Name: Emil Anton
Nationality or Ethnicity: Finnish (half Iraqi, but here the ethnic question is a tough one! Syriac/Assyro-Chaldean might be an option, but a recent DNA test suggests there is a lot of Mizrahi Jewish in me)
Where do you live? Vantaa, Finland
Languages: Finnish (Native), English & Polish (C1-C2), Italian, Spanish & Swedish (B2), Portuguese, German, French (B1-B2), Norwegian, Danish, Galician, Catalan, Neapolitan, Latin, Slovak, Czech, Ukrainian, Maltese, Arabic, (B1-A2), Russian, Estonian, Esperanto (A2-A1)... classical language courses taken: OT Hebrew, NT Greek, Old Church Slavonic, and some Syriac… plus some random phrases in a bunch of other languages.
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
Until I was about four years old, I was bilingual, speaking Finnish with my mother and Iraqi Arabic with my father. My parents would also communicate in English with each other, at least in part, so I listened in on that, too. But it really started in school: English on third grade, German on fifth grade, and then the compulsory Swedish (yes, it is still official and obligatory in Finland!) on seventh grade. Unlike most of my classmates, I liked Swedish, and soon moved on to Norwegian (and a bit of Danish and Dutch) on my own. I liked spending time at the local library looking at the dictionaries and borrowing some home. The breakthrough came with Polish – there was a nice half Polish girl in my class and my religion teacher was also Polish. I gave up twice but on the third go I decided to memorize all the case endings, and after reading the dictionary (and some grammar books) for a couple hours each night before going to sleep, I was able to speak Polish on my first trip to Poland at the age of 16. I soon realized Slovak and Czech were fairly close to Polish so I studied some Slovak and Czech basics, too. My Finnish high school (Ressu in Helsinki) was pretty special: I was able to study nine languages (including Spanish, Italian, French, Latin, and Russian) and do the matriculation examination in eight. I filled my days with languages and even took the tram to another high school for Portuguese, and on a cultural exchange program with a high school from Southern Italy I learned the basics of Neapolitan. So, to be honest, I had already become a hyperpolyglot before I went to university.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Oh, there are many of them! Galician and Catalan come to mind, Slovak and Czech, Norwegian, Arabic, Maltese, Syriac… There are languages like Latvian in which I have had a lengthy conversation but which I don’t remember almost anything of anymore: they fall out of use and into oblivion. Time and prioritizing are tough issues! I find that if I have to travel somewhere, I will learn the language quickly, but when I come back and if I don’t use it, I lose it. The stronger ones stay, though, even without much practice.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
I’d like to learn all the major Slavic languages, which form a sort of a continuum. Rehearse the Baltics. Well then I suppose Mandarin would be a smart choice, but I feel more drawn to Korean and Thai. I’d really like to learn Syriac (Aramaic) well, also Hebrew, Greek, and Swahili (I’ve done just a bit of each). And then Romance languages and dialects are always fascinating, I’d be happy to learn more of them (Occitan, Sicilian, etc.). The same goes for some of our Finno-Ugric relatives (Veps, Sami, Mordvinic, Mari, Komi, Udmurt…). Oh no, there are too many interesting languages out there for one lifetime!
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
I haven’t really thought about it in those categories I suppose. Most have answered one of the Romance languages, and I guess there is some truth to that, even etymologically – if you want a romance, go Romance!
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Each language opens up the world from a different angle, it gives access to lots of new people, a particular history, a different culture, and also a previously unexplored dimension of the spiritual realm. I enjoy being able to help people in various languages (whether translating or guiding, for example), I enjoy the sound and “taste” of words and intonations, also the different kinds of music. But I think the greatest thing is prayer and worship in different languages. That is really something. During the past twelve months, I have been to Mass (or the Divine Liturgy) in Arabic, Syriac, Vietnamese, Korean, Church Slavonic, Ukrainian, Polish, Latin, Italian, French, Dutch, German, English, Finnish, and Swedish – at least. Maybe Slovak and Spanish too, online.
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?
Most probably not. (That was a very Finnish answer.)
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Cool! Do it! But also think about why you’re doing it and what (good) you want to do with it. Then, I recommend learning from other polyglots. My tips: Just find and read a good textbook, such as Teach Yourself X. Nowadays there are lots of free language learning podcasts and YouTube videos. Make use of related languages: you can easily get to over ten languages by going from Swedish to Norwegian and Norwegian to Danish, or from Italian to Spanish to Catalan and French, Galician and Portuguese; Polish to Czech and Slovak, Ukrainian and Russian… not to mention Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin: you basically get four for the price of one. And so on! Even with Finnish you get to understand most of Meänkieli, Kven, and Karelian without much extra effort.