Name: Claire Pohunková
Nationality or Ethnicity: Czech
Where do you live?: Europe/Asia
Languages: Czech, English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Slovak
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I grew up in a small town in Eastern Czech Republic. Life was rather uneventful. Not having much else to do, I started watching American TV series obsessively when I was 11 or 12. By doing that, I not only picked up English but also grew fascinated by the exciting lives of New Yorkers like Joey Tribbiani, Ted Mosby or Blair Waldorf. I became madly passionate about the English language – I thought it was very playful and creative and I noticed that the speakers’ style and ways of expressing their feelings differed from the Czech speakers I was accustomed to.
I too wanted to speak it, live it, explore it and get creative with it. Being exposed to this different world and to other people’s lives, so different and much more exciting than mine, I desperately desired to leave my small, unworldly town where everyone spoke the same language and looked the same. I wanted to travel the world, learn about different cultures and ways of living, and study different languages. Between the ages of 13 and 15, I started studying French, Spanish, and German at and outside of school. At the age of 16, I had an unexpected opportunity to go to France and spend a few months studying at a local high school, during which I was able to pick up French and learn about French culture. Seeing that this was possible within just a few months, I was determined to repeat the experience in the upcoming academic year in a different country. I was incredibly lucky to manifest an opportunity to go spend half a year in Germany and so I picked up German. In the meantime, I continued to learn Spanish at school. I picked up Italian, which is similar to Spanish and French, by spending a few months in Italy as an au-pair. I also studied Arabic and Romanian formally at university, but unfortunately, I’ve forgotten more than I’ve retained.
In my early twenties, fluent in 6 European languages, I thought myself a worldly, global citizen. Then I spent a year studying linguistics at Cambridge – and realized I was perhaps pan-European at best. In Cambridge, I met people from truly all over the world and in the classroom, I compared linguistic phenomena from diverse language families. These experiences opened my eyes to the fact that, while different, European cultures and languages were still highly similar, and that outside of Europe, there were languages and cultures so different from everything I knew, that I really didn’t understand much of the world at all!
I thus decided to move to China for a year to treat myself to a proper cultural shock, to witness all my beliefs being challenged, and to attempt to learn Mandarin and thus understand the nature of human languages in a greater context. Unexpectedly, I fell madly in love with China and its culture. I was hooked and it was imperative I learn the Chinese language properly.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
All of them! I wish I could speak all of them on a daily basis! I love it when I get to switch between several languages within one day – what a great brain exercise. When I am in Europe, I miss Chinese terribly. When I am in Asia, I miss my European languages – mainly French, but also Italian, and German. When I was living in China and Taiwan, I missed the fact that in Europe, I can easily get a chance to practice several of these languages at the same time – for example now, when I live in the multilingual country of Switzerland. Isn’t life so boring when you always speak one and the same language?!!
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
- Japanese (similar to Chinese, and yet completely different; mind-bogglingly fascinating culture; something completely different to what I know!),
- Romanian (I’ve already studied it for a year and it’s a mixture of my favorite Romance languages – of which I already speak 3 – and of Slavonic languages, which is where my native Czech belongs, so it’s quite intriguing),
- Portuguese (I want to master all the Romance languages, they’re my favorite),
- Polish (similar to Czech and sounds very fun),
- Arabic (I have been wanting to learn it since I was 15),
- Greek (I have self-studied it when I spent a summer in Greece and I also studied Ancient Greek – which is a gem of its own merits, because it holds the key to our Western culture, which largely originated from Ancient Greek culture),
- contemplating Taiwanese Hokkien and Korean…
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
French. Or Italian? Probably French, but it’s tight. Frankly, I also really love American English. It can be blunt and raw and authentic while also vividly descriptive – I don’t know, call me crazy!
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Unlocking so many different parts of myself. There is an obnoxiously loud American Claire that says “f*ck* in every other sentence when she is fired up; there is the French Claire who loves to roll her eyes and complain and make fun of her friends; there is the German Claire who is a little held back and who tends to think in advance about what she is about to say – which the other Claires do notdo! Haha! There is the Czech Claire who doesn’t really know how to express her feelings. The b*tch-please confident Italian Claire who throws her hands around and expresses herself loudly and resolutely! The Chinese Claire who delights in the liberty to cut off excess politeness (read: all politeness) and go straight to the point and there is also a Taiwanese Claire who speaks softly and it pleases her to please others with her words.
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?
I really hope not, life on Earth would be so boring! I do love English and personally think everyone who has a chance should learn it – it is so great to be able to communicate with people from other cultures! And I really hope that “smaller” languages will not start getting lost in favor of “bigger” languages, because there is so much richness in each and every different language. We all have different ways of seeing the world, of cognizing it and describing it. We can learn so much about the world by learning a new language and understanding the culture of those who speak it. If we lose other languages, we also lose the cultural richness and the strands of history attached to them. Luckily, the world is quite big and (luckily or unluckily?) language education is still nowhere near that good for everyone to start speaking a few global languages so comfortably that their original native languages would completely disappear. I think that for the next 100 years, we don’t have to worry that much, but I do believe that it is crucial for governments and international organizations to recognize the importance of ethnic/cultural diversity and to protect and support endangered languages in any way they can.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Being able to speak another language is a superpower. Imagine two people talking about you or about robbing the bank, thinking that no one understands them – but you do! Imagine going on holidays or spending some time in your dream country and being treated to a VIP, behind-the-scenes experience, because, unlike all the other tourists, you can communicate with the locals and you can also enrich their day by sharing about your experience! Imagine being able to collect all the secrets of Italian cuisine, learning straight from that old grannie who makes the best lasagne in all of Toscana! Besides, wouldn’t it be amazing if you could read books in their original version? Wouldn’t karaoke be 100x more fun if you could sing and understand all the newest K-pop hits? If you could penetrate into the mysterious cultural paradigm of the 1.5 billion people in China? If you could be the first foreigner to ever talk to that shaman who has never left his native land?
So my message to you is twofold: firstly, being able to speak a foreign language is not just useful, it is also a very beautiful human experience – when you can learn from other cultures, be inspired, surprised, shocked and challenged to broaden your perspective. Being able to speak another language can open many doors for you and allow you to have exchanges, foster connections and build precious friendships with people to whom you otherwise wouldn’t have access.
Secondly, I want you to understand that ANYONE can learn a foreign language. If you can learn a first language, then you can learn a second language as well! People in China don’t have a different language gene from people in England – if a Chinese person can pick up Chinese, so can you. It’s much more about mindset and motivation than innate talent. First of all, check the story you are telling yourself – if you are telling yourself that you are not good with languages, that Spanish grammar will be impossibly hard or that you have a bad memory and thus will never remember the vocabulary, then you are priming yourself for failure before you even started! Our brains are infinitely plastic! Studies show that even older people’s brains can be trained and their physical structures can change with stimulation! Knowing your motivation – for example, the desire to speak to the locals during your trips around Spain – can be of immense help.
Finally, I’d recommend you consider the learning journey of a baby acquiring their first language – they don’t learn the grammar. They don’t study textbooks. They don’t care about expressing themselves in neat, grammatical sentences. They care about COMMUNICATING. And as they manage to do that, they improve gradually and effortlessly both their vocabulary and their grammar as they receive feedback from their interlocutors. They learn because they have a burning desire and an existential need to communicate – now that’s what I call motivation! They also learn from context and thus remember much more than if they were to crunch vocabulary lists.