Interview with

Enrique Lopez de la Peña

Name: Enrique López de la Peña
Nationality or Ethnicity: Mexico/Hong Kong/China
Where do you live?: Mexico City
Languages: Spanish, English, French, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Arabic (MSA + Levantine dialect), Hebrew, Portuguese, Modern Greek, some Russian, and a little bit of Irish, Hindi, and Korean.

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

This  is going to be a very long answer, so please bear with me.  Alternatively, here’s a TL;DR if you don’t wanna read the whole thing:  My family, friends, and life circumstances taught me to wholeheartedly  love our world, its myriad cultures, and its wonderful people. Learning  languages, for me, is one of the best ways to express and share this  love.

I  trace back my curiosity and love for languages to my early childhood,  when my mom and I first started doing jigsaw puzzles together. The back  of the puzzle boxes usually had instructions in 10 or so different  languages. For some reason, there was something about all these  different writing systems that I found very aesthetic so, when I got  bored, I would copy all these texts into a notebook even if I didn’t  understand them at all. Another important factor was the influence of my  grandfather, an educated and well-travelled man who worked for the Bank  of Mexico and the United Nations for several years. He sadly passed  away when I was 3 but, in a way, I’ve kept him alive through my mother’s  stories about him. I inherited his banknote and coin collections, as  well as his love for traveling, world cultures, and social justice. Over  time, I came to realize that geography and any language-related  subjects were the ones that made me happiest and the ones where I had  the strongest potential at school. The rest is history.

Whenever  I decide to learn a new language, it’s never “just because”. There’s  always something —or someone— that triggers my motivation. I see each  language as a one-of-a-kind treasure, if not a new friend in and of  itself. For this reason, I think my “relationships” with each language I  speak all deserve a brief overview.

Spanish: I  was born and raised in Mexico City, so Spanish is my native language.  My mom is a Spanish teacher, among other things, so she taught me to  cherish my language and gave me thorough understanding of even the  trickiest of its rules from a very early age. After learning linguistics  and making new friends from all over the Spanish-speaking world, I was  able to balance this knowledge with a less prescriptive appreciation of  Spanish sociolects and their immense richness. This is an approach I try  to share with my students whenever I have the opportunity to teach  Spanish as a second language. Doing so allows me to remain connected to  home when I’m abroad and forces me not to lose proficiency in my mother  tongue, which is something I’ve unfortunately seen happen many times.

English: I  was blessed enough to attend schools where English as a second language  was decently taught, thanks to the enormous efforts that my mom —a  single mother in a highly misogynistic environment— made for my  wellbeing. Yet, in fact, I would attribute most of my English knowledge  to all the Hollywood films and TV shows that I’ve watched since I was a  kid (as well as two summer camps that I spent in Canada and the UK at  age 9-10). Leaving aside what underlies Hollywood in terms of US foreign  policy, I’m extremely grateful to English because, for better or for  worse, it’s still the world’s main lingua franca. No other language has  opened more doors for me (notably, the chance to get my Political  Science B.A. at NYU Abu Dhabi), and after using English so much, it has  gained a very special place in both my brain and my heart.

French: All  the schools I attended before high school taught French as a second  foreign language. However, the level was quite mediocre, as we would  basically study the exact same thing (present tense) every single year. I  wanted more, especially because I originally planned to study at the  Sorbonne University in Paris, so I started taking more advanced courses  at the Alliance Française on Saturdays. Unfortunately, this is where  things started to go downhill: being bullied by my classmates there  severely hindered my learning. What’s worse, in middle school, my French  teacher really disliked me for some reason and, one day, she yelled at  me in front of the whole class saying my pronunciation was horrible and I  had no talent for French. I felt so humiliated and devastated that I  developed a strong resentment against the language, fearing that I would  never be able to learn it properly. But fate had other plans for me: a  couple of years later, flying back home from Beijing (see below), I had  an 8-hour layover in Paris. I’d never been there before, but after  seeing the city all covered in snow and interacting with really nice  people in what little French I could remember, I realized it wasn’t fair  to resent a whole culture or language because of a negative experience  with one person. What’s more, I fell in love with France and decided to  spend the second half of my gap year at EF Paris to recover and improve  my French. I’ve been postponing my DALF C2 exam for a while now, but I’m  planning to take it as soon as possible.

Mandarin Chinese: This  is probably the story that’s closest to my heart. My maternal  grandmother was born in Minatitlán, Veracruz, but her parents were  originally from Hong Kong and from a small town called Kaiping in  Guangdong (Canton). Growing up in a small town at the beginning of the  20th century, my grandmother endured extremely painful forms of racism  on a daily basis, so much so that she always refused to speak to her  daughters in Cantonese, lest they would fail to assimilate into Mexico  and thus have to endure more racism. As per the law back then, she also  had to cast away her Chinese nationality in order to be able to work as a  surgeon here. I was furious when I first came to understand this. It  felt like a precious chapter of our family history had been stolen from  us. Because I grew up only with my mother, I’ve always identified as  half Hongkonger/Chinese even if I’m technically only 25% Asian and both  of my last names are Spanish. Many have labelled me as “a clown” for  identifying as such, or they’ve said that I “don’t look Asian enough”  but I think those people are judgmental and don’t know my story or my  heritage better than I do. Still, an argument I often hear(d) from them  was “Well, you don’t even speak Chinese!”. So I decided to learn the  language to prove them wrong. I started with my grand-uncle (my  grandmother’s youngest sibling), who taught me the most basic characters  as a child, having learned Mandarin Chinese by himself for reasons  similar to mine. I tried to continue in middle school, where Mandarin  Chinese was temporarily offered, but my teacher back then (a young girl  from Taiwan) was so badly mistreated by my classmates that she quit her  job and flew back home after only a couple of months. Shortly after, in  2010, I was able to visit China and Hong Kong for the first time thanks  to a newly made friend who is also Mexican-Chinese and lives in  Shanghai. We travelled around the country for 18 days and she taught me a  lot, so much so that I was somewhat conversational by the time I came  back. Then, I discovered the Confucius Institute in Mexico City and  continued my studies there. After that, I was one of the winners of the  Chinese Bridge (汉语桥, a language competition for foreign secondary school  students), thanks to which, long story short, I was able to travel to  Chongqing for the finale, and I won a scholarship to study Mandarin  Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University (a.k.a. BLCU, or  Beiyu). These were the events that made my foreign language studies  exponentially. (Also, does Beiyu Chinglish count as a language? I feel  like it should, lol.) Today, my Mandarin Chinese isn’t perfect yet, but  I’d say it’s very decent.

Italian: Some  of the best friends I made at the Chinese Bridge (see above) were  Italian. While our native languages are so similar that we could  understand each other perfectly well by speaking as we naturally do, I  decided to study Italian a bit more systematically once I returned home  (especially when I got bored in high school, with the help of some books  and a very friendly assessor). Two additional motivations to do this  were 1) my vigorous love for Italian cuisine, and 2) my aunt, uncle, and  cousin who live near Venice (especially my little cousin, who was 5  years old when I first met her and refused to talk to anyone unless it  was in Italian). My semester at BLCU was also surprisingly useful for  this. Back then (2012), Chinese was extremely fashionable among  Italians, so there was a great number of them on campus at the same time  as me, and many became really good friends of mine, too.

Russian: Among  the closest friends I made at the Chinese Bridge (see above) were also  some other folks from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, but  especially three lovely girls from Russia, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. I  wanted to be able to talk to these girls, who became like my big sisters  during my time at BLCU, in their own language. Also, before the Chinese  Bridge, I didn’t know that Russian was still so widely spoken in  post-USSR countries, so this was a hugely motivational realization  (because it implied that, if I learned Russian, I’d be able to  communicate with so many more people than I initially thought.). But  I’ll also admit that an additional factor were movies like Salt and  Agent 86. I love spy movies, and I find bilingual or polyglot agents to  be the most “badass” ones.

Japanese: This  is a funny one. My apartment in Mexico City is literally around the  corner of a really good Japanese language school. At age 6, I told my  mom I would love to take classes there, but unfortunately, they had a  policy not to accept anyone below 15 years of age. At age 14, after I  begged for permission to study there at least once a year, the school’s  principal finally agreed to make an exception and let me start earlier. I  studied there for roughly five years and it was a bliss. But why  Japanese? Well, I mean, who doesn’t love Japan? Its food, its people,  its architecture, its landscapes… and the writing system! It’s 3-in-1,  and one of those 3 is Chinese characters, so Japanese is definitely my  favourite writing system in the world (and the one I most enjoyed  copying into my notebook from the puzzle boxes as a child).

Arabic: As  a passionate LGBTI+ rights advocate, and as someone who grew up in a  place where lots of negative stereotypes exist about Islam, I confess I  was somewhat afraid of getting too closely in touch with the Arab World.  This fear started to decrease during my time at BLCU, when I became  roommates with a nice guy from Libya. Then, when I moved on to Paris  (see above), I did homestay with a Muslim family, originally from  Morocco-Algeria. It was thanks to them that I became curious to learn a  lot more. Concurrently, my time to choose a university was approaching.  In an earlier trip to New York, I had visited NYU with my aunt (long  story) and loved it but didn’t find it a realistic option because of its  extremely high tuition rates. Some time later, I learned that NYU Abu  Dhabi offered full scholarships (plus the opportunity to do crazy  amounts of travel and to live among people from virtually every country,  all for free). It sounded like a great place for me, so I applied and,  fortunately, I was accepted. Part of what excited me the most was seeing  the Arab World, which back then felt like an entirely new planet to me,  and forming my own point of view about it a posteriori. I was also  dying to visit Burj Al Arab (as I really love architecture, too). And,  because I’d heard from other people how hard it was to learn Arabic, I  figured there would be no better way to learn it than living in a  country where it has official status. To my surprise, I found Arabic to  be used much less than English in the UAE (at least among non-Emiratis),  but my experience was still extremely enriching, linguistically and  otherwise. My Arabic teachers were the absolute best, and they organized  all kinds of fun activities to help us learn. Indeed, I learned a lot  about the language and the culture. In addition to Modern Standard  Arabic (MSA), I decided to take one semester of Levantine Dialect  because, as a social scientist in formation, the Levant was especially  interesting to me due to its political history (notably, the  Palestinian-Israeli Conflict). I was so happy to learn at least one  dialect because colloquial Arabic has allowed me to connect with people  so much better than MSA.

Hebrew: Also  because of my interest in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, I spent my  first college semester abroad at NYU Tel Aviv (NYU has 15 campuses  around the world!). This interest was fuelled by one of my favourite  films, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (which I strongly recommend, by the way,  as it relates deeply to language and its potential to unite people). I  had learned a lot about the conflict from an Arab perspective and,  although I strongly disagree with Israel’s policies on this issue  overall, I was curious to learn about how Israel people have experienced  the conflict. Suddenly, I was struck by the realization that I knew  practically nothing about Jewish culture at the time. While there is a  significantly large Jewish community in Mexico City, I hadn’t had the  chance to interact with its members over extended periods of time. Lots  of things were unclear or entirely unknown to me. It made sense to spend  one semester in Tel Aviv and bridge that cultural gap. Of course, for  me, there could not be a better start to this process than learning  Hebrew. But being in the UAE, in the complete absence of native speakers  or any stores that could legally sell materials to learn Hebrew,  finding resources was tough. Fortunately, I managed: With the help of a  couple of books that I borrowed after someone got rid of at a secret  room on campus, an app called Mango Languages, a few Israeli movies that  I somehow found at the library, and a friend I met online (the first  Israeli friend I’d ever made), I was able to learn the basics after  working very hard. I think I did a pretty good job because, once I got  to NYU Tel Aviv, I took a placement exam and placed into Intermediate  II. After one semester of classes and being almost entirely surrounded  by the language, I made dozens of new friends and gained lots of  confidence when speaking. But one curious thing that I’ve noticed about  Hebrew is that the sole fact of learning the language can be very  controversial. Many people have made (completely wrong) assumptions  about my political views, and some have even stopped talking to me  entirely, based on the fact that I speak Hebrew.

Modern Greek: As  obnoxious as I know this sounds, I sometimes feel that I was Greek in a  past life. I’m nearly obsessed with Greece for some reason I can’t  quite pinpoint. Maybe it’s thanks to my mom, who is an actress and gave  me Greek mythology books to read at age 3 or so. Maybe it’s the fact  that I’ve always loved Greek food. Maybe it’s because of the close  relationship that Greek and Spanish have at an etymological level. Or  perhaps it’s simply the beauty of Greece and its people. Anyhow, this  borderline obsessive love became even more intense in 2017, when my  dream of visiting Greece finally came true.

Portuguese: I’ve  never studied Portuguese formally, but it’s so similar to Spanish that I  can understand pretty much everything I read and hear (unless the  person is speaking too fast or using too many colloquial terms). In  December 2010, I visited Brazil with my mom because it was one of her  biggest lifetime dreams, and she had learned a bit of Portuguese because  she really likes it. We have a local joke that she was Brazilian in a  previous life just as I was Greek in a previous life (see above). My  friends from Portugal and Brazil are good sources of motivation to learn  the language but, ironically, they can also be a source of  demotivation, since they all speak Spanish perfectly and we can easily  understand each other anyway. I’d still love to improve my Portuguese,  though.

Irish: Ahhh,  this one’s a bit sentimental, too. I took one semester of Irish at  NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House. Long story short, I was pushed into this  course by destiny and I enrolled on a whim. My ultimate intention,  besides doing something new and fun while in New York, was to surprise a  person from Ireland who was my best friend at the time, whom I  eventually realized —largely because of this course— that I was in love  with. Sadly, this story had a painful and chaotic ending, but in  retrospective, I’m very happy that I took part in a new adventure, which  was also a worldwide movement to revitalize a truly magical language.  Being able to visit Ireland and practice it there the following year  made it all even better.

Hindi: I  probably know less than 50 phrases overall, but I’ve studied the whole  writing system and I absolutely love it. Also, I have lots of good  friends from India, and I had the chance to visit in 2015 for a friend  (my Mexican-Chinese friend who lives in Shanghai)’s wedding to an Indian  man. I’m also very curious about India because we unfortunately have  close to zero immigrants from South Asia in Mexico. I’m interested in  Indian politics. I love Bollywood movies. I love paneer masala. I love  how Hindi language sounds. You get the idea.

Korean: I  have a close friend from Seoul, I’m very interested in the Korean  Conflict, and I LOVED Parasite. Enough said. (Plus, I can learn it for  free at the cultural center where I teach Chinese.)

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

I  love all languages equally, but because of my lifetime dream of working  at the United Nations, I’d like to have more time to perfect its six  official languages (Spanish, English, French, Chinese, Arabic, and  Russian). My Russian in particular needs to improve. I find it to be the  hardest, by far, out of all the languages I’ve studied. This is mainly  because of its multiple grammatical cases and verbal aspects, which are  concepts that don’t even exist as such in the languages I know best.  I’ll share an anecdote to illustrate how my command of Russian was  unfortunately far lower than desirable: In 2016, I visited a country  where Russian is widely spoken (as a second language) and, on an empty  square, I saw a man who started to strangle his female companion for no  apparent reason. I interpreted it as a case of domestic violence; it was  really scary to witness. I ran to the nearest police officer to try to  explain what I had seen, but. By the time he understood me, the couple  was nowhere to be seen.

On  a less dramatic note, I guess it would be cool to have someone to talk  to in Irish. This would be useful to go over what I learned in New York,  and it would help keep the beautiful language alive.

Also, Palestinian Arabic and Hebrew. I feel like I’m forgetting those very quickly ☹

And Greek. Once again, for some reason I can’t really pinpoint.

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

I wouldn’t say no to any language, obviously, but there are a few that I particularly have in mind:

Cantonese:  Needless to say, as this is the language that was actually originally  spoken by my family. I feel quite embarrassed for not speaking it yet.

Hawaiian:  I love Hawaiian music (my mom used to dance at a Hawaiian restaurant  when she was my age). I love the natural beauty of Hawaii. I love how  the language sounds. I love poke. I had the chance to visit Hawaii in  2018 and loved it. I have Native Hawaiian friends. And so on.

Nahuatl:  (Or Yucatec Maya, really.) For the sake of patriotism, and to reconnect  with a part of my centuries-long roots that has been practically  eradicated as of now. In fact, I think it’d be great if all schools in  Mexico offered lessons in at least one indigenous language.

Turkish:  Because if Istanbul was a person, I would have proposed marriage to it  already. That’s how much I like it. Not just the city itself, but its  people and food, too. Also, forming words in Turkish sort of feels like  doing a puzzle, and I love doing puzzles. Also, it would be a useful  stepping stone to learn other Turkic languages later on.

Icelandic:  Because Björk. Also, Iceland is a gorgeously beautiful country. I’ve  never visited, but I know many who have, and I’ve never met anyone who  hasn’t loved it.

Swahili:  I love how they sound, and I have close friends from Kenya, Tanzania,  and Rwanda. It would be great to be able to talk to them in a language  that’s closer to their hearts. (Actually, learning Kinyarwanda would be  amazing, too.)

Turkmen: I did a research project on Turkmenistan’s statebuilding process last year and I’ve been quasi-obsessed with it ever since.

Thai, Tamil, Telugu, Inuktut, Nuosu, Mongolian: Their writing systems are more than enough reason. They’re just so pretty!

Breton: If  there’s a silver lining to this hellish, Kafkian nightmare of a  quarantine period, it’s the fact that I discovered Nolwenn Leroy, an  amazing Breton singer, thanks to Spotify. I’d like to learn Breton to be  able to sing along.

Slovak: I’ll keep my reasons undisclosed for this one ;)

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

For  me, sexiness has a lot more to do with the person speaking than with  any specific language as such. That being said, I’ll admit I do have a  weakness for Colombian Spanish and Greek ;)

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

All  the wonderful experiences I’ve lived, all the amazing people that I’ve  met, and all the deep connections that I’ve been able to form with  people thanks to the languages I know. But also, the satisfaction of  being able to help people who cannot speak each other’s languages and  would otherwise be unable to communicate. I find that feeling of being  “useful” to be incredibly uplifting.

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?

Unfortunately,  hundreds of languages nowadays are in serious risk of extinction, and  this is a well-known, documented fact. In Mexico alone, I’ve witnessed  the tremendous stigma associated to speaking minority languages (by the  way, my favourite movie, I Dream in Another Language, deals directly  with this issue; I recommend it 110%), and the overwhelming pressure to  learn “the global languages” to avoid losing job opportunities, etc.. I  would say this is, undeniably, one of the major caveats of  globalization. On the other hand, I’m not entirely pessimistic. I would  point to cases of endangered languages like Irish, Breton, Cornish, and  Hawaiian, which have been through massive revival efforts in recent  times, and I’d say it’s working! I’d also point to countries like  Aotearoa/New Zealand, which have done a commendable job in restoring  dignity and equality to indigenous languages and their speakers. Even in  places like Mexico, where there is definitely a lot more work to be  done, similar initiatives are starting to gain momentum. What comes to  mind specifically is the National Indigenous Languages Fair, held every  summer in Mexico City since a couple of years ago. The fair involves a  series of conferences, workshops, artistic performances, movie  screenings, and booths where people can buy handicrafts made by speakers  of indigenous languages, or delicious meals prepared by them. Last  year, the guest country was Canada. A lovely Inuit lady who came as a  speaker gave me a handbook to learn Inuktitut and this made me  hysterically happy. So, you see, it’s these little things that help me  keep a positive outlook despite the difficult panorama.

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

Don’t  let anybody tell you that you can’t, or that you aren’t good enough. In  fact, don’t let people’s negative comments in general get to you. I  can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard from people —including my  own mom— that they’re reluctant to learn a new language because they’re  “too old” or “not talented enough”. Sure, talent and a young brain can  make things easier, but motivation is HUNDREDS of times more important.  I’ve had classmates and students in Mexico who decided to start learning  languages as different as Chinese or Japanese at age 60, 70, or even  80, and believe me, they’ve done an amazing job!

On  the note of motivation: Some may disagree with me, but I’d discourage  you from learning a new language if it’s just because you feel like you  have to. If the interest isn’t genuine, or if you feel uncomfortable or  unhappy, it’s just not going to work out. That said, don’t give up  before pondering your situation carefully. I’ve met many people who’ve  developed a strong aversion against specific languages because they’ve  had mean teachers or otherwise bad experiences with them before. If this  sounds like you, trust me, I’ve been there too. Which is why,  precisely, I’d direct you to my experience with French further above. I  can’t even imagine how many friends and opportunities I would have lost  if I had continued giving unnecessary importance to that teacher’s  hurtful words. So that’s the bottom line: Please, let’s not generalize.  There are good and bad people everywhere. Please don’t let one negative  event or person spoil a whole world of incredible experiences that are  most definitely in store you if you choose to carry on.

The International Association of Hyperpolyglots - HYPIA. (c) 2020

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