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Interview with

Colm O Cribin

Name: Colm Ó Cribín
Nationality or Ethnicity: Irish
Where do you live?: Ireland
Languages: English, Irish, Spanish (C2), Chinese (C1), French C1 German B2,
Reading : Italian, Esperanto, Portuguese, Gallego, Catalan, Latin, Scots Gaelic, Dutch,
Some phrases: Arabic, Japanese, Russian, Swedish

Member since:


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

I love learning languages! I have studied them by myself, in private classes and in group classes.   I have used books, tapes, Linguaphone, phone apps and online courses. My first language is English, but my native language is Irish. My family is very proud of its Irish heritage, so I went to school entirely through Irish.  I also worked for many years in an office where Irish was the language used all day.  I guess that makes me bilingual since childhood. I can remember asking my Mother to teach me some French when I was about 10, so I had a bit of that before I started to learn it in school. The level of French at school was pretty poor, unfortunately, so I had to work on it a lot in my later life. I Got sick in Spain at the age of 17 and had to stay there for 7 weeks. I had already done a bit of Spanish before I went there, and those seven weeks brought me up to intermediate level. I started to learn German by myself, and between books and penpals I managed to get to a decent intermediate level as well. I also studied Japanese, Russian and Arabic at this time, but wasn’t very successful. I did slightly better with Italian and I also got to a decent basic level with Esperanto.  I also studied a lot of general linguistics and I learned loads about lots of languages and language families. I returned to German and French in the 1990’s and consolidated my learning. In 2005, I was sent to Spain as a diplomat. This was a fantastic opportunity to learn the language properly and I am now completely fluent in Spanish. My job sent me to China for five years in my fifties and this was an incredible learning experience in every way. Learning Chinese was probably the most difficult challenge of my life, bar none! But I succeeded. In summary, I’m more or less fluent in six languages. I can also read Italian, Portuguese, Galician, Catalan, Latin, Esperanto, Scots Gaelic, and Dutch fairly well, mostly thanks to my fluency in other languages. If you add my rudimentary knowledge of, Arabic, Russian. Japanese and Swedish you could say I have experience of 18 languages. However, I would only claim to be comfortable in 6 languages, and even then my German is quite rusty due to lack of use.

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

All of them! My Chinese requires constant attention to keep my fluency. My German is very rusty. My French is fine, but I always found speaking it difficult.  I would love to be able to have a proper conversation in Arabic, but even after two years of classes I couldn’t do it. I think I would need to live in a country that uses Arabic to get a decent level of fluency. I would also love to be able to have a conversation in a Slavic language, maybe Polish or Russian.

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

I have enough to do to keep my fluency in the languages that I have. If I could learn Arabic or Russian to a decent level (B2 or higher) that would be great.  However, I am also interested in learning Samoan as an introduction to Polynesian languages and I would like to learn Swahili as I think it would be good for travelling in Eastern Africa.

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

Well, they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Each language has its own beauty. Chinese has a beauty in its depth of meaning. Spanish sounds beautiful to me. My native language, Gaelic, can portray a huge array of sentiments.  Each time I read a classic in its natve language I find beauty, but perhaps that is due to the writer’s skill in bringing out the uniqueness of the language. My favourite love story is a short story in Spanish, but some poetry in my native Irish can make me cry with emotion. So it is hard to choose.

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

I feel that knowing so many languages has enriched my life enormously. I love meeting people, and speaking their native language helps me to make new friends all over the world.  I have often asked tourists in the street whether I can help them. Many of the people I met in this way have become lifelong friends! I also love travelling, and being able to talk to locals in their own language really adds to the experience. Being able to read in the local language is also very helpful if you want to get a deep understanding of the place. Some words and concepts are simply not translateable. I found this to be particularly true in China. I studied several of the old poems that used to be taught to all schoolchildren. These explain the deep respect for the family and for education as well as explaining many of the local customs.  It’s just not the same in translation.

There is no doubt that learning the local language was a huge help with my work as well. I needed to talk to politicians, businessmen and ordinary farmers. Some of this can be done via interpreters, but you can’t build a relationship through an interpreter.  The ability to understand off the cuff conversations and regional variations during meetings gave me a big advantage and helped me to make connections where others couldn’t. Learning languages is not easy, but the benefits certainly make it all worthwhile.

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 certainly hope not. Each language brings new meaning and portrays an entire culture. My native language has almost 2000 years of written history, and a huge medieval literature. It would be sad if this was lost. It is the same with Native American languages, and Polynesian languages, and African languages. If these die whole whole cultures will be lost. Language is not just about immediate communication. It is the repository of all of our history, our traditions, our beliefs. These should not be let die. Of course, new languages are evolving all the time. We will always find ways of communicating in the present. The challenge is to preserve our heritage.

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

Learning languages is a great investment in your future. It gives you a link to the past, a taste of the beauty of culture and tradition and a new way of expressing yourself. There are a huge range of resources available now for anyone that wants to learn a language. You can learn from home, at your own speed using whatever methods suit you. You can learn from your phone. You can tap in to articles and TV shows in thousands of languages from the comfort of your favourite armchair. Go for it! The rewards are amazing!

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