Name: Dr Chonglong Gu (James)
Nationality or Ethnicity: Chinese
Where do you live?: Liverpool, Merseyside, United Kingdom
Mandarin Chinese, English, Cantonese, Arabic (MSA/Fusha) and some dialects/Ammiya (e.g. Gulf, Levantine and Egyptian). Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
Compared with many talented and younger polyglots, my experience as a hyperpolyglot has been rather recent. I was born and raised in China and Chinese Mandarin is my mother tongue. Fascinated by languages, I studied English at university as my undergrad major. Chinese and English constitute two important languages in my professional life. During my BA study in China, I also studied French briefly as my second foreign language. Later, I learnt Cantonese because I went to Guangzhou, a Cantonese-speaking megacity in southern China, in 2014 for an academic visit. Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible but they are very similar in terms of grammar, sentence structure, and core vocabulary (maybe like French and Italian). As such, it was fairly easy for me to pick up in a few months just by watching TV dramas and listening to the news. After that, I went to the UK and lived in Manchester, a very multilingual and multicultural city. There are large Urdu/Hindi, Punjabi, Arabic, Kurdish speaking communities. After an ‘Eureka moment’, I came to the epiphany that I could read the Arabic script. I then started to learn Arabic more seriously because I needed to go to Hong Kong for a conference with a stopover in Dubai (where I was granted a visa on arrival so that I could explore Dubai under the scorching Khaleeji sun in July for a few hours). I later bought lots of books and practiced Arabic with people in fast food restaurants and corner shops. In recognition of my enthusiasm and language skills, I was sometimes given a complimentary extra chicken drumstick, a bottle of energy drink/milk, or chocolate bar as hadiya (gift). In the meantime, I also travelled to Morocco, Dubai (again) and Qatar. Now I can speak Fusha/MSA and some dialects in a confident manner in various everyday contexts (approximately B2/C1 level). Similarly, I learnt Urdu/Hindi by myself using books, online and through talking with people. Based on my existing knowledge of Arabic, I can read the elegant Nastaliq script used by Urdu easily and a lot of Urdu words are already reasonably familiar (e.g. hakumat, isHaal, wabaa, lazim, mumkin, zyada, jism, tarikh, malik, laziz, tamaam, safar, aZim, shaRif, fayda, kursi, dukkan, khaas, taLiim, bayan, dunya, sifr, mausam, hawa, mustaqbil, mushkil, siasat, taqriban, natija). I am also picking up more shudh Hindi words, for example, derived from Sanskrit now. As such, I can speak Hindi/Urdu reasonably well sometimes with a few English words thrown in. With Hind/Urdu as a basis, it was also not too difficult to learn Punjabi and other related languages in the Indian Subcontinent (e.g. Nepali and Gujarati). In addition to these, mostly because of travel, I dabbled in a wide range of languages (Italian, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Spanish, etc.). Because of a lack of native speakers to practice with and in the absence of linguistic environment, my skills have become very rusty and only have some basic speaking and reading knowledge thanks to their similarities with English (e.g. vocabulary and grammar). If need be, they can come back to me quickly with intensive learning.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
French, Arabic, and Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi. I want to practice more and get more depth in those languages.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Perhaps those relatively widely spoken languages with reasonable amount of native speakers. Learning a language is about communication, through which you can derive pleasure, get a sense of achievement and become motivated to improve further. From a pragmatic point of view, it is rather pointless to learn a language that you can hardly find any resource or secure (native) speakers to practice with.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
Peut-être français? Je ne sais pas. It depends on how you define ‘sexy’. Urdu is also an intriguing one due to its hybrid nature (which is based on Khari Boli and Sanskrit in terms of key grammatical structure yet draws extensively on Persian, Arabic, Turkic, and now increasingly on English in terms of vocabulary). As such, knowing Urdu will surely stand one in good stead in terms of learning other related languages.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Learning languages is an eye-opening experience, which also opens many doors. I derive pleasure from talking with different people in their own tongues in order to know more about their unique stories and to know more about the history, culture, society and demographic profile of a particular locale. Learning different languages enriches my life and can also benefit my career.
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?
Maybe it’s true. In our modern world, for various reasons (e.g. language policy, employment considerations, globalisation, snob value), it seems that people will gradually want to learn languages that are widely spoken, useful and ‘cool’. In all likelihood, our world is and will continue to be dominated by several dominant languages such as Mandarin, English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi/Urdu. Every language is beautiful. It is so sad that some languages will die out. Unfortunately, however, it is the way things are these days. Civilisations, cultures, languages, and traditions come and go. It has been the case throughout history. As such, I take a more resigned attitude towards this. But I do hope associations like this can play a key role in keeping languages alive and making our world a colourful and diverse place.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Don’t be a perfectionist. Learn the basics, get a feel for the language, enlarge your vocab, make up sentences relating to you and your background, and make it part of your everyday life.
Don’t get bogged down by grammatical rules and various fancy grammatical terms. Tossing around big complicated terms like ‘imperfective participle’ or ‘subordinating conjunction’ might make you look cool but knowing these doesn’t necessarily mean you can produce correct sentences in real-life situations. Instead, travel more, experience languages, play around with languages, enjoy them and dream in them!