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Interview with

Kevin Fei Sun

Name: Kevin Fei Sun
Nationality: United States. Ethnicity: Chinese
Where do you live?: New York City
Languages: English, Mandarin (native); Russian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Serbo-Croatian, Italian, Hindi/Urdu (B2); Turkish, Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew (B1); Shanghainese (heritage speaker).

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

It all started when I was ten years old ,after my family moved back to Shanghai from the United States. First of all, I had to catch up on my Chinese, and with the help of immersion and lots of extracurricular reading (and thanks to being a ten-year-old heritage speaker), I was able to catch up within one semester. After that, while my classmates were still required to take English in school, I had more free time to try learning other languages. By the time I finished high school I had already studied a lot of languages, including Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Arabic, and Russian, but none to a particularly high level.

I returned to New York City for university, studied Russian for two years, and then spent a summer in Russia for an intensive language program. That was important for me because it was the first time I felt like I’d really gotten good at a foreign language (and a pretty difficult one at that). After that, I revisited many of the languages I had studied previously, and continued to learn new languages as well. Living in New York definitely provided a lot of opportunities to practice speaking most of the world’s major languages.

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

Indonesian and Swahili, which I’ve studied in the past but haven’t had many opportunities to practice in real life. And Vietnamese, which I’m currently studying.

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

For now I’d say my focus is on improving the languages I’ve already studied before — which is a pretty long list, and includes things Albanian for example. In a couple years, when I have time to tackle a few more “hard” languages, I’d definitely like to take a look at Thai, Tagalog and Tamil.

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

I feel like my answer to this question is always changing — the sexiest language is always the one that I’ve most recently “gotten a hang of,” or started to be able to understand in real-life contexts. So a year ago my answer would have been Korean, and now it might a south Italian “dialect” like Neapolitan or Sicilian. Or maybe Albanian, the ultimate Balkan language, which I’ve been getting into again in recent weeks. Beyond that, I do also agree with president Chohan’s view about Urdu being the most beautiful language, in large part because of its complex history.

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

A great thing about learning languages is how it’s fun on so many levels. One on hand, when you start out, it’s like solving a logical puzzle (or a pattern-recognition puzzle if it’s related to a language you already know). And once you get better at it, it’s also a practical tool for communicating with people from other parts of the world, and a way of enjoying a broader range of media. And once you learn a whole bunch of languages, there are so many interesting synergies and interconnections to explore.

To finally answer this question, though, I think the greatest pleasure might be that of being in a multi-lingual environment and being able to code-switch between many languages in a short amount of time.

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 guess that partly depends on how little “a few” is. In a somewhat extreme scenario, where only languages with more than 1 million speakers right now survived, that’d still leave more than a hundred languages. One the one hand, a hundred sounds like a lot! One the other, that’s less than 2% of all languages currently spoken in the world.

Hopefully in the next 100 years we’ll see more diglossia and perhaps mixed-language situations, rather than the total erasure of smaller languages. And the internet does seem to provide an opportunity for less-spoken languages to survive and thrive in their own virtual niches.

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

With all the resources available through the internet nowadays, there’s never been a better time to study — and make practical use of — languages.