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Interview with

David Corwin

Name: David Alexander Corwin
Nationality or Ethnicity: Ashkenazi Jewish, born and raised in USA
Where do you live?: Jerusalem
Languages: English, French, Hebrew, Japanese, Yiddish, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Arabic (basic conversation or more). Minimal experience with Russian, Spanish, Farsi, Latin, and Finnish.

Member since:


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

I first started learning a foreign language in 7th grade, when I took French. I quickly realized that I enjoyed learning languages, and I would skip ahead in the textbook, for example learning all 8th-grade grammar by the end of 7th grade. Later in high school, I would practice French on my own, for example by listening to videos of French political speeches.

In high school, I also took Latin classes but later forgot most of what I had learned (as I didn’t really continue in college). I started learning Modern Hebrew from a textbook when I was in high school, sometimes asking an Israeli kid on my bus for pronunciation help. I then spent two summers in Israel while in college, and I got many chances to practice speaking Hebrew there. I also took courses in French both at my college in the US and during a semester in Paris, the latter which especially honed my French skill.

During my undergraduate years, I joined a language club and heard about Japanese. In grad school (began Fall 2013), I discovered there were intensive language classes in January (doing a semester of material in one month), so I took intensive Japanese in January 2015. I was in Japanese II in Spring 2015 for a bit, but then realized I didn’t have time for it then.

In August 2015, I had a couple of weeks at home and was bored, so I found a Yiddish textbook on my mom’s shelf and started learning it. I found it quite easy and could communicate on a very basic level quite quickly, but I didn’t continue. Then in Spring 2016, partly inspired by a research trip to Germany (where I surprisingly couldn’t understand almost anything!), I enrolled in German classes. I did a first semester of German and felt like I was already far ahead of where I had gotten in Japanese. That summer, I was in Germany a bit and improved my German, and since it was so easy, I took third-semester German in Fall 2016, which was fine.

I had also acquired an interest in Dutch from a couple of trips to the Netherlands, and I started learning it on Duolingo in May 2016. I also had a Dutch friend help me with pronunciation (he even recorded sounds like ij, ui, eu, and aa) and later read Routledge’s Essential Dutch Grammar. In February 2017, I visited Amsterdam and felt that I could actually have conversations.

I was living in Paris in Spring 2017, and I attended a second-semester Japanese course, which helped a bit. I then took Japanese III when I got back to my grad school in the US in Fall 2017. I furthermore made two trips to Japan in 2017, which really improved my Japanese.

This method involving Duolingo and then a Routledge grammar seemed to work well, and I did the same with Norwegian (after having hesitated for a while between that and Swedish), with the addition of watching a Netflix series (Okkupert). After the series, I felt I could actually speak with a Norwegian intonation. I really started to get conversant or even fluent when I started going to social events at a Norwegian Seamen’s Church (sjømannskirken) in 2019.

By 2019, I was a postdoc, and I also took an advanced (2nd year) Dutch course to solidify my Dutch knowledge. I also occasionally went to a Japanese language exchange group, which helped my Japanese (which was getting a bit rusty by then). I was supposed to go to Japan in 2020, but that got cancelled due to Covid, and I feel my Japanese has suffered, even though I get to speak it once in a while.

In 2019-2020, I had a girlfriend who was a native Farsi speaker, so I quickly learned some Farsi (e.g. with Mango Languages and by asking her questions). I even was able to hold my own with her grandmother who didn’t speak English for about 10 minutes. But partly because I learned it so quickly, I forgot a lot after we broke up (though very recently I’ve tried to get back to it). I also did a semester of college Russian during that time (Spring 2020).

After having studied Arabic a little bit for years on the side, I had a private Palestinian Arabic teacher when I was in Jerusalem in Summer 2019. After this, I felt I could have a basic conversation in Palestinian Arabic. Since I’ve moved to Israel in Fall 2021, I’ve had some more opportunities to practice it. Nonetheless, because I really need to improve Hebrew for my job (teaching in university), I’ve made it a priority to focus on Hebrew.

Nonetheless, I still have a nearly 600-day streak on Duolingo, mostly from Mandarin and a bit from Finnish. I was also learning Finnish recently by asking a Finnish person and skimming through Routledge’s Finnish Essential Grammar. I’ve also picked up a little Spanish here and there, a bit from Duolingo, a bit from just talking to Spanish-speakers and trying to figure it out.

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

Right now, I’m putting all my free time into Hebrew because it’s important for my job. I’d really like to improve my Arabic for practical purposes, and I do improve my Arabic now and then by using it, but I’m maintaining discipline not to work too actively on anything but Hebrew. I’m also keeping up Duolingo (590+ day streak), mostly with Chinese (Mandarin), but also sometimes Finnish. In some ways, I enjoy Finnish more than Chinese, but Chinese seems more important in some ways. I’d love to have more opportunities to practice German, Yiddish, Dutch, and Norwegian (especially the latter two), and I’d certainly like to get my Japanese back up to speed.

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

As mentioned in the previous question, I’d like to learn Chinese and Finnish and have been doing them on Duolingo. I’d also like to get my Russian conversant (right now it’s more basic than conversant), and I’d like to get back the Farsi I knew and maybe become conversant.

I’d also like to become conversant on a basic level in Spanish, which seems like it should be quite easy. Maybe I would if I just spent ~2-3 months on Duolingo, but I don’t want to stop doing Chinese every day (because Chinese is so difficult and will require so much devotion).

Another two languages I’ve dabbled in that excite me are Icelandic and Irish. Icelandic is of course interesting given my Germanic language background, and in particular it would get me to a point where I could at least somewhat understand every modern Germanic language (i.e., different forms of German are understandable to me, I can understand some Frisian from Dutch and English, Swedish and Danish are of course fine, and I’m guessing Icelandic would make Faroese somewhat familiar…?). Irish is because I’d like to learn a Celtic language, and at one point I was getting into Irish Duolingo but sadly lost the momentum. Nonetheless, I feel I could get into Irish Duolingo if I didn’t have anything else on the docket.

In the longer term, I’d really like to expand my repertoire. I’d love to learn Turkish, something Austronesian, something Celtic (as mentioned above), and something ergative-absolutive. I thought Austronesian would be Indonesian, but now I wonder if I should learn Tagalog because there are so many speakers here in Israel.

Among ergative-absolutive, there are so many interesting languages – Basque, Paleo-Siberian languages, Native American and Austrian aboriginal languages. Nonetheless, the hard part is that I don’t know if I’ll ever have a chance to live in these places, and it’s hard to learn one of these latter languages without living in some very specific, often remote places. Another idea is to learn Georgian, which is only split ergative, but for which there are speakers here in Israel. Or maybe Circassian fits the bill. Part of the reason for learning such a language is the idea that it would really expand my way of thinking - having to reason like an ergative-absolutive speaker.

Among Native American languages, I would in theory feel a particular motivation to learn the language from where I’m from, i.e., that of Massachusetts. However, it’s currently being revived only now as a spoken language, after doctoral work by Jessie Baird, and the only classes are for people from the community in Aquinnah, MA. I guess I could take a peak at her thesis to learn at least something about it.

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

I have a strong urge to feed this into ChatGPT because I find the question a little silly…I mean, obscure languages like Basque or Paleo-Siberian languages are super cool to me, so someone who speaks them would be sexy. Similarly, someone speaking a language like Finnish or Icelandic would be sexy to me, or even someone speaking languages that I like such as Norwegian and Dutch.

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

To be honest, it’s kinda cool when you’re at a language exchange and people are like wow…. I also find it kind of fun to switch between different languages. When I find someone I speak many languages in common with, and we have a conversation in 6 different languages, I feel a certain connection. And that is one thing that makes HYPIA so exciting!

More importantly, learning different languages creates connections and even friendships with people who speak them. This is particularly poignant with Dutch and Norwegian, since people questioned my desire to learn them given that they’re not “useful”, since most native speakers also know English. I would often reply that when I can actually speak the languages, Dutch and Norwegian people (respectively) are much more interested in getting to know me.

Finally, and in some ways this is my biggest motivation, I find learning a new language to be intellectually interesting (especially the grammar). I have a big desire to learn about the words and grammar of languages I’ve heard of but don’t know. Like, for example, what is it like to construct a sentence in Basque, or Zulu, or Mongolian? This also relates to my interest in historical and comparative linguistics, and learning different languages helps with that.

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?

You might think so because of machine translation. However, technology is also having the opposite effect: it allows people to preserve obscure languages more, and it provides better tools for learning other languages. For example, there are many different Wikipedias, which allows for the creation and preservation of content in many different languages. So I think there’s a decent chance that linguistic diversity will be *better* preserved than before.

Also, I have a (possibly naive) hope that the existence of language nerds within tech companies will help keep such a thing from happening. Maybe like people who work in NLP or people who work at companies like Duolingo...

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

The important thing I learned, way back when learning French, is that you need to use the language for something practical. Use it not for the purpose of an academic exercise, but to say something that you want to communicate. For example, if you’re a complete beginner and know how to say only “I want to eat”, then find a time you want to eat and say it in that language (ideally to someone who understands)!

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