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Interview with

Mateusz Pietraszek

Name: Mateusz Pietraszek
Nationality or Ethnicity: Polish
Where do you live?: Madrid, Spain
Languages:
• Polish (native),
• Spanish (C2 – BA+MA (joint degree) in Spanish Language & Literature, MA in Spanish Linguistics),
• English (C2 – Cambridge Proficiency (CPE), PhD in English Linguistics),
• Catalan (C1 – Certificat Suficiència C1 Ramon Llull),
• French (C1 – DALF C1),
• German (C1 – Goethe Zertifikat C1),
• Esperanto (A2+/B1),
• Italian & Portuguese: advanced (C) reading, intermediate (B) listening and basic (A) conversation and writing,
• Smatterings of Dutch and Basque
• Basic Latin reading skills

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

Languages have always been present in my life, or at least that how I should like to remember it. For the first time, I was exposed to a foreign language (English) on television and always like to imitate whatever was being said in the original version of whatever was on the screen. The first foreign language I was formally taught was German but – I must admit – to no avail because of the quality and quantity of the instruction received. However, it wasn’t until my first language class with a private English tutor that I was mesmerised by the intricacies of the English phonological system while being introduced to the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Those symbols have accompanied me ever since and played a decisive role in my future life choices. Having a speech-therapist mum, I partook in many an interesting conversation on how my mother tongue was and/or should be pronounced and on the intricacies of the Polish language in general. Later on, my interest in pronunciation spread to other aspects of linguistics, namely, syntax and historical linguistics. While reading up on the historical grammar of Polish in secondary school, I also started learning French (alone and with a private tutor) and Spanish (on my own) and dabbled in some more languages whose names I can barely remember. In both cases, my choice was a music-based one as a greatly cherished some artists performing in those languages and deemed their speech to be of utmost beauty.

During my school leaving examination, I presented an (optional) project on the main phonological changes in the history of Polish much to the despair of some (but not all) of the board members who had no clue of what I was talking about.

The choice of a university degree was not a tough one as it had been clear to me for many years that I would study for a language-related degree. And so I embarked upon my degree course in Spanish language and literature. On my 5-year-degree (including one year spent in Madrid), I had the chance not only to acquire Spanish to the highest possible standard but also to hone my French and to take an intensive Catalan course. I met people from many different countries not only on my Erasmus exchange in Madrid, but also on the courses I attended at my home university and at the University of Cologne. However, English and Spanish were the linguae francae we used there. I can also recall studying Dutch, German and Quechua at that time too, albeit not for long and the last one only out of curiosity with no real intention of ever speaking it – pretty much like Latin at university, which I loved but never got to speak for understandable reasons. During my degree, there was also a long period of time when I did not employ English in any fashion and I can still remember how hard it was –when the need arose – to retrieve all the knowledge hiding in my brain’s remote corners.

After graduating, I decided to leave my wonderful country and settle down in Spain, something I did not acknowledge until a few years later saying it was just an adventure, but deep in my heart I’d always known I would not leave for a long time. Although I’ve been teaching English professionally ever since I arrived, after 15 years here, Spain has slowly but steadily become my home and Spanish – my second language. Also, it was here in Madrid where I met – amongst other beautiful people – my French and Catalan speaking friends, thanks to whom I could easily boost my active skills while diligently working on my passive skills at home with a view to obtaining official certifications in those languages. Although I’m fully conscious of their drawbacks, I reckon certificate exams are a good way of enhancing and speeding up your learning, as long as you thrive on extrinsic motivation. I’ve also flirted with the other languages mentioned above, that is, Portuguese and Italian. I’ve been madly in love with European Portuguese for a long time and I am now quite determined to perfect my Italian. I am a fairly proficient reader in both those languages and can understand them when spoken clearly. And last, but not least, after attending the Polyglot Gathering 2019 (see my talk here) event in Bratislava, I realised for the first time that Esperanto was worth giving it a try and started learning my first ever conlang.

To finish this lengthy essay, as I shall mention later on, in point 6, my motivation to learn languages has evolved. My original structural approach has now become much more human and communicative. I still get infatuated with sounds but now the affective parts of my brain filter them to a greater extent through communication with real-life people and not only by consuming (media) content.


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

Among the languages I already speak, I always wish I had more time for my German. All the Germans I know speak perfect English and/or Spanish so I don’t get to practise it even when in Germany, where I also sometimes visit my Polish friends.


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

Now that my PhD research is over and I’ve got much more time on my hands, I’d like to keep working on the maintenance of the languages I’ve already acquired to a greater or lesser extent. However, in the future I would also like to venture into Mandarin or Japanese, time and work permitting. And obviously, I’d love to speak fluent Italian at some point instead of the Itañol I’m currently adept at. Also, I’d love to be conversational in Latin, just because it must be fun.


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

There is only one sensible answer to this question: the language of the person you fall in love with. But seriously, although it is a highly personal judgment to make, I dare say that for me (surprising as it may seem) a potential list could include Italian, European Portuguese, Southern British English, German and Dutch.


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

My motivation has evolved over the years. At the very beginning, I was fascinated with sounds and structures. I could dedicate hours to the study of a language from a more practical or a more theoretical perspective. I must admit active communication was not my priority although I greatly enjoyed reading in my target languages. During my university times and later on in Spain, that initial structural orientation changed. While preserving my original passion for linguistics both personally and professionally.


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?

As a trained linguist, I must admit that languages are dying out. However, it is impossible that only a handful of them will be left in 100 years. Language plays an important part in our social structure as the main identity marker. This fact – explained easily by evolutionary biology – makes us feel attached to the code we are using as it allows us to feel part of a community and easily identify others who belong to it. Therefore, languages get diversified into dialects, which then turn into separate languages. Although this traditional view of a dialect continuum may not hold in a globalised world with fairly universal schooling, it is true that people and states protect national languages and their position is safe. Smaller languages, with no political support, are at a huge disadvantage and yes: they’re the vast majority. I may express an unpopular view now, but this is a natural process. As linguists, we should try and record as many nearly extinct languages as we can as they can enrich our knowledge and give insight into original ways of perceiving the world’s phenomena. Yet languages serve the purpose of communicating. In a world where we no longer communicate only with our fellow villagers and the inhabitants of surrounding villages, it is only natural that the languages of greater territories – culturally or politically related – will take over to some extent. But there are many such languages, so there is no real danger of only a few will remaining. Still, those languages will have their dialectal diversity, often influenced by the autochthonous substrata upon which they developed. It is, at the end of the day, absolutely impossible for over eight billion people to speak the same language. Even if one tongue was artificially imposed – although this is only a thought experiment and highly unlikely to occur in the real world – it would most likely soon split into a series of mutually unintelligible dialects with a certain amount of diglossia between the local variety used for everyday purposes and the official variety used as a lingua franca.


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

Do whatever you love and do it from the heart! Be good to yourself, don’t compare yourself to others, find you own motivation, set your own smart goals and be proud of your successes. Reward yourself for every milestone and sympathise with yourself when you fail. Go public, humility is a value but publicity is one too. Be social, get affiliated! Meet other people with similar interests and let them inspire you while you inspire them.