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Interview with

Catherine Marien

Name: Catherine Marien
Nationality or Ethnicity: French and Belgian
Where do you live? Geneva
Languages: French, Dutch, Italian, German, English, Spanish.
Currently learning: Chinese, Hebrew, Mongolian, Russian, Icelandic

1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?

Well, I had a good head start as a child, growing up in a bilingual family that spoke French and Dutch. The two languages were rigorously separated as my French mother didn’t speak any Dutch, the language I spoke with my father, which forced me to keep up both languages, speaking each language with only one parent. I remember already appreciating this as something precious, even though I was just a child. That’s when the first linguistic seeds were sown.

However, my undying love for languages started in my 20s during my 4-year Linguistics and Translation Studies (German, English, Dutch) at university. This intensive program has taught me a lot about language and its structure, and has whetted my appetite for a variety of languages and cultures.

Living in five different countries further paved the way to becoming multilingual and multicultural. I didn’t just learn to speak the language of each country where I settled, but each of them became part of my life, with its own set of memories, emotions and experiences.

I added my first non-Indo-European language to my language arsenal when I studied Japanology at the Institut für Japanologie of Heidelberg University for one year after my final thesis. During my post-graduate studies, I decided to learn Sanskrit for one semester and taught myself the basics of Esperanto (long before the advent of Duolingo and Youtube).

When I met my husband, Italian became my first family language, so much so that, today, I feel I have three native languages. As a family we also lived 5 years in Spain, where Spanish became my new social language. I dabbled in a few languages along the way, until I developed a passion for the Chinese language, then Hebrew. More recently I started Russian, Mongolian and (dabbling in) Icelandic.


2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?

I’d love to invest more time in my new languages Chinese, Russian and Hebrew, which are not at C level yet. This said, I find the intuitive and cultural understanding of a language as important as the technical ability to speak it, so I like to take my time to learn about a language before I effectively start learning to speak it, which is currently the case for Mongolian and Icelandic.


3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?

Until recently, I had the feeling I met my languages rather than choosing them. They crossed my path before becoming a fundamental part of my life.

The languages I’d like to learn in the future will probably be based on a more deliberate choice. My idea is to add languages that are either not genetically related to the ones I’ve already learned, or ones that broaden my spectrum even more: languages with a different script, unusual sound system or an entirely different gender, pronoun, or evidentiality system. I am intrigued by click languages like Xhosa, and languages like Cherokee, Armenian, Urdu, Lithuanian, and the Eskaleut languages such as Kalaallisut.

Part of my linguistic research also focuses on language isolates, minority languages, and endangered scripts.


4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?

Every language can be sexy in its own way: Italian and Hebrew for their musicality, French for word plays, Mongolian for its unique sounds, Chinese for the rebus-like script and culture-laden chengyu, Icelandic for its efficient, history-laden neologisms, even logical and efficient German, which allows the expression of philosophy, cosiness and technology with the same efficacy.


5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?

I enjoy great personal satisfaction when I start developing an intuitive feeling for the language and suddenly, an entire new world unfolds in front of me. The sense of boundlessness that goes with that experience is transcendent.

There’s also the more global satisfaction of seeing how knowing many languages builds bridges between people. I’m a strong believer that knowing many languages helps to root out prejudices, by developing a better understanding for unique cultures and differing world views.


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?

No, I don’t think so. Even though the threat of a uniform, global language is there, the trend seems to go in the direction of more recognition for linguistic minorities rather than the other way around. My personal feeling is that even if only a few languages subsist at an international level, individual languages will be stronger than ever at community and family levels.

Also, a lot of effort is being put into the preservation of minority languages and endangered scripts. Technological progress also enables us to do increasingly more to raise awareness, and an extensive sampling of voices, sounds and texts has already begun. 100 years from now, the technological possibilities will probably be even more advanced. But, then again, I’m an eternal optimist and idealist.


7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?

Absolutely go for it! You have no idea how this decision will change your life in the most wonderful ways. Not only will it give you additional tools to progress in life and understand the world around you, but it will make you a different, more understanding and resilient human being. The most difficult part is to start and master the first foreign language. The more languages you know, the easier it gets.