Name: Heiner Claessen
Nationality or Ethnicity: German
Where do you live?: Korschenbroich, Germany
Languages: German (native), English, Dutch, Spanish (B2 level), Russian, Portuguese, French, Finnish and Albanian (B1).
I know more than 20 languages at a basic (A1-A2) level: Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Italian, Romanian, Catalan, Swedish, Danish, Turkish, Arabic, Icelandic, Norwegian, Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Slovene, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Farsi.
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
To be honest, the circumstances under which I became a polyglot are for sure not common. I was born in Bonn and have lived in Germany all my life. My parents and grandparents were German. I didn't learn any foreign languages in my early years at school. Therefore, I only spoke German in my childhood. Later I started learning English at school at the age of 11, French at 13 and Spanish at 17. During my school career, I was not interested in learning foreign languages. Therefore, my level in these languages was very basic at that time.
However, even as a child I was very good at memorising things. But the interest in learning foreign languages came only when I was an adult. The first time I volunteered to learn a language was when I was 21. I was on holiday and met a young pretty woman from Mexico in an internet café. I was too shy to address them personally. I noticed her email address and wrote to her in Spanish when I was back at home. She replied immediately and we started chatting regularly. I bought my first language book and improved my Spanish. Unfortunately, I lost contact after a few months and stopped learning Spanish.
Two years later, at the age of 23, I had my first girlfriend, who was from Poland. I started to learn Polish, which was my first language without basic knowledge from school. This was a hard challenge, since I did not had any experience with Slavic languages. However, I stopped learning Polish at the age of 25, when the relationship ended. The next language I started to learn during my twenties was Dutch. I live nearby the Dutch border and was every year there for at least some days. Since Dutch and German are very close, it was quite easy for me to learn this language. At that time, however, my interest in learning foreign languages was limited to special occasions.
This situation changed when I was 32, after completing my PhD. I started working as a scientist at the German Diabetes Centre in Düsseldorf. I improved my English because I need it every day for my work as a scientist. However, above all, at that time I also started to learn Russian as I had (and still have) several colleagues from Russia. It was a challenge because it had been a long time since I had learned my first Slavic language, Polish, and I had to learn the Cyrillic alphabet first. However, I learnt Russian faster because it was the first time I was motivated to study a new language regularly. At this time, I started to learn other several languages also including exotic languages. I learned languages such as Icelandic, Danish, Greenlandic, Northern Sami and Finnish, which I could use for holidays in Iceland, Greenland and Lapland (Finland). Next, I improved my Spanish to a quite fluent level, as I went on holiday twice to South America and several times to Spain.
After that, at the age of 36, I started learning languages without any reason. First, I made tables of basic phrases in all the European languages. Then I wrote short texts about myself and my family in all these languages. I became interested in how languages are related to each other. I also became interested in how languages are constructed. At the same time, I started to learn Turkish, Arabic and Farsi and later also Ukrainian because there are a lot of immigrants from Turkey, Iran and Arabic countries (and Ukraine since one year). I also learnt some other languages of countries in more depth where I was on holiday, such as Finnish, Croatian, Greek and Albanian.
However, my personal and family situation still did not allow me to immerse myself in language learning. Like my parents, my wife is German and unfortunately does not share this passion with me. We have a six-year-old son, so we only speak German at home. Furthermore, I could not use any foreign languages other than English for my work as a scientist. Therefore, I only learn languages on my own, using language course books, audio courses and my own languages scripts. I unfortunately have no time to read books or newspapers. Therefore, I focused my language learning strategy on oral communication, which also meant that I did not learn other alphabets than the Latin and Cyrillic.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
To be honest, I am interested in any language spoken anywhere in the world. The only languages I am not interested in are dead languages like Latin or artificial languages like Esperanto.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
This is hard to say, as every language is worth learning, especially if you can use it. Since it is not possible to learn them all at the same time, I try to prioritise some, which does not mean that I am not interested in all the others. Firstly, I would like to become more fluent in the languages that I can often speak where I live due to the large number of immigrants (Turkish, Arabic, Farsi, Ukrainian and Russian). I am also very interested in more exotic languages such as Georgian, Armenian, Greenlandic, Northern Sami or Basque, in which I already know some basic phrases. Likewise, I would like to improve my knowledge in less common languages such as Finnish and Albanian. I am also interested in learning more African and Asian native languages such as Swahili, Hindi or Tamil.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
Finnish, maybe because I love the Finnish sauna culture :)
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
When I speak other languages, people usually acknowledge it with a big smile J. Especially when I am travelling in a foreign country, people are often so happy when I speak to them in their native language. I am able to understand their culture and way of life better. In my opinion, there is no better way to show them respect. Also, the contact is much more personal and I learn much more about the culture and way of life.
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 don't think that's true, because recently there have been a lot of efforts to preserve languages. For example, in Inari I have seen children learning Northern Sami (the native language of Lapland) in school, even though Finnish is the official language and many people there only speak Finnish.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
I would encourage young people to learn several languages as there is no better way to learn about other cultures. I would also encourage everyone to speak to other people in their native language, even if you only have a very basic level. I have made the experience that people are very often happy if you can only speak a few words in their language. I would also encourage people to travel to other countries if possible, as I think there is no better way to learn a foreign language.