Interview with

Christophe Tellart-Onashvili

Name: Christophe Tellart-Onashvili
Nationality or Ethnicity: French
Where do you live?: in Paris and Saumur
Languages: French, Ukrainian & Georgian (native); Megrelian (near-native); fluent in Latin, Russian, English, German, Walser German, Scottish Gaelic, Meadow Mari, Bolivian (Cochabamba) Quechua, Tahitian & Spanish; proficient in Italian, Catalan, Central Ü-Tsang (Lhasa) Tibetan, French Flemish (Frans-Vlaemsch) & Quercy Occitan (carcinòl, the variant of Languedocien Occitan spoken in the Lot); intermediate in Polish, Mauritian Creole, Modern Greek, Japanese (I don't read or write it very well, though), Northern Sami, Hill Mari, Aymara, Warlpiri & Corsican; beginner in Udmurt, Mongolian & Ladakhi & Portuguese. I can also read and write Middle Egyptian, and I know Ancient Greek rather well.

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

I’ve loved languages since my early childhood, which is probably due to the fact that my mother was Ukrainian and Megrelian (Georgian) and that I was consequently exposed to different cultures, but also because in spite of his French citizenship, my father spoke Occitan and French Flemish as his mother tongues. I was eight when I decided to study Modern Greek on my own using the 1976 French edition of the Assimil method (with vinyls, at that time!), and apart from the ones spoken in my family or studied at school, it was the very first language I learnt by choice and by myself! As I grew up, I fell in love with more languages and cultures, and ever since then, I have never stopped studying, even if I became a musician rather than a language teacher and a linguist, which I was supposed to be...

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

I would love to focus on more “mainstream” languages like Japanese, Portuguese and Polish, for example, but I am too fascinated by minor and endangered tongues to find the time to improve these major ones, even if I am sometimes reproached with the fact that studying “rare” languages is a waste of time, since it prevents me from communicating with most people in the world, the usual criticism I read and hear from those who deem lesser-known tongues “uninteresting” and “useless”...

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

Way too many, but definitely Kalaallisut, Guarani, Mapuche (mapudungun), Innu-Aimun and Lakhota, and also Navajo (diné bizaad), Sikuani, Shuar, Wayampi, Pirahã, Wallisian, Iaai, Nivkh, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese and Faroese, in the not too distant future... I would love to study !Xóõ again, sometime, because due to the significant lack of resources (the only available books are a dictionary and a phonological study), I failed learning it, but unless a real textbook is published, it seems it will remain impossible, unfortunately... I am not sure I will ever be able to learn all these languages thoroughly before I pass away, but I shall try...

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

I sincerely don't know if languages are “sexy” in the strict sense of this adjective, but I love the way Italian sounds (it is probably one of the rare tongues on earth which remains beautiful when people quarrel or insult each other in it!), and also Mari, Innu-Aimun, Scottish Gaelic, Tahitian, Aymara, Pirahã, Wayana, Wayampi, Shuar, !Xóõ, Huli, Chukchi and Elvish (a conlang!), among others...

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

It may sound stupid to some, but the greatest pleasure I get is being under the impression that speaking and/or learning languages which are already on the verge of extinction will possibly help to prevent them from becoming utterly extinct... I know it is a dream, but if more language enthusiasts were devoting themselves to endangered ones, they would be less threatened...

It is also a real satisfaction to be able to address natives directly in their mother tongue without resorting to English or to any “koine”, as it is not to rely on anyone to have something translated! To be frank, being linguistically independent is a great feeling, without mentioning that locals always appreciate it when you express yourself in their language, even if you make blunders and mistakes. And obviously, to penetrate a culture intimately, you need to speak its language(s), a total prerequisite, at least according to me...

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?

Yes, I am afraid it is what is more likely going to happen, and if we don't do anything against that probable tragic outcome, well, it is undoubtedly what is to come... If we don't want that dark and sad perspective to occur, humans — and polyglots primarily! — have a duty to preserve and to transmit their linguistic heritage before it is too late, and more importantly, to pass it on to future generations if they have the opportunity to do so. Separating languages from their inherent cultures is impossible: languages are intrinsically part of them, and we must absolutely preserve their richness!

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

Speaking several languages is a more than rewarding experience, and it personally changed my life in numerous positive ways! Given that since the advent of the Internet, learning languages and practicing them with natives is much easier than a few decades ago (I remember how difficult it was for me to find resources for some languages and to meet speakers of them, some thirty years ago, even in a large city like Paris!), anyone willing to study multiple languages should just go for it, and in a globalized world like ours, minor and/or endangered languages above all, that goes without saying, but what must be kept in mind is that regularity is the key to success: studying a language 30 minutes a day is much better than studying it four hours a week...

There is no magic formula but personally, writing down newly learned words or expressions and talking to myself in my target languages helps me considerably when I learn them. Beginners should never be afraid of creating sentences of their own, of expressing themselves whenever they can, even if they have a restricted vocabulary and grammar, and talking to an imaginary interlocutor has always been extremely effective for me. Of course, I wouldn't recommend doing

The International Association of Hyperpolyglots - HYPIA. (c) 2020

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