic knowledge of: Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Croatian/Serbian, Slovenian, Turkish, Albanian, Persian (Farsi), Okinawan, Greek Norwegian/Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, Yiddish, Afrikaans, finger alphabet
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
There are 2 ingredients, maybe three, that made me embark on that polyglot journey. First, childhood and the prequisites: my parents both come from the same place with a quite different dialect 250km far from the place where I grew up and their parents – because of the war- had raised their children too in a dialectally different place than their original home. I vividly remember the conversations topicalizing the differences between dialects and thus raising awareness for this aspect of language. Secondly, my father worked with languages, whilst my mother speaks nothing but German. But when I was a child, he tried to teach me English, French and Spanish and until the age of about 5 or 6 I have been learning very basic English phrases and words. Then only in highschool at the age of 11 I started English and with 13 French, with 14 a bit Spanish and Latin at school. The real polyglot journey began though when I turned 21 and studied biology. Somehow, I got interested in alphabets or writing systems and then I found that internet page for learning Japanese. Well, somehow my brain was ready. I soon fell a bit in love with a Japnaese girl, but the situation was impossible, so also that energy went into language learning somehow, I guess. I made language tandem partners with Japanese students who studied in Germany and 3 years long Japanese must have been my only or most important hobby. Then the module of learning new languages was there and said “feed me”. I was interested very much in writing systems (and travelling and people) and so followed Russian, Chinese, Arabic. I changed my main subject at university to linguistics and I made a semester abroad working at the Expo in Japan. I learned other languages such as Hindi and Urdu through films and made friends to whom to talk in those languages. In 2012, I met a beautiful Italina girl, whom I married in 2014 and we soon became parents. I learned Italian just before the birth of our daughter and we are raising a truly bilingual child. For many years, I didn’t really learn any new language, but this year, I became interested in Albanian with 42. And I am still able to learn a new language, I hope.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
All of them. I liked those which are “exotic” making me reflect and in the end recognize better what is shared amongst all cultures and what is peculiar (?). Especially Hindi and Urdu were at a level where I enjoyed very much expressing myself and the exchange with the people, but also Russian and Arabic. Surely Chinese will have more impact in the coming years. And of course, I may start forgetting my Japanese which pains me. Also Dutch, when I read it, it is the only language that almost feels like my native tongue, so close to my native dialect.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Kiswaheli, I had just started a bit once. I know no Bantu language of subsaharanian Africa, I’d love to go where homo sapiens comes from and what I could learn from this and the cultural sphere would be awesome, I guess. And more sign languages, I participated in three courses of German sign language, but never had the time to delve more into it.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
There is always something to do. Situations in which I can simply decide who to include in the information transmission by choice of language are joyous (I speak English with my wife, so our daughter doesn’t comprehend, I speak Russian to some colleagues so the others wont etc.). But the greatest of pleasures from knowing another languages is probably independence when travelling to a country (or simply place) the language and culture of which you have studied. It is you thanks to whom, sometimes silently so, communication works and you carry a “cultural backpack” which makes you exotic, maybe interesting. You can only melt into another countries society if you speak the language, this is vacation of the mind. The very moment you are there AND you interact using the other language, you feel as if you belong.
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?
Well, I could give a long scientific answer. The truth is, language is made of many strata, internationalisms, dialectalisms, written language, spoken language etc. I think the word language is not appropriate or the common definition of it. The thing in se is much more complex and thus the question is not really so good. But as for language loss, we are loosing languages but we are also witnessing a complete and complex change in the main communication medium, the digital, no longer print and so everyone starts writing how they want on messengers and stuff and so new dialects or varieties might occur. And 100 years is much too short in evolutionary terms for almost anything to happen. Yes, the decline in the number and proportion of hunter-gatherer societies that mankind has witnessed in the 20th century is remarkable. For language however, the matter is more complex. Many today endangered languages of the 7000 or so Ethnologue assumes will be lost. New ones will, occasionally at least (see Nicaraguan sign language) emerge. The development of technology and the digital (will large language models “speak” a smaller language or help preserve it; but at least how will they influence language loss) are much too unforeseeable at the moment to give an answer. If I’d be forced to give one, I’d say no, depends of course what you understand as “few” – but in my understanding of few (a couple of, max up to 50?) there will be many more languages even in a 100 years. On the very long term, maybe globalization could lead to us all speaking one variety with many strata and regional dialects, but this would be in thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of years, if mankind will prevail.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Do it, write your own story. It is rewarding but at the same time be aware that your brain is limited. No one is ever able to speak all languages of the world at a level of absolute fluency. If you really want to become polyglot, you can do it. I always liked the more exotic languages, if you do, I can tell you I was never disappointed. If you can still choose, consider to learn one language to the point of perfection instead of 10 to differing degrees of medium fluency. Vocabulary is like an ocean, the beautiful words are pearls on the bottom of the ocean and if you can only swim at the surface but not dive, you wont find them. You should decide if you can be happy with yourself if the situation is one with some quite fluent and many semi-fluent languages. One can. Finally, all languages are equal in dignity and pleasure which is to say, a language with 100 000 speakers “only” has still more speakers than people with whom you can make friends in your entire life to come, so if you should happen to fall for one of them, go for it.