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Interview with

Mathias Mund

Name: Dr. Mathias Mund
Nationality or Ethnicity: German
Where do you live? Nigeria
Languages: German, English, French, Spanish, Latvian, Russian, Dutch

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

We are in the year 2003 somewhere in the southern parts of Ecuador. The sun is slowly setting to turn in the West over the Pacific and the temperature is gradually cooling down. A young gentleman is unhurriedly crossing the border into Peru on foot; he is about 20 years old, a bit dusty and carrying his worn down backpack with a friendly smile. After an interesting and challenging year of working and living with elderly mentally handicapped people in Canada, it has been a long and scenic way hitchhiking down from Toronto to South America. He spent hours admiring the majestic nature while waiting for a ride, he was welcomed into car after car and into truck after truck. By now, after spending endless hours in the beautiful monotony of the American countryside with the locals in their cars his Spanish has gotten quite good. Sure, in the beginning the conversations were a bit one sided, but as the verbal exchanges repeated themselves in the next car and then again in the next car the young traveler could not avoid a steep learning curve. In addition, speaking the local language in combination with a warm smile literally does open quite a lot of doors. Now nightfall quickly is approaching; one more try at the gas station over there at the end of town and if not, we will stop for the day. "Sí amigo, es posible tomar un viaje hacia el sur, ¡solo súbete al remolque! Estamos a punto de partir hacia Lima". Laying in his sleeping bag under the bright moonshine about two meters high on the back of the trailer his eyes glance from the dry mountain desert of the East into the vast emptiness of the Pacific Ocean to the West. His thoughts wander back to the first active memory of his life, a flight from Ethiopia to Germany. He can distinctly remember the characteristically shaped lion spoon of the Air Ethiopia and the beautiful African flight attendants, although they seem more occupied with his little blond sister. He must have been about three or four years old at that time. A couple of months after his birth in 1983 his parents, a doctor and a teacher from Southern Germany, decided to move with the young family and to spent time working and living in rural East Africa. As a toddler, he picked up the local language Amharic apparently quite well, but now he cannot recall more than some few single words.

A large overnight tourist bus overtaking the truck on the left side suddenly interrupts the young man. Looking down inside the bus from his lofty and spacious position, he can clearly distinguish the pale faces of European tourists cramped into their seats. They stare at him in disbelieve and a bit of jealousy. A quick friendly nonverbal greeting before the hitchhiker‘s thoughts return to Africa. After living two years in Germany, his parents and his sister moved back to the African continent when he was about five years old. They ended up in a small village in Eastern Zimbabwe in the Chimanimani Mountains. In addition to being home schooled, the young boy and his sister went to the local missionary school, where they learned their first English words. After three years in Zimbabwe, the family with their now three children moved back to Germany in 1990, where several linguistically uneventful years followed. The usual compulsory English and French languages at school were learned rather half-heartedly up to the point were bad grades in French threatened the school career of the young adolescent. In 1999, at the age of 16 years he jumped right into the cold water and spent a full year at the local boarding school in the picturesque French city of Vannes. The participation in school classes alongside native speakers as well as together with a couple of other foreign students from all over the world boosted his language abilities in French as well as in English. Additionally, the young adolescent had the opportunity to enjoy a true international flair. The languages French, English, Spanish and German were spoken in the high school yard and after school. The inevitable consequence after the positive experience of this exchange year was the continuation of his wandering life as soon as possible. After further two years in Germany and completion of high school in 2002, the young man moved for one year to Toronto, Canada to life as an assistant in a community with elderly mentally handicapped people. Other assistants from all over the world contributed to the international feeling and long winter evenings filled with philosophical conversations boosted the young man’s language abilities further. After the year in Ontario, he debarked on a “Walkabout” hitchhiking journey from Canada through the USA, Mexico and Central America via South America down the coast of Peru on the back of a truck trailer under the bright moonshine. In the next weeks, this journey will continue further over the Andes and then through the jungle of Bolivia to the pampas of Argentina to the final destination of Buenos Aires.

Fast-forward a couple of months into the year 2005. Latvia, a small Ex-USSR country in Eastern Europe has joined the European Union in the previous year. The official local language is Latvian, an independent Baltic language of about 2 million speakers; however, the Russian language is widely spoken. I begin my medical studies at the medical university in Riga, Latvia. The language of instruction is English; our small study group consists of a few German and Norwegian students and a hand full of students from Sri Lanka. My previous expertise in the Roman languages help me to “reverse-engineer” most of the medical anatomical Latin terms and provides a good structure for the mandatory basic Latin class at university. In addition to the demanding medical curriculum, the Latvian language is taught at university during the first two years; unlike most of my colleagues, I do enjoy learning the local language. For me Latvian as a Baltic language is my first non-Germanic and non-Romanic lingua and therefore stimulates my brain and breaks up the usual learning pattern. In the summer of 2005, a colleague and myself hitchhike from the Baltics through Scandinavia to Karelia in northern Russia and then across European Russia to the Caucasus and the Black sea. During this voyage we enjoy the true Slavic hospitality; and similarly to the trip in Latin America, the conversations with the drivers in Russian are marginal in the beginning, but visibly improve over the weeks. Having predominantly used the Latvian language in the following two years, I then complete an eight-week intensive language course in Russian in the summer break of 2008. During the ongoing clinical part of my medical studies I directly profit from my acquired language abilities in Latvian and Russian; with increasing confidence I am able to provide bedside interpretation for my international colleagues and local elderly patients, which in turn improves my own linguistic skills even further. This is the first time in my life when I interpret on a regular basis between several non-native languages.

After graduation in Riga in 2011, I complete the first years of my residency as a young doctor back in Northern Germany. The German medical educational system is thorough and it provides a solid education; unfortunately the disadvantage being that everything is exclusively in the German language. During these years I write my doctoral thesis at the German Goethe University in the English lingua. In 2015, I take a sabbatical and hike the picturesque “Camino de Santiago” from the French town of St. Jean Pied-du-Port through Northern Spain to Santiago. Speaking Spanish as well as meeting many other international pilgrims on the Camino I instantly enjoy the international feeling once again. In the following year I continue my residency in the world’s only Grand Duchy; the small beautiful country of Luxembourg is located between France, Belgium and Germany and is considered to be the heart of Europe. In the professional and private environment a multitude of linguae is spoken, besides the Germanic language Luxemburgish with about 600,000 speakers the languages French, German, English and Portuguese are commonly used. Here I am able to use my French language in a professional medical setting for the first time and subsequently improve my knowledge of the medical terminology in this language. The following year, I continue my residency at our partner university in Flanders, Belgium where the Flemish dialect of the Dutch language is almost exclusively used. After a two week intensive course in Dutch, I jump right into the cold water. However, due to the linguistic proximity of the Germanic languages Dutch and German most of the vocabularies are quite intuitively understood. After a couple of months my active participation in Dutch begins and by the end of the year I am able to successfully communicate on a daily basis in the professional hospital setting and hold a small presentation about heart surgery in the Dutch language. In 2018 and 2019, I complete my residency back in the charming city of Luxembourg, where I commence to pick up a good passive understanding of the Luxembourgish language in addition to speaking more French again. As a medical specialist in anesthesiology, I start working in Nigeria in the year 2020. In this fascinating African country several hundreds of local languages and dialects are spoken, although the English language is the predominant lingua in Nigeria.

2. Which languages do you wish you could spend more time practicing?

At present, I would like to speak more Latvian and Russian. I studied six years in Riga, Latvia and I have very good memories about my time in Eastern Europe. The people in Latvia and both their languages hold a special place in my heart. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons these languages are not very common in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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

I would like to learn a couple of different languages in the future. One of them is Arabic; I have always been fascinated by the rich cultural history, the desert tales of One Thousand and One Nights and the influence of the Arabic language all over the world. When I was travelling in the Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula I met cultured, polite and interesting people. The Arabian hospitality is legendary, and it would be great to one day be able to hold a conversation with a native host in a tent in the desert in his or her own language.

I am equally fascinated by the ancient culture of the Chinese civilization. Additionally to being one of the world's oldest cultures originating thousands of years ago, the Mandarin language will certainly be the most important language in the upcoming next half of the century. As a medical student I hitchhiked “on a nickel” through China from the vibrant East Coast to the rural Western desert region of Xinjiang and Ürümqi. Communication was mainly though pictures and pictograms at the time; I would love to come back one day and really communicate in Mandarin.

The third language on my bucket list is Portuguese, the language of the discoverers like Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama. I have at all times been a fan of the Portuguese culture; during my time in Luxembourg my Portuguese friends showed me their cuisine, traditions and customs in even greater detail. I would love to travel back to Portugal one day, immerse in the Iberian vibe and converse in Portuguese with a glass of wine sitting in the garden of an ancient rural house and looking into the sunset over the Atlantic.

4. So let us be honest, what is the sexiest language?

Every language is beautiful in its own way.

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

“He who learns a new language acquires a new soul” - Czech proverb. First of all, being polyglot opens up many opportunities and doors which otherwise would have stayed firmly shut, as languages build social bridges and unite people. Secondly, thinking and organizing thoughts in a less proficient language forces a person to use easier vocabulary and therefore allows seeing the world again through the mind of a child. This powerful tool allows a polyglot person to simplify overcomplicated concepts in life. Thirdly, being fluent in many other languages gives you an appreciation, an understanding and a mastery of your own lingua. To a certain degree you are always using synonyms and explain words when using a foreign language; this ability comes very handy in your own native language as well. Have you ever tried to play the party language game “Taboo” with a polyglot in his or her native language?

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 true?

Wealth and richness have been far from being equally distributed in the past and we are still very far-off from inhabiting a world without poverty. Nevertheless, for the last thousands of years the overall living conditions of humanity as a whole have steadily improved up to the level of relative prosperity in which we are living today. This incredible achievement is the result of people communicating and sharing ideas. One of the downsides of interaction with the troglodytes and cave dwellers next door is inevitably the dominance of the language, which is perceived to have a higher influence in a respective field over another culture with less innovation. This has been seen for thousands of years in all the ancient and modern civilizations from Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman to the Maya, Aztec to the US-American civilization. The assumption of having only a couple of remaining languages is exaggerated; nevertheless, we will have to accept the fact that every year humanity is losing the last active speakers of a couple of languages. One the other hand we will certainly be a multi-planetary species in the near future and it would be interesting to observe the linguistic effect of a distance of 200 million kilometers on the evolution of languages on the human colonists on Mars and beyond.

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

Perseverance and immersion. There is no such thing as a born linguist who suddenly fell from the sky. Avoid the convenience of falling back to using the languages you are fluent in when having the opportunity to use a lingua with which you are less familiar. Be a child when learning a new language; do not be afraid to make mistakes while speaking. Moreover, be flattered if you are corrected; this is a sign of other people appreciating you efforts.

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm” - Winston Churchill.