Name: Miriam Prażmowska-Toporowska
Nationality or Ethnicity: British
Where do you live?: Cardiff, Wales
Languages: English, French, Spanish, Nahuatl, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, Polish, Russian, Welsh
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I was born in the UK but my family is Polish and English. My father was born in England, but his family were refugees from Poland. His parents never really learned English, because they lived in a closed community and were always thinking of returning to Poland. My mother was born in Poland but her mother was English, so she grew up speaking English at home and Polish outside of the home. Both my parents speak English as a first language and didn’t want me to face the difficulties of growing up feeling like a foreigner, so they only spoke to me in English. As a result, I grew up with an awareness of Polish culture, but it was only as an adult that I seriously started to learn the language. From a young age, I saw the importance of language to fit into your environment and be accepted.
I studied French at school and have continued studying it since then. My father is also very good at languages and has supported me in learning French and introducing me to French literature, namely Maupassant and Zola. In my early 20s I decided to travel further abroad and went to Cuba to learn Spanish. Living in Mexico, I wanted to learn a language from Mexico. I had wanted to learn Mayan, but I couldn’t find any teachers, so, inspired by a native Nahuatl speaker, I studied Nahuatl instead. I learned Brazilian Portuguese in Mexico as well, as it’s a beautiful language and I wanted to be able to communicate with people from all over Latin America (including Brazil). I studied Catalan for fun and Italian to visit Italy. My mother (who also speaks Russian) encouraged me to study Russian at university. Living in Wales, I am studying Welsh as part of the cultural heritage.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Polish is part of my background and I am always trying to improve it. I would like one day to be able appreciate Russian literature in its original language. I would really like to learn Mayan to a more proficient standard as it is a beautiful language and important to the original Mexican culture.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
I would like to learn more regional languages, particularly those that are rare and in danger of extinction. Many of these are integral to pre-colonial culture and are very often overlooked, leading to them becoming endangered. To avoid losing this part of our culture, history and scientific knowledge, it’s important for us all to try to preserve them, learning and appreciating them, so that they can be preserved for the future generations.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
I don’t know what defines a language as being “sexy”. If this question relates to beauty then, as with most things, I believe that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Speaking languages is like creating music. When you speak different languages you can truly appreciate the beauty of the different sounds of languages. This also applies to reading literature. When you can read a book in the original language, you see exactly what the author intended you to see and fully appreciate it.
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?
There is a great range of estimates that linguists have made, as to the extent of the loss of languages. That we may only have a few languages left, is a very pessimistic guess. But what is certain, is that languages are going extinct. Colonialism has a big part to play, by carrying out cultural genocide on the conquered cultures. Since then, superiority has been placed on certain cultures, appearances and languages. This has resulted in a loss of languages that are not associated with these ideals.
In the present day, certain countries still have greater economic, political and cultural power, than others. Many people will choose to study languages associated with powerful countries, such as English, French, Russian or Chinese, over local or regional languages. Languages such as Cornish, Mayan, Krymchak and even Welsh, are at risk of disappearing, taking with them many myths and stories, history, philosophy and scientific knowledge, including their appreciation of the natural world. We should not forget that languages are political and the languages that we choose to study have political implications. By choosing to study languages associated with certain powerful countries, we are adding to their power. By ignoring the languages associated with regional and endangered cultures, we are allowing these cultures to be forgotten. We are all responsible for preserving these languages and cultures, by appreciating the lessons they can teach us and passing our knowledge onto the following generations.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Learning other languages opens doors to other worlds and allows you to see different perspectives. There’s no age limit to learning languages, just like there is no age limit to appreciating art or music. There also doesn’t seem to be a limit to the number of languages a person can learn, so if you are interested in foreign languages or cultures, then find a way to learn them. Listen to the radio, use language apps, read books and newspapers, watch films and TV series. Keep your learning varied and enjoy the journey!