The International Association
Name: Bartosz Christian Zelek
Nationality: Polish by birth, European by choice
Languages: Polish, Russian, German, English, Italian and French
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
My adventure with language acquisition started quite late, as it was only in a Polish high school when this interest sparked itself. Throughout my childhood I thought (or rather was told at post-comunist schools) that I had no talent for learning foreign languages. When I first went to visit my relatives in Germany I could not understand anything people there said to me in German. At that time as a kid, I really wanted just one thing: to play outdoors and laugh together at the same jokes with my peers. This experience gave me a load of motivation to pursue languages and afterwards, my “linguistic miracle” happened… But the beginning was not so easy.
As I have just finished the first semester of high school, my English teacher told me: “Bartosz, do you know that you will probably not pass my class?”. This was the boost I needed and after this I spent many evenings listening to BBC radio, reading English articles, and learning by heart thousands of sentences. I finished high school with a “very good” grade in English.
At university, I was in an individual study program, so I could learn English, German and Russian intensively. In my third year, I did an exchange program in Germany, where initially I just went for one semester (but somehow my ‘one semester’ has been extended to 6 years here already). After the exchange, I began my master's degree at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, where I studied MA Translation in German, Polish, Russian and Italian. After graduation, I worked as a translator in the Directorate-General for Translation of the European Parliament in Luxembourg, and then I became a sworn translator of Polish and Russian at the District Court in Potsdam. In the meantime, thanks to the pandemic, I also improved my French skills. That is how I became quite unconsciously a polyglot: I had a dream as a child to be able to play with peers and speak with relatives.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
I am quite satisfied with the level I have reached in each of my languages. No one is perfect and we can only strive for perfection. The process of learning languages is never-ending and I do not see it in terms of chasing perfection and poring over books, because this is not the point. The best attempt to learn a language is by getting to know the culture and its people which is much more relevant for me.
3. What are some languages you would like to learn in the future?
I really enjoy a challenge and lately, I have found Japanese heritage fascinating. Without a doubt, it would take me a lot of time to learn a language from a different language family, but the Japanese customs are currently so intriguing to me, that I would like to learn at least the basics. Portuguese is a charming language and very appealing to me too. It sounds similar to my mother tongue - I think learning the basics would be a great start to being able to order a glass of red wine in Lisbon in a Fado bar!
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
I would say the French language of course. Despite the fact that the position of this language has been lost in recent decades. French grammar and pronunciation have been proven to be very complicated. People can make fun of some of the culinary habits of its local residents, but let us not deceive ourselves. French is the most sensual language, that is hiding alluring secrets in every syllable. This language, its culture and music are purely appetising to me.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Travelling. I really appreciate that I can speak English when I exchange a few words about some current exhibition with someone at the Tate Modern Museum in London. Whether it is just talking about Chekhov, whose “Cherry orchard” I wrote about my MA thesis or discussing Tolstoy and Bulgakov or just having some real heart-to-heart conversations in Russian in the late night in a tiny kitchen are the moments when I just realise how I love this language, society and culture and that I can experience it all on the natural level without any barriers. Ordering an Aperol Spritz in Venice's picturesque Murano, after that buying a necklace handcrafted by local artists who become your friends gives me the feeling that it was worth spending a few years learning languages grammar in the library. In moments like this, I feel that no barriers exist and I have developed new identities in myself, because I can be Polish, but also Italian or Russian, and always a European.
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?
It all depends on political circumstances and whether we will be dealing with phenomena in the future beyond our control. Given today's technological progress and the possibility of accessing any foreign language via the internet, new generations have new chances to learn, but the question is whether they will be able to fulfil their potential in the age of digitalization. Does technology lead us to development? This is the question that we should ask ourselves as a society. History shows that every phenomenon returns after some time. After all, I want to live a very long time, so in a hundred years I will certainly respond here to your question. Please, be patient!
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Everyone should find the best method of learning foreign languages for themselves. Perhaps one of the methods recommended by influencers will help someone, but not necessarily will be appropriate for someone else, which depends on your own predispositions for learning. It's worth starting by setting yourself goals and what you want to reach by learning a new language. If your priority is to understand texts, then read a lot in a given language. If you want to be able to communicate on holiday in a foreign country, then repeat dialogues aloud, learn vocabulary by heart (work order - by heart goes after the noun you are learning) (yes, it still exists, learning something by heart), and look for opportunities online or even in your town to talk in that language.
And one more thing: in the multitude of fantastic methods of instant and easy learning and everything, don't forget about old, simple advice, which seems to be overlooked nowadays: “Repetition is the mother of learning”. And last but not least, I will add here something from me, and throw in a quotation from a foreword from my German language learning book: "Everything is possible in learning languages".
Just keep in mind that in language acquisition, our magic method will not necessarily be miraculous for other people: we all are different, we all learn in non-identical ways and each of us has different language needs. Hopefully, there will be a focus on this in schools one day.
I hope that you find the best method for you so that any foreign language opens your doors to new cultures and people. After all, this is the reason why we are doing it.