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Interview with

Helmar Böhnlein

Name: Helmar Böhnlein
Nationality or Ethnicity: German
Where do you live?: Vienna, Austria
Languages: German, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian (fluent level), Italian, Czech (basic knowledge)

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

Remember those daydreams you had as a kid? I always dreamed of driving with my car through the world, being able to talk to anybody in their language and play any instrument. My native language is German, and I learned English and French in school. I was not specially gifted during school time – I even had to take private tutoring in French for some time. I travelled the “world” with my youth orchestra playing the Cello. The concerts took us to Spain, Portugal, Italy, France and Brazil. I admired the director who was always able to say some words in the local languages. Aged 15, and having read an article about this possibility, I decided to do a social service in an NGO in São Paulo instead of doing military service. In 2003, I lived in a favela for one year and learned Portuguese. When I returned to Germany I attended a Brazilian Carnival party in my town. This is where I met the only non-Brazilian girl of the evening – a Peruvian. We had an almost 3-year relationship and after that I was able to speak Spanish quite well without having attended any traditional lesson. I went to Granada, Spain for one year to learn Spanish properly and continued my studies of Political Science there. At that time, master’s degrees in social sciences in Germany often consisted of one major subject and two minor subjects. For one of my minors, in a moment of insanity, I had chosen Slavic Philology. I just wanted to learn Russian – because it is so different… and cool and because this guy at the Pizza shop once told me: “You want to learn Russian? Never ever will you succeed.” Russian was incomparably harder than everything before, I must admit. Looking back, I have learned Portuguese and Spanish without any effort, I’d say. At the time my French was not fluent, but not far from and English – it was always present during my studies. I had several crises with Russian for years but I always managed to revive my interest and efforts. In the end, I did a “Summer School” at a Russian university, a 3-months internship during winter in Siberia, worked a summer in Ukraine at the seaside. I was also sent several times to Ukraine working in the humanitarian aid sector and to Russia working as a business consultant.

This is how I maintain my language skills today: I have the great opportunity to use English, French and Spanish very often in my job. Russian and Portuguese I mainly talk to friends.


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

I had a Czech girlfriend once. I even attended Czech lessons at the university and reached A2 certificates. – I would love to have the resources to spend time on Czech.

I’m convinced I could very quickly reach fluency in Italian. So, from an efficiency point of view that would be the language I could most quickly add to the list of languages – but I personally always need a good reason to invest in languages. – In the end they are tools for communication.


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

Swahili and Slovak.


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

Brazilian Portuguese (Women speaking), Castellano (Men speaking)


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

To surprise someone with my language skills. I’m better than most switching quickly between the languages I know. I very often experienced the feeling of “opening doors” when you reach a certain level. All over sudden you find songs that you love, lyrics that touch your heart, you have the feeling of understanding some part of the culture of some country – this is horizon broadening.


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?

Yes, this will inevitably be the case. In a globalized world there is a trend to communicate efficiently and reduce complexity, and this involves using less languages. From the approx. 7.000 languages we still have today, we will probably see less than half in 100 years’ time. Probably those dying will be at least much better documented than this was the case in the past.


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

Computers incredibly improved in translating texts. They will soon be able to simulate the work of an interpreter, translating simultaneously. So why learn languages? If you already speak a second, third or more languages on a fluent level, there will be no doubt for you: You will get a much more profound connection to a culture that you are interested in. It will help you to understand why things are seen differently and thus enable you to acknowledge that the same thing can be seen in many ways. If many people have this basic insight, it helps maintaining peace among the people. Your language skills will help you to make friends all over the world and you will be able to communicate on all levels – something computers will not be able to do. With each language you open a door to a new world – like Neo choosing the red pill in Matrix.