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.