Name: Justin Yim
Nationality or Ethnicity: Hong Kong
Where do you live?: London, United Kingdom
Languages: English, Cantonese (Native); Mandarin (Fluent); Dutch, Afrikaans (Advanced conversational level), Malay, Esperanto (Conversational level); French (B1), Classical/Literary Chinese (Written – Intermediate level).
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
My language journey began almost right after I was born, when my parents would anxiously await my first words. (They were ‘good morning’, in case you were wondering.)
Since I was born and raised in Hong Kong, I grew up learning four languages, namely English – the official language of Hong Kong due to its historical ties with Britain, Mandarin and Classical Chinese – as part of the Chinese education curriculum, and Cantonese – the local language. I was also surrounded by many others, like Tagalog, Bisaya, and Portuguese, as well as encouraged to learn German and Japanese by my family due to my mother’s employment in a German company and my own fondness of Japanese television shows. I failed to exceed the beginner level, but have discovered a new passion for language learning, as I would enjoy picking up basic phrases of the local languages whenever I went travelling. Then my school presented me with an opportunity to learn French, but that similarly yielded no results, so following my frustration was this brief 1-year period in my language learning journey best summarised as a time filled with spontaneous and haphazard bursts of efforts to start learning various languages.
I then attended boarding school in the English Midlands, and found myself constantly bored, tired, and anxious amidst a global pandemic. As school was cancelled, I started learning Dutch and to my surprise, the language was quite logical and consistent, and I was able to start forming sentences after a week. With my passion for language learning and through regular conversations with natives I very quickly reached a conversant level.
As lockdown rules relaxed, I also made friends with an Afrikaans speaker at my school. I would speak in Dutch while they would respond in Afrikaans, so eventually I picked up Afrikaans as well. It was when I went to university when I also discovered a passion for constructed and auxiliary languages in addition to my pre-existing passion for natural, especially Germanic languages, so I learnt Esperanto and Toki Pona. Toki Pona in particular has helped me view the world in a completely different way, and learning Toki Pona was definitely an interesting experience.
Languages have always been an important part of my life, and I’ve always found language learning to be interesting. The list of languages will only grow from here on, and they will continue to help me understand the world better, one word at a time.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
I would work on my French and German if I had more time. I sort of abandoned these languages by not practising, and they’re quite useful languages as well.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Xhosa (for the cool clicks!), Polish, Hindi and Romanian. (Might relearn Japanese as well!)
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
Definitely Afrikaans. The sound inventory of Afrikaans is filled with the phonemes which I find sexy in a language, like the guttural g, the trilled r and the /ʃ/ sound, and also has a pretty extensive range of vowels. I just love the way it sounds!
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
It’s always the way someone lights up when you can speak their language. Sure, knowing many languages is great, but nothing really beats that feeling.
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 there’s a bit of truth in that statement. Many languages have already become extinct, and an alarming number of languages are currently endangered, or becoming endangered. Some languages are being shunned or banned, like Kurdish. Though many governments are increasingly embracing and promoting language diversity, like the Canadian Government with the First Nations languages, the Welsh Government with Welsh, the Scottish Government with Scots Gaelic, the Irish Government with Irish, many people simply do not find these languages useful and therefore do not learn them.
I don’t think the world will only have a few languages left in a hundred years, but alas, there will absolutely be many languages that will have fallen out of use by then.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Remember, language learning is a process. Don’t be intimidated by how long it seems to take, the reward is worth it. Or if you enjoy studying languages, maybe the process is the reward all along. Set some reasonable targets and don’t be discouraged when you can’t meet them, you’ll eventually meet it and it might just take a bit longer than expected. Best of luck!