Joanna Van Schaik
Name: Joanna van Schaïk
Nationality or Ethnicity: Dutch
Where do you live?: The Hague, Netherlands
Languages: In approximate order of ability: Dutch, English, Spanish, Russian, French, German, Swedish, Esperanto, Romanian, Italian, Portuguese, Czech, Mandarin Chinese, Modern Greek, Polish, Finnish, Norwegian, and at lower levels Korean, Hungarian, Japanese, Hebrew, Icelandic, and a fair few more that I’ve dabbled in such as Basque, Breton and Bulgarian. I can read Danish and Afrikaans and have studied Latin.
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
Well, I honestly just rolled into it. I was born in the Netherlands but moved to Canada at a young age. I started learning English at age 2 and would never lose the language – I grew up bilingual and even when we returned to the Netherlands I would go on to attend bilingual education. At school I started French early, first as play in Canada and then later formally in the Netherlands. I would take German and Latin a year later. To me, speaking languages was a normal thing that I had to do – and tried to cultivate when abroad, even when I didn’t know the language.
When I was around 20, I met my first romantic love interest, who spoke four languages fluently and was able to converse somewhat in two more. She’d just done this as part of her upbringing, and she lived in Brussels, so I decided to spruce up my French. It took me a long time to get confident, but after two years of being with that person and living with French people in Brussels, upon returning I decided that I could take it a step further and started learning Russian on my own. I chose Russian because to us in the west, everything that used to reside beyond the iron curtain is a mystery, and I wanted to uncover the secrets of the former Soviet spaces for myself. Since then, I’ve gone from language to language, travelling all around the world. I lived in China for a while, did volunteer work in Romania, and worked in Spain for a year. Things just stacked up from there!
Now I’ve turned languages into my career, as I have just graduated as an interpreter, and I plan to make using my languages a daily routine even more than before!
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
All of them, really! I just love speaking foreign languages. There’s always a language that gets the short end of the stick at a certain point in time, and it changes from month to month. I have discovered that I perpetually would love to learn those languages I don’t yet speak at a conversational level – it’s just a matter of finding the opportunity and time to improve them. So if you look at the list above, the languages that fall into the second category are the ones that deserve some polishing!
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Asking a polyglot this question is like asking a parent which child is their favourite ;) I’d like to learn all of them! But in all honesty, I’d really like to get back to Basque in the future, and get into the languages from the Muslim part of the world. Levantine Arabic, Urdu, Persian, that sort of thing! I just don’t know much about them and it would be lovely to explore cultures I’m thoroughly unfamiliar with!
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
Honestly, it’s the language I use with my partner in the bedroom – whichever one that is. I don’t feel like certain languages turn me on, certain people speaking certain languages turn me on. But right now, in that context, I’d have to say Finnish – just because my current significant other is Finnish, and we don’t want her to get mad at me, now do we?
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Discovering so much about the world! Earth truly is a pale blue dot floating in the vast emptiness of space, and we’ve got limited time on this mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam (you can thank Carl Sagan for the poetic description). But even on this tiny clump of rock we call home, there’s so much to discover and so much still unknown, and only by learning languages can you learn about the minds and ways of the humans (and maybe some of the other species) that inhabit this planet.
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 think language is a primarily human vehicle. With current technology all language software is as good as its programmers – who to this day remain human. And because language is made by humans and produced for other humans to understand, I don’t think that machine translations will wipe out our languages.
The real danger resides in colonialism and the hurt some people inflict upon others for belonging to another group of language speakers. As long as we can continue to fight colonialism and respect, nay, even promote diversity, I do not think any of our ancestral tongues are at risk – though they may change in wanton ways we can’t predict. But that’s the beauty of language, and of the humanity that produces it!
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Go for it! The world’s your oyster, it truly is. You’ll find uses for your languages, whether you speak with a so-called broken accent or if you paint on a verbal canvas wit perfect poetic flourishes. And if you see someone who is farther along the journey than you are – take it as a sign that you need to do better, and work hard to get as far as you can. The world needs a positive vibe, and we can bring it to the world!