Name: Michael Keller
Nationality or Ethnicity: Switzerland/USA
Where do you live?: Italian-speaking Switzerland
Languages: English, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Swiss-German, Pulaar (Fulakunda and Pulafuta)
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I grew up trilingual: English with my American mother, Swiss-German with my father, and Italian with my siblings and at school in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. I studied French in school and at university in the US, including a year abroad in Paris. As a graduate student I studied Spanish while in a relationship with a woman who spoke only Spanish, and I gained further fluency on travels in South America. I spent 27 months in Senegal as a Peace Corps volunteer, where I studied Fulakunda and then lived among Pulafuta speakers (two variants of the Pulaar/Fula nomadic language), becoming conversant in both.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
I would love to practice Pulaar more. I occasionally meet Pulaars in the street, but there is only time for the lengthy greetings famous in West Africa. I work in tourism so I speak English, German, Italian, and French daily, and my brother-in-law is Spanish so I speak that regularly as well. I have basic proficiency in spoken Arabic (Levant region) and would enjoy practicing that more as I am forgetting it more and more.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
My father speaks Portuguese, and with my Spanish/French/Italian knowledge I feel like I could become conversant with relatively little practice. I would enjoy learning Dutch as well.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
I think all languages are equally valuable and beautiful.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
I enjoy strangers’ reactions when they hear me speak multiple languages with others by chance when they weren’t expecting it. In particular I like escaping their original impression of me as a member of their own culture.
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 think it's possible. Certainly dialects are dying out and English is dominating. The remaining languages will however continue to evolve regionally over time, perhaps separating into new languages. I believe rural areas, especially in the mountains, will continue to hold on to their linguistic traditions, at least in countries such as Switzerland which lack a strong cultural pole city.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Learn as many languages as you can while you're still young as it only gets more difficult with age.