Name: Maximo M. Gonzalez
Nationality or Ethnicity: US/Mexico
Where do you live?: Denver, Colorado, USA
Languages: Native: English, Spanish. Fluent: French, Portuguese, Italian. Conversational: Russian, Catalan. Basic: German.
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I grew up bilingual in the US/Mexico border, yet I didn’t know a thing about learning languages until I studied abroad in Hong Kong my junior year in college. I decided to take a Mandarin course because I thought it would be fun with the Asia-theme and useful for a trip to mainland China. I was surprised by how interesting learning about a different language was but was overwhelmed when we transitioned from pinyin to characters. The semester coming to an end, I thought it would be better toss away the little progress I made and start off with more accessible languages before I tackled Mandarin Chinese seriously. I was also in desperate need to pick up my GPA, so I needed more Romance and fewer Chinese language courses…
Once I got back from Asia, I signed up for Portuguese and French (couldn’t get Italian to fit in). I had a lot of fun comparing the languages to English and Spanish and ended up reading about the history behind the languages and their evolutions to further understand the interrelatedness. In terms of the courses, I thought they were slow and too easy, so the next semester I challenge myself by enrolling in an intensive Russian class. Before I graduated, I studied abroad in Moscow to fully immerse myself in the culture and language because when do you get a chance to go to Russia? My floormates from the Caucuses didn’t know much English, so at first I mostly listened and uttered a couple of phrases. By the end of the program I was trusted with more and more of their thoughts and managed some meaningful exchanges. I also travelled in Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia using mostly Russian to get by. I found the overall experience rewarding yet frustrating since I never attained a high level of fluency. I realized I valued engaging interactions more than learning language fundamentals.
After college I moved to New York and found language meetups where I got to meet like-minded friends that I could practice with. At the same time, I was exposed to the online language learning community that further pushed me into enhancing my skills on my own, with which I’ve had much more impressive results than through courses.
The hardest thing so far has been sticking to relatively few languages instead of venturing out into other exotic ones. The more you learn about languages the more you are intrigued by the diversity that exists.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
If I had to pick one, I would say Russian since I’ve found it challenging to make use of it after my language program in Moscow. The roots are mostly Slavic, so it takes extra mental effort to get back into the rhythm.
In general, every language, even my native ones, can always benefit from sprinkling in new vocabulary and improving my eloquence. I read and hear an endless stream of clever structures every day, and I still jot down some words and phrases in my native languages to supplement my own repertoire.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
I would like to go back to Mandarin. In my mind it is the great language challenge that I would like to conquer. What interests me is the vastness of the country: 5,000 years of history, around a billion native speakers, multiple civilizations living under one umbrella, and a burgeoning economy. It’s a linguistic adventure that is surely filled with all kinds of cultural treasures waiting to be discovered.
Another one would be an Arabic language. Last year I listened to a Lebanese artist called Carla Chamoun for maybe 5 or 6 months and love every one of her concerts available on YouTube. I sing along to most songs without knowing what any of it means. The sounds are that pleasant to me. Interestingly, she sings in several varieties of Arabic including her native Levantine, French, and English.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
It ultimately depends on the person’s accent, voice, and enunciation. Sometimes I’ll listen to Alejandro Fernandez sing traditional Mexican songs and think it’s the culmination of the Spanish language (same thing with Carla Chamoun and Arabic), but other times I hear people slurring the same language on the streets, which doesn’t ring well. Another time I went to Brazil for new year’s and rented a place with Argentinians I had met on the road but had to leave to a hostel because their accents were giving me a headache, and I couldn’t take it anymore (sorry, but it’s true).
To loosen up the meaning of the question, I think English is the most fascinating language in a historical sense. It’s a story of migration by Anglo and Saxon cultures to the Celtic speaking Britannia, conquests by Vikings and French speaking Normans that essentially morphed the language into a hybrid, followed by its worldwide expansion through colonization, industrialization and growth of the US. It’s a truly remarkable situation that unfortunately native English speakers and others take for granted. I’m currently listening to the English Language Podcast series and am thoroughly enjoying the detailed etymological and historical accounts that led to what English is today.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Languages are a pillar of civilization and culture, and having invested in them, I further appreciate what the world has to offer. I am enriched with so many interesting cultural, historical, and linguistic insights. I am much more aware of any given region’s demographic and linguistic situation and why it is that way. I’m also grateful for growing up in two languages, something that before I really just took for granted.
Learning languages has also heightened my appreciation of history because major historical trends usually have some sort of language implication (I recommend The Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler). I’ve read several books on language history and am listening to historical podcast series. I just can’t get enough of it.
Also, I feel I’m living more than one life (or two) with each additional language. I was in France this year and was roaming around Paris entirely in French. I spoke to strangers, met friends, went on dates, argued with the metro police, and so on. I got much more out of my travels than when I was traveling in English-only mode.
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?
According to Ethnologue, there are over 7,000 languages, of which 500 or 7% are institutional, 3,500 or 50% are considered stable, and 3,000 or 43% are endangered. We’ll likely lose most of the endangered languages, especially American and Pacific languages, but there’ll always be linguistic relics of the extinct languages infused in the host language, similar to the situation in Italy concerning younger Italians hearing regional languages but only speaking the standard a distinct accent. In a sense, they’re still with us but in a different form.
It’s also possible that existing languages diverge ever more in phonetics, grammar, and lexicon to the point of fragmentation.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Part of human nature is to explore in the search of novelty. People get a kick from travel, new cuisines, books, and history. Learning a language is a natural extension – it allows you to further appreciate the same sense of novelty but in a much more immersive way because it can fundamentally change your identity, what information and entertainment you consume, who you interact with, and even where you live.
Executing the plan to become conversational is challenging through traditional methods. I recommend that students i) take a self-guided approach with online resources (meetups, apps, podcasts, blogs, videos, movies, newspapers, politics) and stick to what is most interesting to them, ii) ignore grammar and difficult nuances at first (German articles, Russian cases, Romance conjugations) and get as much listening, shadowing, and speaking practice before diving into minutiae. The sense of progress upfront will carry you through the rough patches whereas too many grammar rules will likely discourage you from advancing past the initial stages of the process. Once you are able to effectively integrate the language into your life, fluency comes with its deliberate use over time. Lastly, iii) it’s important to understand a language isn’t a trick you pick up on the fly or by accident. It takes months to start understanding and years to become near-native. It’s a big marathon, so keeping a steady pace throughout is paramount.