Interview with

Erick Behar Villegas

Name: Dr. Erick Behar Villegas
Ethnicity: a mix of Colombian & German with Spanish roots.
Where do you live?: Berlin
Languages: Spanish, English, German, French, Italian, Modern Greek, Portuguese, Russian.

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

Happenstance,  and music I’d say. I loved to imitate people and accents as I was  growing up in the US. I still do, but somehow I ended up in academia  instead of exploiting imitation. As a teenager I stumbled upon a song  that I thought was in French. So my dad helped me find a French teacher,  and I did some basic lessons with a brilliant teacher from Haiti, who  worked as University professor at the military academy in Colombia. I  later found out that half of the song was in creole and the other half  in French.

Then,  with every language, the same thing happened. I wanted to understand  songs, read classical literature and watch movies in their original  version. When you read Dante or listen to la Traviata in Italian, it  just opens up a new beautiful world for you. I was obsessed, however,  with accents, because I felt that I did not want to sound differently  when compared to a native speaker. Though it is hard, it works in some  cases. I ended up learning some of the other languages partly alone or  with a tandem partner, meeting up for coffee and teaching them business  English in exchange for their language. I lived in Canada for some  months, getting the chance to learn Quebecois-French, and a I am a fan  of dialects. Living in Bavaria paved the way to stabilizing my German,  and having lived in different cities in Colombia also helped me imitate  regional variations better.

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

Definitely  Greek and Russian, because they are harder and it was almost impossible  to find available native speakers in LatAm. Now in Germany it is  easier.

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

Dutch  would be the last one, and maybe improve my reading in Hebrew because  of my great grandfather. I can read a bit, but I don’t really understand  it.

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

Italian, of course.

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

Music  and ordering food for everyone in a “strange” language when traveling.  My parents have even more fun than me while listening, so I guess that  is a way of creating a small dose of happiness for the family.

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?

Well,  after mixing myself up in the world of anthropologists as an economist  for some time, I worked a lot on matters of narrative and identity,  which I now apply to policy and state efficiency. Because of the strong  pull of identity, I don’t think that is possible when communities are  strong enough and have the means to defend their identities. However, if  they don’t, as you can observe in many small communities in Latin  America (Colombia, for example counts more than 60 languages), that is a  risk, and I’d say that is the dark side of acculturation. This is why I  think that the work of social scientists, hyperpolyglots, linguists in  general and many others is absolutely essential. I don’t think that 100  years later, only a few will exist, unless there is some type of  dictatorial regime as the ones imagined in Orwell’s 1984. Totalitarians  have classically been the worst enemies of language diversity. The more  you protect diversity, without creating sectarian reactions of course,  the less probable that scenario will be.

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

Do  it for fun, for you, for your life-world, not because it is in or  because someone forces you to. Of course, there is an exception:  English. If you want to participate in international markets, directly  or indirectly, there is no going around English. But what pertains to  the rest, I would never do it “because I need it”, unless you had to  migrate to another country for security; family, medical reasons or  something similar. The more you apply the fun factor, just as we do it  in economic experiments in class, the more you, your brain, spirit or  whatever you imagine as defining your existence, will open up for it. I  tried to learn Chinese, because I thought it was a trend, but then it  struck me. I was really not that interested. In my tandem, it felt like  an art class. So, sorry for the economist stepping in: it was not  efficient. I didn’t wake up wanting to listen to a song in Chinese as I  did with all other languages. Then it just becomes natural. Here are my  tips, as I listed them in a conference once:

  • Understand  that passive learning does not replace active learning. If you have an  app or a class, they will not learn the language for you. If you  download 40 apps, no, that does not increase your stakes.

  • Take notes with 2-3 words per day, read, apply and practice them before going to bed. If you are too tired, don’t do it.

  • Learn with music, but not only listening. Write down the text and contrast it with the original one.

  • Look for tandem partners, but structure the tandem, otherwise it will fall into cheap coffee talk.

  • Take it easy, you don’t have to speak perfectly. No one does.

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

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