Name: Emmanuel Ternon
Nationality or Ethnicity: French (originally), German (naturalized)
Where do you live?: London, England, United Kingdom
Languages: French (native), German (C2), English (C2), Japanese (C1), Italian (B2), Spanish (B2), Korean (B1), Mandarin (B2), Dutch (B2), Portuguese (B2).
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
My love for languages started very early in my life. Despite the fact that I grew up in France in a strictly monolingual household (both of my parents are French), I was one of the few students who truly enjoyed their language classes in school (German, started at age 11, and English, started at age 13). As a teenager, I was a huge fan of Japanese pop culture, such as video games, manga and anime. So, at age 16, I made the life-changing decision to start learning Japanese. This decision made my love for languages even stronger, which in turn led me to participate in multiple academic exchange programmes in Germany, the UK and Japan when I was at University. During my time in these three countries, I had the privilege to meet people from pretty much all around the globe. And that was a catalyst to start learning even more languages! Between 2012 and 2017, I started learning one new language per year: Italian, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Dutch and Portuguese (in that order).
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Definitely East Asian languages (Japanese, Korean and Mandarin). Since they are so different from European languages, it takes a much longer time to become proficient in them. Besides, it takes a lot of effort to learn Chinese characters, the fascinating but quite complex logographic writing system used to write them.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Oh, there are quite a few! First of all, two widely-spoken languages in the polyglot community I always feel embarrassed not being able to speak: Russian and Esperanto.
Then, because of my passion for the culture of the so-called “Sinosphere” countries (China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam), I’d like to learn two more languages from that part of the world: Cantonese and Vietnamese.
And besides languages, I’m also fascinated with the different scripts used by humanity to write the various languages of the world. That’s why the next languages on my list are Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and Hindi, each giving me the opportunity to learn a new script as part of their learning process.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
It’s a very subjective question, but I guess my answer would be Italian. I don’t think there’s any other language in the world that sounds as musical and melodic. Very sexy indeed!
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
A language is the door to a culture, so by being able to speak the language of a country/place you visit or live in, you have access to so much more than you would if you were not able to speak that language. The satisfaction that comes with having such a deep understanding of many cultures is definitely the reason that motivates me to learn so many languages.
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’m not sure. Languages, like people, are living things! Of course, quite a few languages are going to become extinct over the next decades because the last speakers of these languages are unfortunately dying out. But at the same time, new languages are appearing, either organically or as constructed languages. On a more optimistic note, many language revival activities are currently being carried out around the world. I know for instance of the efforts carried out by Prof. Ghil'ad Zuckermann, which have led to the revival of several endangered Aboriginal Australian languages.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Very simple: Dare to start learning! Becoming a polyglot, what looks like an impossible task at first glance, is actually very doable if you tackle it step by step. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, one does not become a polyglot overnight. Learning a new language is difficult and sometimes frustrating, but it’s so rewarding that you’ll think it was definitely worth the challenge in hindsight, and it always gives you extra motivation to start learning the next one. Who knows, in 5 to 10 years you might even become a member of HYPIA yourself!