Name: Julia Haremska
Nationality or Ethnicity: Polish
Where do you live?: My hometown is Łódź (Poland), but I have been moving around the world since I finished high school. Currently, I am planning to move to Belgrade (Serbia) for the next 6 months.
Languages: Polish, English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Arabic (Modern Standard and several dialects), Greek*, Farsi*
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I have always found language study to be a particularly rewarding endeavor. Learning English as a kid allowed me to understand the lyrics of all my favorite rock songs. Getting to know French and Spanish as a teenager meant that I could pursue my studies abroad, travel on my own and read a lot of quirky novels. Later on, becoming fluent in several other languages, be it via travel or academia (Arabic, Portuguese, Italian, German), has eventually made it possible for me to pursue a career in humanitarian affairs: an old childhood dream coming true.
My current work as a Cultural Mediator at Medecins Sans Frontieres [Doctors Without Borders] requires me to use my language skills in a highly sensitive context, where I have an opportunity to interact with (mostly) Arabic and French speakers from different parts of the world, listen to their (often painful and complicated) stories, and thereby facilitate the communication between them and the health practitioner that they come to, seeking medical help. I cannot think of a more profoundly rewarding way to put my knowledge into practice.
I was always tempted to explore new languages just for the fun of it and take advantage of the opportunities available in the country where I happened to be living, which I suppose is one of the most pleasurable ways to learn, with relatively little effort. I do find pleasure in sitting down at my desk with a grammar book and enjoying the moment when my brain can suddenly understand sentences that would not have made absolutely any sense to me a week before. It is definitely an intellectual challenge and a bit of nerdy fun, but still, traveling around has been the single biggest incentive to learn, as well as the best way to practice. In fact, I have studied a number of languages that I quickly forgot (Hebrew, Yiddish, Latin, Swedish and Russian), precisely because I was scarcely able to use them with native speakers at the time of learning. Considering that I love traveling, and it may still take years for me to settle down, I think my language quest will continue, although it might get more and more challenging to “keep” the languages I'd already learned in my memory.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practicing?
I wish I had more opportunities to practice Italian and Portuguese, that I barely get to use in my work, which naturally tends to render them a little rusty. Likewise, I would definitely appreciate another occasion to study and practice Greek and Farsi, which I have learned at a level that I do not consider satisfactory just yet.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
I look forward to studying Serbian (as of next week) and perhaps picking up some Hebrew, Turkish and Urdu in the course of the next years. I will also not rest until I can become reasonably conversant in Russian.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
Spanish spoken with an Argentinian accent, second to none! Although, come to think of it, both Hebrew and Arabic sound irresistibly hot, for reasons I cannot rationally explain.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Navigating everyday life in an interconnected, globalized world is simply easier, smoother and more fun when you can comprehend most of the messages it throws in your face. You can laugh your head off watching Egyptian standup comedy, find your way through a bus station in Nicaragua, bargain with a taxi driver in Iran and finally read the original version of your favourite Greek poems. Even when confronted with languages you don't necessarily speak, you might be able to get the gist of what is being said and communicate with almost anyone. You can feel how your own “verbal personality” changes as you switch from one language to another and how much easier it feels to say certain heavy things in a language that isn't your own. This ability basically opens your mind up to the world in ways that are difficult to substitute.
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?
Considering how many languages have already become history, as their speakers disappear or choose to use a more widely-spoken language, it seems inevitable that the numbers will continue to shrink. I don't think, however, that it will go down to just “a few”, as hundreds of languages are still alive and well, in no danger of extinction. In fact, who knows, perhaps older languages will come to life again (such as Hebrew did) and new ones will be created (as it happens everywhere where cultures and ethnicities mix in new contexts)?
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Do it. It's probably easier than you think and more rewarding than you can imagine. You may think you don't “need” any more languages than you already know, but learning a language is a life-changing experience every single time. At some point, you may find it hard to imagine your life without them, as it would imply there would be friends you would not have made, experiences you would not have lived, conversations you would not have had. Professional, financial, practical benefits aside, becoming a polyglot is simply a fantastic intellectual adventure that will make you appreciate and enjoy the diversity of human experience.