Name: Kevin Cook
Nationality or ethnicity: Dutch (naturalised – born and bred in Britain, but I changed nationality in 1989, at the age of 37, after living in the Netherlands for the requisite minimum five years – Dutch law does not allow dual nationality, so I gave up my British citizenship)
Where do you live? Netherlands
Languages: English (mother tongue), French and German (university degree standard), Dutch (my most common spoken language now that I have lived in the Netherlands for over half my life), Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Modern Greek, Afrikaans, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian (mainly Bokmål, but also reading knowledge of Nynorsk), Russian, Slovenian and Esperanto, plus some reading knowledge of Polish, Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, Romanian, Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian, and (very basic) Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Hungarian and Finnish
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
My parents spoke no languages other than English - my Irish-born mother must have spoken some Irish before moving to Britain to find better work, but had forgotten all but a few words by the time I was born – I ended up speaking and reading it better than she did! I had no contact with foreign languages until I went to secondary school in Britain at the age of 11. French and Latin were compulsory subjects. My first French lesson was a disaster (the teacher told each of us “Je m’appelle X” without explaining what it meant, and implied that we should do likewise – the boys who had already had some French at preparatory school knew what to do, but I remained tongue-tied). Yet I soon got the knack of languages, and before long was regularly “top of the class” in French and Latin. In our second year we were able to choose between another modern or another ancient language – German or Greek. I opted for German, and so never learned Ancient Greek, although I can now keep up a fluent conversation in the modern language.
And I simply moved on from there – while other teenage boys were out in the street playing football, or fighting, or whatever teenage boys do, I was in my room at home collecting languages. I soon had penfriends in Denmark and Finland, and when my parents took me to Italy on our first foreign holiday I taught myself Italian, and interpreted for them in the hotel restaurant and local shops. I learned basic Russian from an excellent British television course. A school friend who collected stamps and was in touch with a collector in Holland learned to read and write Dutch – and not to be outdone, so did I, never suspecting that I would one day be living in Holland and speaking the language on a daily basis. I bought more and more of the very affordable books in Britain’s Teach yourself language X and Hugo’s language X in three monthsseries: Welsh, Czech, Swedish, Catalan, and so on and so on. At the age of 23 I landed a job at the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva, translating and summarising health legislation from – to quote the newspaper ad – “as many languages as possible”. It was in Geneva that I took evening classes in Modern Greek, given in French by a grey-robed, bearded Orthodox priest, just before spending what would be the first of several dozen holidays in Greece. I even ended up learning Greek folk dances, and teaching them to Dutch people.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Hard to say – probably Slovenian, as I was planning to emigrate to Slovenia permanently in 2020 – but then the Covid-19 travel restrictions intervened, and the whole of eastern Europe is now in the firing line from the war in Ukraine. So my plans have been halted for the time being, if not for good. And there is hardly anyone living here in Holland that I could practise with – hardly any Slovenes ever moved here, and other Yugoslav immigrants didn’t speak the language.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
None planned right now – at the age of nearly 70 my former hunger for new languages is finally starting to wane.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
I could never think in terms of languages being “sexy”, so my answer has to be “none”. But the language I still enjoy speaking most is Modern Greek, with its simple, clear vowels and sibilant consonants – e.g. συζητήσεις, sizitísis, “conversations”.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Being able to travel to so many parts of Europe (I don’t travel anywhere else) and make myself understood in the local language wherever I go, without simply relying on my mother tongue as so many native English-speakers still do as a matter of course (an attitude I’ve always considered grossly chauvinistic, and have striven to avoid).
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 my mother tongue English has come to dominate so much of the world’s commerce and politics, I do indeed fear that there will be far fewer languages in common use 100 years from now – that’s assuming the world even exists by then, given the threat posed by climate change. To take just one example, many Dutch universities have simply assumed that Dutch students can be expected to follow lectures in English, usually given by Dutch-speaking teachers whose command of English is often less than perfect, and to read background literature in English. This has led to a measurable decline in the quality of Dutch higher education – but few Dutch academics or education ministers seem to see it as a problem. Anyone who objects is felt to be “rocking the boat” and “failing to move with the times”. And I’ve heard more than one young Dutch-speaker say that their language no longer serves any useful purpose, and should be abandoned in favour of – what else? – English.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
It’s a great hobby – but in today’s world you shouldn’t expect to make a living out of it, assuming you ever could have. My choice of professions when I graduated from university 50 years ago was (a) translation/interpreting or (b) language teaching. With the recent advent of online translation software (however bad the quality – and God knows it’s still mostly dreadful), the amount of translation work is now rapidly declining, and there seems no reason to assume it will ever recover. There will also be less and less need for language teachers – unless, of course, the language they’re teaching is English. Eh bien, c’est la vie, n’est-ce pas?