Name: Denis Zheryakov
Nationality or Ethnicity: German
Where do you live?: Switzerland
Languages: English, French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, High German, Swiss German (Bernese High Alemannic German), Russian
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I grew up in rural Southwest Germany in Mannheim-Heidelberg region, which is rich in Alemannic dialects and is very close to France. This region is the industrial powerhouse of Germany and as such it is home to many companies that attract international workforce from all over the world, which in turn means that one easily runs into folks speaking a foreign language anywhere one goes. Hence, I got interested in languages at a very early age. Russian was spoken in my family and when at school I used to spend summer vacations in Spain. I also often visited Alsace, a territory in France, which could already be reached by car in about 1h from where I was living. Later, I studied linguistics, business, and computer science and lived and worked on different projects in Spain, Latin America, and United States. When I work in a region or in a group where certain languages are used, I get interested in them and start learning them as well. I noticed that I very easily learn them when they are used in the environment I find myself in (even for a short time visit).
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Hard to say. For sure, these are the languages of which I have passivized knowledge and which are not on the list. For certain languages that I didn’t list above, learning them has been an on and off journey, as I got busy with other projects and languages that were more relevant during that time.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Really a lot, life is too short for all of them. However, owing to my interest in Americas, this will certainly be a language spoken somewhere on the American continent. Most likely a (French) Creole language.
4. So, let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
All the languages are sexy in their own right 😊
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Speaking a language offers me a possibility to more efficiently understand the worldview of the language speakers that use the language. It may sound metaphysical, but language usage and switching between different languages brings to my mind certain positive cultural contexts and nature of the geographic regions where the language is used. It allows me to cross time and space boundaries and gives me a breath of fresh air every day.
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?
Certainly, there will be fewer languages, that is for sure. The fact is that many lesser-known languages are dwindling in terms of the number of active language speakers, as very often due to the historic and socioeconomic reasons some languages are preferred over the others in many regions. In Southwest Germany Alemannic has gradually been retracting to a very limited use, as High German has been enforced in all the language domains. In Switzerland, however, Alemannic is thriving and actively using it opens a completely new dimension for foreigners.
In other countries I have seen that governments have started to promote certain regional languages. At the end, it all comes down to the cultural material speakers of a particular language produce. For example, in Germany it is very hard to find interesting material in Alemannic except for certain publications by Alemannic societies; whereas in Switzerland there are songs, books, inscriptions etc. produced in Alemannic and people are proudly using all Alemannic varieties virtually everywhere.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
First of all, I think the most important part of language learning is to keep a genuine interest in something that the target language is being associated with and used for (like certain writers, traditions, and other cultural products). As a matter of fact, the more material or speakers are there, the easier it is to learn the language, since consumption of language material is a great help to keep up with the language that is not used in a region where one lives. In general, spending time in the language environment where the target language is spoken helps a great deal, as one is actively confronted with the language use.