Name: Geoffrey Williamson
Nationality or Ethnicity: USA
Where do you live?: USA
Languages: English (native), German, French, Yiddish, Esperanto, Dutch, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
A combination of opportunity and predisposition, most likely. My father was a language professor, and my mother was a language teacher, so I come from a family of people who decided to go out and learn languages for themselves. We also lived in Europe and Asia while I was growing up, so I was further exposed to other languages and cultures that way.
I remember buying my first language book when I was 8, on a road trip to Paris, “Teach Yourself French.” In high school I used to study different writing systems in my free time, and my father’s library provided all the learning materials I needed for that endeavor. After college I used to hang out in bookstores in the foreign language section. My curiosity and desire to learn more about languages has always been there in some form or another.
I continued acquiring various self-teaching materials but never really succeeded in breaking out of the beginner level until I came across an online community of polyglots who taught me about various learning techniques, the most important of which was, for me, extensive reading (reading large amounts in a target language without stopping for every unknown word). That, in combination with finally being taught what realistic expectations are for how long it takes to see results, got me over the hardest hump of self-learning: teaching yourself your first language from scratch. After that, the rapidly-expanding polyglot community was a positive feedback loop, encouraging me to keep indulging my unusual hobby, and pretty soon I had been (successfully) studying languages on my own for years.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
All of them, obviously! But there are a few that stick out for me. I don’t know if I will ever be satisfied with my Russian level, but I can keep trying. Also some languages inspire a particular emotional reaction for me. Japanese is still pretty opaque to me, but at the same time it has a familiar feeling. This probably has something to do with the fact that some of my earliest memories are of my time in Japan.
Some other ones are Greek and Polish. Unlike almost all of my more advanced languages, I have no obvious reason to care about these languages, but the sounds and feel of them speak to me. Greek has sounds like the “th” sound of theta, that are uncommon generally, but which are a prominent feature of my native English, which may be part of the fascination. And as for Polish, like Russian and German, I think I’m particularly drawn to phonetic systems full of big, strong consonant clusters and fricatives.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
All of them, obviously! But realistically, every language I study has had a specific reason, and with every language I’ve studied successfully to a decent level I’ve had specific circumstances that made it important to me.
A blind spot for me so far is classical languages. Despite my four years of school Latin, I can’t read the Latin classics (or the Greek classics), and that seems like a shame. Other classical languages like Arabic and Sanskrit are obviously important, too.
I would also love to break out of the advanced beginner stage of Mandarin Chinese where I’ve been forever, not to mention getting over my irrational fear of the Vietnamese and Cantonese phonetic systems.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
Well my wife speaks English, so let’s go with that. But let’s suppose I interpret the question as asking about how a language makes me feel about myself...then maybe something like Russian or German. I’m thinking about those strong sounds again.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
I get great pleasure from seeing the astounding diversity--and unity--of humanity as expressed through our languages. I take pleasure in seeing the infinite variety of ways in which human beings can think and process input about the world through different linguistic structures. Studying many languages, both within a single language family and from different language families, also leads to fascinating discoveries about how languages are related and how they evolved, as well as many unexpected similarities.
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?
Baseball legend Yogi Berra famously quipped, “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Perhaps as little as 100 years ago, the idea that English would be the dominant world language, while Western elites would all but abandon the study of Latin would have been fantastical. And the existence of millions of native speakers of Modern Hebrew and millions of Esperantists (including some native speakers) would also have been inconceivable not that long ago.
Current trends certainly are leading to language attrition at an astounding rate, however. The advent of the digital age in particular, as well as increased global commerce and travel, have already led to the extinction of an enormous number of languages, and more are disappearing every year. If I had to guess, I would err on the side of saying that this trend will continue. But I don’t pretend to know the future, and 100 years is an eternity from my perspective.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Everyone can learn a language. You’ve already done it at least once. The only way you can fail is if you give up. It will take much, much longer than you realize and you will never be completely done. If you can accept these truths, you’ll be ok.