Carlos Alberto Cedillo
Name: Carlos Alberto Cedillo Santamaría
Nationality or Ethnicity: Mexican
Where do you live?: Taipei, Taiwan
Languages: Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, English. Now studying: Indonesian, Modern Greek, and Taiwanese.
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
When I was a child, my parents often took me to Chinese restaurants. At the age of seven, I still believed my dad was all-knowing, so one day I just asked him:
“Daddy, what is written there on the wall?”
My father took his glasses, studied the hanging scroll, and told me very seriously: It says, “your dad can't read Chinese”. On that moment, I decided that I would one day understand myself what that foreign writing hid from me. My passion for languages was thus born from sheer spite.
My interest in Chinese soon changed to Japanese. At 13, I found a good Japanese learning method, but it was only in French. I then started with that language in middle school, excited to learn something cool. In high school, I found out that there were German classes being offered, so I decided to take them as well.
It was only until university that I had enough learning experience to reface the challenge of learning Japanese. I focused mainly on reading comprehension, which opened the doors to Japanese literature for me. It also earned me a government scholarship to study one year in Kyoto for free.
Being in Japan for a year was a lot of fun, but it came with some hardships. Both facing and embodying “otherness” was not always as easy as I had imagined, especially when the cultural codes require so much effort to understand and practice. It certainly helped me grow and know myself better.
When I was finishing university, I felt that I had already spent a lot of time on Japanese and wanted to embark on a new challenge, which had in fact been the original quest from my childhood. For the last four years, Mandarin Chinese has become one of my greatest passions. After moving to Taiwan two years ago,I only feel every more and more inspired to continue studying this language, which I often find astonishing in its eccentricity. I just love how dramatic and concise its expressions can be! Some of my favourites are:
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
I wish I could spend more time speaking and reading Japanese. Ever since I started studying Mandarin, I haven’t spent so much time with it. Now when I see Japanese texts, many times I read in the characters with Mandarin my head, even though I had studied them first in Japanese. Since I spent so many years with this language, I think it would be a shame if I forgot it. It’s dear to my heart.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
I would like to study ancient languages, like classical Nahuatl, Akkadian and Egyptian. I really like reading texts from other times because they make me more aware of what things do change and what don't. When I did a university exchange in Dresden, Germany, I took classes in Ancient Greek. I would like to go back to it after having some basics in Modern Greek.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
Any language can be sexy if spoken by the right person, of course! But I must confess, if someone speaks to me in Portuguese (no matter what variant), it is very likely that I will just simply fall in love with them.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
It's hard to rank pleasures. Among those that come to mind are making friends, discovering new music, reading literature from other places and times… But I would like to highlight the sheer thrill of feeling how something that used to be incomprehensible suddenly takes on meaning. It’s just an indescribable experience.
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?
When one lives in Mexico or Taiwan, it is sad to see how so many indigenous languages become endangered or extinct.
This might sound unrelated, but it’s not so bear with me: We live in times where more and more we are forced to think about the end of things in general. Mass extinction and scientific reports on climate change force us to think even about our own possible collapse. I can only but hope that in a hundred years we’ll have found ways to inhabit this planet that will not jeopardize our continuation. Those new ways of living, I think, must necessarily include respect for indigenous communities and languages, which so far have often been seen as a hindrance to the economy and national identity, or are simply made invisible for not contributing to global value chains.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
It has never been easier to learn languages than now! I think the most important thing I could say would be: avoid comparing yourself with others, focus only on what you want to learn. Don’t rush! As the old Chinese saying goes, 人外有人， 天外有天 (literally: “There are people beyond people, there is a sky beyond the sky”). There will always be people who can do things better than us, but there will never be someone that can live our life for us, so let’s try to have fun with it.