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Interview with

Joseph Terwilliger

Name: Joe Terwilliger
Nationality or Ethnicity: American
Where do you live?: New York and Helsinki
Languages: Fluent: English, Mandarin, (North) Korean, Finnish, Russian, French Conversational: North Saami, Farsi, Japanese, (South) Korean

Member since:


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

As a kid, growing up in upstate New York, I listened to a lot of radio broadcasts from Quebec, and studied Quebec French for six years in high school. I also enjoyed listening to shortwave radio from all around the world, and so got used to listening to things in different languages and trying to figure out what was being said. When I went to college, I studied music in a conservatory, where a significant proportion of the students were from Taiwan or Singapore and spoke Chinese, so for my foreign language requirement, I studied Mandarin, and ended up speaking Chinese every day with the other students, so that was almost an immersive experience, despite being in the US. The most important thing that transfers from studying music to studying language is that in music school they always tell you to just imagine the sound in your head, and your body will find a way to produce the sound you hear in your head – in other words, you never think technically about how to produce the sound, you simply picture it and let your body figure out how to do the rest without thinking about it actively. This may be the most important thing that helps with language acquisition, especially with pronunciation – don’t think, just imitate to produce the sounds.

Later, I went to grad school to study human genetics, and studied Korean and Russian. In the end all of these languages became critical for my career, as I started an international research project studying the health of the Korean diaspora in Kazakhstan, Yanbian (China), and elsewhere. At that time, about 20 years ago, even top academics in Kazakhstan, South Korea and China were not typically able to speak English, so it forced me to hone my Chinese and Russian skills so that we were able to work in those areas. I was always fascinated with North Korea, and when I was working in Yanbian, one summer, I stayed there and took an intensive course on the North Korean dialect, and later I had the opportunity to live in North Korea, teaching genetics and evolutionary biology at the university. One thing led to another, and I began another project working with collaborators in Iran, which motivated me to spend the past year of Covid lockdown taking Farsi classes and trying to learn to speak that language fluently before the world opens up again and I can resume that project.

I also have had collaborative projects with researchers in Helsinki for the last two decades, and have permanent residence now in Finland, where I spend a few months each year. I studied Finnish in grad school in the USA for three years, and then when we were planning a research project on the health of the Saamis in the North of Fenno-Scandinavia, I studied the North Saami language for two years in Helsinki. At the time I was a lowly grad student, but when we met the Saami Parliament leadership to discuss the project together with senior professors from Scandinavia, I spoke to them in Saami, and for the rest of the meeting they kept asking my opinion on everything because I took an interest in them as human beings, rather than treating them like lab rats, having learned enough of their language to communicate, which made a big impression on them. So to me, as a scientist, it is impossible to think about studying any other human population without first learning the language, as so much of culture and understanding of each other is intimately tied to the language. Even in Finland, where people generally speak better English than New Yorkers, my ability to speak Finnish has opened a different level of relationships with people than my expat friends who have not taken the effort to learn the local language.

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

I spent many years studying the North Korean version of the Korean language, which is extremely different from the South Korean form. When I speak with South Koreans, I have great difficulty communicating because not only the vocabulary is extremely different, but also the grammatical structures commonly used. However, since 2017, it has been impossible for me to visit the DPRK because of the US government’s ban on use of American passports to travel there. For this reason, I have little chance to practice speaking Korean these days. I do watch livestreams of their domestic television broadcasts most days, and I have sporadic interactions with diplomats in New York, but it is not the same as having the chance to speak with normal people on a daily basis like I had when I lived there. I worked long and hard to develop a proper North Korean accent and speaking style, and the ultimate compliment was when someone in the foreign ministry told me once that I was the first foreigner he had met who spoke proper Korean – that most others he knew sounded like South Korean women, so I definitely don’t want to lose that skill.

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

During lockdown I have been taking Zoom-based courses in Farsi and Japanese because I have recently started some research projects in Iran and I teach in Japan every other year during normal times. I would also like to learn Kazakh, as I have worked in Kazakhstan and in Xinjiang with ethnic Kazakhs for many years, but that is much more difficult to approach, given the paucity of good didactic materials. Hopefully when I start going back to Kazakhstan after Covid, I will have a chance to pursue that in earnest.

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

It all depends on who is speaking it. I mean Finnish can sound very sexy when spoken by young women, but when old men speak Finnish it sometimes sounds like they are constipated… I would guess that whichever language you can communicate with someone in most effectively would ultimately be the sexiest…

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

Language gives enormous insight into how people think. And that opens up a different level of relationships. Also, it opens up the possibility to research things you could not do without those skills. I mostly use my languages to read research materials and build international collaborations, but the greatest pleasure has been the insights not into science, but into why people think and act a certain way. Because behaviour and culture is so intimately connected to language. It’s impossible to really understand another human being deeply if you cannot understand their native language on some level.

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 doubt it, since smaller languages are the most strident in their defense of their own language. Meaning that they actively avoid incorporating foreign words almost to an extreme, constructing their own words for even the most modern and international concepts. As a simple example, look at how much more “pure” the Quebecois French is than the French in France – as one who learned the Quebec version of French in high school, some of the borrowed words they use in France almost seem comical... In Finnish, as well, they invent their own words for even things like telephone and computer. And this is a good thing, of course. One reason that I am completely lost in South Korean dialect is that they (mis)use many “English” words in normal speech, and then I have no idea what they are talking about (I usually end up trying to deduce what Korean word they are saying, as its rarely obvious that its Konglish).

I also once spent a summer living with Kazakh nomads in Xinjiang, China, as we were planning a research project in that community. But I could not speak Kazakh, and most of the adult nomads could not speak Chinese. However, today the youth are all educated in Chinese, so I ended up using children as translators – I would speak to them in Chinese, and they would translate into Kazakh for their parents and vice versa. That was a fascinating experience. The parents all explained how they are taking great pains to educate their children in Kazakh at home, so their language does not die out (in China they write Kazakh using a variant of the Arabic alphabet, while in Kazakhstan they used Cyrillic - and are now switching to the Roman alphabet). The differences between Kazakh in China and Kazakhstan have thus grown enormously in the last century, just as the differences between North and South Korean are increasing to the point where I can communicate without problems in the North, but only with great difficulty in the South. In some sense this is leading to an increased diversity in language rather than the decrease this heading hypothesizes…

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

Language is the key to understanding other people, and speaking different languages (especially when they are less commonly taught languages) opens a lot of doors around the world. Even though in 2020, there are few places left in the world where English isn’t sufficient for basic communication, you cannot communicate with someone on a deeper level without understanding their language as well, and sometimes the more languages you know the better you can converse with people. One of my favorite places in the world is Yanbian, a Korean autonomous region within China, along the North Korean border region in Jilin Province. The Chinese-Koreans who live there are fluent in both Korean as well as Chinese, and they often switch between languages even within a single sentence. This is quite remarkable given that Chinese word order and logic  is very much like English, and the grammar is extremely simple (no tense, no cases, no prepositions, no conjugation, no gender, etc…), while Korean grammar is very different, with verbs at the end of the sentence, and an extremely rich and complex grammar. When people switch back and forth between such different languages within a single sentence, it opens whole new possibilities and dimensions of what is possible to communicate… When I lived there, I sometimes would meet with both Chinese-Koreans and Korean-Koreans at the same time, and every now and then the native Korean speakers would go blank and have no idea what was going on when the Chinese-Koreans would suddenly switch amid sentence to Chinese, and I often didn’t even realize they had switched languages because I could understand both. This flexibility also made it much easier for me to speak fluently, as whenever I was at a loss for how to express something in Korean, I could switch on the fly to Chinese and that was considered completely normal. Made it much easier and natural to communicate with them, while it frustrated the hell out of our Korean colleagues! So the more languages you know, the more opportunities you have, even in contexts where you don’t really expect it to matter.

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