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Interview with

Eleonora Cattafi

Name: Eleonora Cattafi
Nationality or Ethnicity: Italian
Where do you live?: Belgium
Languages: Italian (native), English, French, Dutch, Spanish, German; basic knowledge of Russian, Greek, Portuguese.

Ancient Languages: Ancient Greek and Latin; basic knowledge of Sanskrit, Classical Arabic, Avestan, Classical Armenian, Sabellic languages, Mycenaean.

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

Having been exposed to different regional languages and varieties of Italian since childhood, I have always been curious about linguistic variation and connections. This interest became more serious when I started studying Ancient Greek and Latin in high school. In particular, there was a small paragraph in my textbook explaining how the Greek perfect οἶδα (meaning “I have seen”, and therefore “I know”) was related to the Latin vidi and to the Sanskrit वेद (veda). This epiphany did the trick for me: I think in that moment I decided that I wanted to work with languages. I studied Classical Philology at university but I have never thought that investigating historical languages was in any way opposed to learning modern ones, so I have spent some time in the past years cultivating both, with mutual benefits. Now I live in another country and I am doing a PhD in Linguistics, so I get the chance to spend my entire day dealing with multiple languages: I know many people like to point out that being a linguist and being a polyglot are two completely separate issues. Honestly, I started understanding something about language structure in general only when learning and comparing different varieties from my own, so I can’t really imagine myself as a monolingual linguist.


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

I wish I had more time to practice Russian: I am still a beginner and have made little progress in the past few years. Since it is a language that I encounter less “casually” than others during the day, I really need to dedicate more time to it. I wish to be able to speak it fluently and read the great classics of Russian literature.


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

All of them! I love Polish poetry so I would really like to learn Polish and read many poems in their original version. Moreover, having studied a little bit of Classical Arabic, I would be particularly interested in learning Modern Arabic and make amend for the painful imbalance of my learning choices towards modern Indo-European languages. My list of desiderata expands also to historical languages: Hittite, Coptic, Biblical Hebrew and Old Church Slavonic to begin with.


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

Speaking multiple languages is the actual sexy thing! But, if I have to pick, I would probably say Greek is the sexiest languages; I also find the German and French accents quite attractive.


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

First of all the opportunity of truly connecting with people, appreciating all their verbal creativity in their own language and grasping those precious, “untranslatable” pieces of their personality and culture. On top of it, the priceless sensation of reaching fluency, the moment when you don’t seem to think anymore about what you are going to say, but the words just come out of your mouth as if they have always been there.


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 this is not the case. Some languages seem to be exercising a lot of power over others but this does not always mean replacement, and there are not only pragmatic and political considerations that guide our actions: people are subject to the fascination of otherness and attached to their own symbols, feelings and memories, so they don’t abandon languages so easily. Of course we should make the preservation of endangered and minority languages a priority in the global agenda, and, if I may add it as a classicist, we need to protect ancient languages too: I am a bit worried that in the future many beautiful texts will be left with nobody being able to read them.


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

In terms of studying languages, I can share two main suggestions that worked for me. 

(1) Take your time: speak when you are ready, but then never stop. As every introverted and/or anxious person knows, speaking is quite a stressful activity, and interacting with native speakers when your level is too low and your vocabulary is too limited can be even a traumatic experience. So try to have at least one “language person” for each language, a friend or someone you can trust with whom you talk regularly and enjoy sharing new material. If necessary, have a little more patience and wait until you are ready to go out in the world. However, after you start speaking with people in your target language, never switch back with them to the language you were using before! 

(2) Your interests are your channel. Music, literature, cinema, politics, sports, whatever you like has expressions in the language(s) you learn. Enrich your interests while you are studying a language, and enrich your languages while you cultivate your interests. If you learn a language only to add a line to your cv, you will likely lose motivation soon, but if you are constantly inspired by your favourite artists, scientists, historical figures (not to forget fictional characters!), you won’t give up.