The International Association
Kaja Joana Fehr
Name: (Kaja) Joana Fehr
Nationality or Ethnicity: German
Where do you live?: Currently in the Netherlands but from mid September in France
Languages: German, English, Italian, Dutch, French, Spanish
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
When I was seven years old, my father announced that we would be moving from Germany to Italy for his job. He also let me know, that upon arriving there, I would no longer attend a German school, but rather an international one, as this was the option closest to where we would live. With less than a year before the departure, my parents signed me up for after-school intensive English classes, which I throughly enjoyed. The material was interesting, fun, and as it turned out, quite easy for me to learn. I started practicing more in my own time, both reading and writing in English, and engaging with material out of my own interest. Upon arriving in Italy, I was greatly supported by my new teachers, who gave me extra material to read in English and accelerated the learning process, so that after half a year, my fluency was good enough to follow and engage with the classes without any problems. After completing my first year in Italy, it became my own wish to learn Italian as well, both to communicate with my fellow classmates, many of whom were Italian, and to be able to follow general social life in the country I was living in, joining athletics clubs and theatre groups, and being able to make friends there. Thankfully, my school offered a great support system by providing me with a personal Italian tutor; while the rest of my class was having normal Italian lessons, I had private classes where I learned to read, write, and speak at my own pace, all the while making quick improvements. After elementary school, I decided to continue my education at the British International School of Rome, where, apart from Italian, I had to choose another language as main subject. As my father had often travelled to France for work, and had brought back a lot of exciting literature, I had started to fall in love with the sounds of the French language, so when the opportunity to attend French class presented itself, I took it without any hesitation. Italian, French and English soon became my favourite classes of the week. For the first time I was happy to do extra-work outside the classroom, taking on recommendations from my teachers as to how to improve my skills, starting to write straight A’s in anything related to language, and earning several awards for my linguistic achievements. Upon graduating from high-school it was clear to me that I had to engage in this linguistic world, even though it was not yet evident to me how to do this. As I had engaged with the world of music since the age of seven, I started with a degree in Classical Voice at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, where great importance was placed on Italian, French, and German language. Learning to read and write the phonetic alphabet, I continued to expand my linguistic knowledge in relation to sound and interpretation. At the same time, I also started a degree in International Relations at the University of Leiden where a great focus was placed upon Sociolinguistics and Intercultural Communication, all the while attending Dutch evening classes at the University. I slowly started to understand that within the two degrees I was completing, the linguistic elements were the ones that gave me the most joy. In addition to expanding my education, I also started a career as a private German tutor, which allowed me to connect more with my mother tongue, all the while gaining the skills of teaching a language and transmitting the joy of languages onto others. This leads me to the final chapter of my story in 2020, when I decided to follow my passion and apply for a degree in Modern Languages at the University of Birmingham (UK). In addition to deepening my knowledge of Italian and French, I decided to take up a new language with Spanish, which was probably one of the best decisions I made in my life! The university gives me the opportunity to study not only the grammar and linguistic elements of the languages, but places great emphasis on my communicative skills and allows me to engage in the culture and linguistic history of the countries and languages I am studying. From this September onwards, at the age of 25, I will be on my year abroad, living in France, Argentina and Italy, and deepening my knowledge of the languages and cultures I have fallen in love with!
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
I wish I could spend more time practicing Spanish and French. While I have many Italian friends with whom I interact on a daily basis, and speak German, English and Dutch in day-to-day interactions, it is more difficult to practice these two “new” languages. While I know that opportunities to do so will create themselves over the next months on my year abroad, as of yet I don’t have a lot of daily contact with French and Spanish speakers, and my practice comes from watching movies and television and reading as much literature as I can. But luckily this will change in the coming months!
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
A language that has always interested me is Portuguese. I think that phonetically, it is the most beautiful language I have so far encountered, and would love to learn and one day maybe become fluent in. Additionally, it is also now the official language of several independent countries and regions, and ranked fifth among world languages by number of native speakers. I would also like to learn Romanian, as one of my closest friends and housemates is from Romania, as well as some of my own extended family, and it would be an interesting challenge with my base in Romance languages.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
This is a really difficult question, because I love all the languages I speak, but if we’re talking about the “sexiest”, I believe that from the ones I know, it must be a tie between Spanish and Italian. The softer consonants and the longer vowels, but also the way you can use it to express any type of emotion or feeling goes well beyond what (in my experience at least), any Germanic languages are capable of.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
I think the greatest pleasure from speaking so many languages is getting in touch with so many people from all over the world, and getting know their stories, their ways of experiencing life, and most importantly their ways of thinking which are very different to my own, to then eventually being able to understand, and perhaps even improve the world by taking everyone’s interests and needs into account.
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 that most languages die out gradually as successive generations of speakers become bilingual and then begin to lose proficiency in their traditional languages, which often happens when people are forced to learn what are often mistakenly called more “prestigious” languages in order to gain social and economic advantages or to avoid discrimination. Luckily, over the last years, both individuals and organisations have emerged to highlight the importance of language preservation, and to take action to ensure this. It is important to realise, that it is not only a language that gets lost, but with it entire ways of living, tradition, and knowledge, that can still be used to help us advance. Nevertheless, if we as a society don’t place importance on diversity over convenience, I believe that in 100 years, there will indeed only be a few languages left.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Firstly, I would absolutely recommend doing so! For all the reasons I have mentioned above, I am convinced that only good things come from studying languages! Further, my message for anyone out there interested in studying languages can be divided into the following points:
1. Never be afraid to try something new!
2. Speak as much as you can - the more mistakes you make, the better you will get!
3. Engage with native speakers - they will not only help you improve your fluency and pronunciation, but will make you fall in love with the language and the culture in a way you will never be able to achieve on your own.
4. Surround yourself with the languages you intend to learn - only grammar or speaking is not enough! Watch movies, listen to podcasts, read books and newspapers of the country - anything you can find.
5. If you can: visit the country! No amount of lessons in the world can give you the skills, fluency, and knowledge you will get from spending time in the places where the language is spoken.
6. Never give up! Only about 13% of the world is trilingual, so never feel discouraged when you make mistakes, keep your head up high and always keep going ! :)