Name: Mohan Embar
Ethnicity: Indian (parents emigrated from India)
Where do you live?: USA
English (native), French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Swedish
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
Each language has a different story. When I was five years old, I went to India for the first time and remember sitting in my grandparents' house in Bangalore reading the back of a can of cocoa. The left side was in Hindi and the right side was in English. I thought that Hindi was a code or cipher where each Hindi word corresponded to an English word, so proudly read each English word out loud and pointed to the corresponding Hindi word. My uncle said: "That's not the way it works." Unraveling the "why" behind his sentence lead to my lifelong love of languages.
My parents both spoke different Indian languages (my mother Telegu and my father Tamil), so they always spoke with each other in English. I only heard them speaking their languages when they would talk to their siblings and parents. When I was a small child, my mother had these two 10-year-old twins, Monique and Magali, look after me because she knew their family was downstairs. Their mother was French, and they spoke French with their mother and between themselves when they didn't want anyone to understand, and I don't think the mother spoke a lot of English. I would beg them to teach me French because it sounded cool to have a secret language and they refused. So I was raised with an awareness of foreign languages from early on.
My first foreign language was German in high school but the quality of instruction was pretty lacking (as is much foreign language instruction in the United States). During my second year of university studies, I decided to participate in the third-year exchange program which Carnegie Mellon had with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. I befriended a number of Swiss students who had come to Carnegie Mellon to study that year and spent the year with them, listening to them speak and taking a French university class in preparation for the third year. I would also go to the weekly French language group, La table française, where native French speakers and French learners would come to have lunch and converse. In the beginning, when I heard the French speakers speaking with one another, I couldn't understand what they said and imagined them talking about deep philosophical subjects, love and other exotic things. I remember the first time I actually understood a conversation, it was along the lines of "I'm having car trouble. Does anyone know a good mechanic?"
I spent my third year of university studies in Lausanne, Switzerland and before the actual academic year started, I took three three-week French classes (nine weeks total) at the neighboring Université de Lausanne. It was there that I met language learners from all over Europe and the world. I noticed that the Germans had a tendency to stick with one another and speak German among themselves, so I figured I'd use that opportunity to spend time with them and try to resurrect my German. I remember vividly one of our class field trips to the Musée de l'Art Brut where we were sitting outside afterwards and the Germans were talking among themselves and one woman, Susanne, remarked in German about how ignorant Americans were about foreign languages. My German was pretty rusty at that point by I still was able to retort in German: "That's not true, and I understood what would you just said." She looked surprised and answered: "You are the exception." (More than a quarter of a century later, I'm still friends with her and many others whom I met that year.)
I ended up befriending a number of Germans and visiting them in the period after the end of the language classes but before the academic year started. I invited myself to Munich for Oktoberfest and piled into a car with Susanne, Claudia and her boyfriend Rolf as we drove from Lausanne to Munich. The Germans immediately discarded French and reverted to German from that moment onwards. I remember thinking to myself that it was cute that they were speaking this "minority" language within the context of the current environment of French-speaking Lausanne. Along the way, the highway signs changed from "Sortie" to "Ausgang" and at a gas station, I went inside and asked the attendant in French where the restrooms were. He didn't understand me and suddenly, I realized that my French was going to be useless for the next few days. I was so shaken up that I walked out of his office, had to take a few deep breaths outside, then returned to ask him in German where the restrooms were.
It was during that year that I discovered that I had an innate talent for languages. I had arrived in Lausanne in July and by November, I was speaking fluently. I also took advantage of every vacation to visit my German friends, who spoke to me in German.
One of my most memorable moments from that academic year was staying with my German friend in West Berlin for three weeks in March of 1987. This was before the Berlin Wall fell and you needed to buy a day visa for 25 Deutschmarks to visit East Berlin for one day. I was fascinated by the idea of meeting these people. I saw that there was the Humboldt Universität there but foreigners were strictly forbidden to enter. I couldn't contain my curiosity, though, and sneaked into the university. I went to the cafeteria and sat across some people who were speaking this language I didn't understand. I asked them in German what language they were speaking and they said Polish. We started chatting and had a nice conversation. They asked me where I was from and I said the United States. They didn't believe me (and my German was okay enough that I had no obvious American accent), so I showed them my passport. They leafed through the pages of my passport and saw stamps for all the countries that they were not allowed to visit: France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, West Germany, India and they sighed at how beautiful that was. They asked how I had received an invitation to come to the university. I told them I saw it and sneaked inside. They then gasped, horrified, and told me that I would be in huge trouble if I got caught and that I should be careful and leave as soon as possible.
I finished that year and returned to finish my fourth year of university studies. I had massive culture shock coming back to the US and seeing how little people knew or cared about foreign languages. Fortunately, I was able to befriend the group of incoming Swiss students for that year and they tended to stay among themselves and speak French, so I stayed in that bubble for the rest of the year.
I completed my computer studies and got a job in North Carolina, but vowed to return to Europe because I didn't want my French to go to waste. I was accepted for a DEA (Diplôme d'études approfondies) at the University of Grenoble for machine translation and went there the following year. I had resolved to live in the south of France somehow. Before I started my school year at Grenoble, I visited Montpellier and a company called Keyword. The director of that company took a liking to me and encouraged me not to do a doctorate because if I did, I'd become an academic with my head in the clouds and be less employable to him that I would be at that moment. I ignored his advice and started my doctorate anyway in Grenoble, but after a few months, realized doctoral studies weren't for me. I was also feeling very lonely in France because I was a vegan and the year was 1989 and vegans were regarded as either extraterrestrials or cult members back then. I quit my studies, returned to the United States, but resolved to return to the south of France somehow. I also resolved to somehow find more European vegans so that even if I were in France, I could still have a support group that I could visit from time to time. I found out that there would be a vegan festival in the Netherlands that year. I also called Keyword and said I would be returning to Europe and asked whether they still would consider me for employment.
I returned to Europe later that summer, visited friends in Switzerland and Germany, then went to the Netherlands. It was there at the vegan festival that I met my future Dutch wife, Wanda. She was a second-year mathematics student at Leiden University. We fell in love and at the same time, I got a phone call from the company in France that they wanted to hire me. Since Wanda was at the university and I had gotten a job, we decided I would start my life in France and we would write and call each other. (This was the summer of 1990, before the Internet.) I started my life in Montpellier, she continued her studies in the Netherlands, and we probably spent more money in phone calls than if we had visited each other in that time.
She came to visit me in December, 1990: she spent two weeks with me in France and I spent two-and-a-half weeks in Leiderdorp at her mother's place. We then decided that I would return to France and we would see each other in the summer again after her studies were complete. But in the last two days before I was to leave, she said that she didn't want to spend those many months apart. I asked her what she wanted to do and she said that she wanted me to quit my job in France and come live with her in the Netherlands. I told her that I didn't have a work permit for the Netherlands. We did some research and found out that the Netherlands would grant work and residence visas to couples living together even if they weren't yet married. She convinced her mother to let me (a total stranger) come live with me in their house. I agreed, quit my job in France, came to live in Holland and found a job there. It's there that I become fluent in Dutch.
We lived there for a year and a half before we decided to move back to France. Wanda had never lived abroad before and wanted that experience. I told her that as a computer programmer, I could relatively easily find a job if I was at the location, but it would be difficult to convince people to hire me from a distance. After a year and a half of unsuccessfully trying to find a job in France while living in Holland, I convinced her to let us give all of our possessions to a moving company and tell them to store it for us until we knew what our address in France was going to be. We then went to Toulouse, knowing absolutely no one there, and convinced a lady to rent us an apartment in the city center even though we had no job or residence visa. I assumed that since I was married to a European national, I had the right to a work permit.
I was wrong. I'm not sure if the law is the same now, but in October 1992, the law was that a non-European national only had the right to obtain the same residence permit as their European spouse. The plan was for me to work and Wanda to study, so our plans were ruined. Wanda wanted to continue her studies and also didn't speak any French, so her getting a job was out of the question.
We were discussing our options with the immigration person and they said the only possibility would be to start a company in my wife's name, thereby giving her a work permit and afterwards, me too. Also, the unemployment rate in Toulouse was relatively high at the time and I found it challenging to find a job. I found a directory of IT companies and started calling the companies one-by-one, seeing if they were hiring. One company was and said they were looking for the skills I had, and to send a CV (in the US, we call this a résumé). I knew from experience that sending a CV would just have it land on the big pile of other CVs, so I printed my CV, prepared a cover letter specifically for that company and put a demo program written in the computer language they were seeking experience in on a floppy diskette and marched over to the company, rang the doorbell, and asked if I could come in and show them my program. They refused to let me in and told me that through the intercom. I then asked if could slip my CV, cover letter and demo program under the door for their consideration. They said yes. The next day, I got a call from them and they said they wanted to hire me.
Next was the problem of the work permit. I first needed to get a student visa so I could stay in France longer than the three months I was allowed to stay there. Both Wanda and I took the admission exam for the University of Montpellier and I passed it and she failed (since she hardly knew any French). I then called and pleaded with the head of the mathematics department for them to let Wanda in and give her a chance. They weren't happy that I was calling on behalf of Wanda but we somehow managed to convince them to give her a chance.
The immigration lady was another story. Although I had completed the paperwork and paid the exorbitant taxes for the fake translation company that we were starting under Wanda's name so she could get her work permit so I could get mine, the lady knew something suspicious was happening and thought I was maybe exploiting Wanda to get a work permit, so she told me that I wouldn't have my work permit for at least six months. This was another huge setback because the company which had hired me couldn't allow me to work there without a work permit and we only had enough savings for another couple of months (plus we had borrowed money from Wanda's father). So this was an impossible situation and we thought we would have to leave.
Out of desperation, I wrote a long letter to the immigration lady talking about how I was fortunate enough to have these wonderful foreign study and work experiences in my life: having lived, worked and studied in Switzerland, France and Holland. I told them I badly wanted to give my wife the same experience but instead, she was confronted with all these nightmares of permits and financial trouble. I begged her to allow me to give my wife the same kind of experiences. A couple of days later, the lady called our home and said that my work permit was ready.
We ended up living in Toulouse for two and a half years and Wanda was one of the only two people in her class to pass the exams in the first session. I also posted signs in the university for a language exchange for Spanish and found a Chilean person with whom we did English / Spanish exchanges once a week and my Spanish started slowly improving.
We moved back to the US in 1995 to be closer to my family and have lived here ever since. I let my language learning languish for nearly ten years, but when online language instruction started becoming more popular, I found a Spanish teacher from Nicaragua online and began doing lessons with her. I continued that off and on for many years until we moved to California in 2012. Since there is a large Hispanic community here, I was especially motivated to improve my Spanish and study it more seriously. I started attending Sunday church services at a Hispanic church downtown and then switched to online language learning and started taking classes online. In early 2015, a colleague of mine at work said that she had learned Italian, so we gave each other the challenge of improving our Italian together and I took my first online class for Italian in early 2015 with a teacher named Giulia. I continued taking both Spanish and Italian classes and also looked for opportunities to travel to Spanish-speaking countries as often as possible: first one week in Granada, Nicaragua where I took a weeklong morning Spanish class at a school there and had afternoons free to explore the city, then later at a Spanish school in Ensenada, Mexico called the Pacific Spanish Institute, where I would take weeklong and weekend classes as often as I could. After nearly two-and-a-half years of sporadic Italian study, I felt my level was good enough to visit one of my teachers in Genoa and take a weeklong class there, where I ended with a C1 certificate. During the afternoons, I would spend time with my teacher and her boyfriend and they would show me around the city.
In the years since I started learning Italian, I fell in love with the language and people and have always found them to be wonderfully hospitable. I think I was Italian in a former life because I feel completely at home there. I've visited teachers who have become friends in Genoa, Milan, Lecce, Venice, Verona and Sicily. (The funny thing is that Italians are so obsessed with food and when I tell them I'm a vegan and I can't eat most of the things the want to feed me, their heart kind of sinks. I tell them it's not my fault that no other American wanted to learn their language and come visit them 🙂.)
I also continued taking German classes online and although I am decent conversationally, am frustrated that I haven't put in the time to memorize the declensions and vocabulary as well as I should.
The final two languages I haven't touched upon are Swedish and Portuguese. I had started learning Swedish before I met Wanda because I had heard that there was a Swedish vegan society in Stockholm and my dream was to learn Swedish, go to Sweden and meet a Swedish vegan girl and live there. Wanda wrecked those plans (🙂), but years later at my workplace, during the summer of 2016, a Swedish woman and I gave ourselves the challenge of doing a French / Swedish exchange with the goal of being able to carry on a complete conversation by that December. I plunged myself into Swedish study but a few weeks later, she lost interest and I wasn't sure whether to continue it or drop it. Luckily, I found a language exchange partner, Andreas, who lives in Stockholm and we've been doing twice-a-week language exchanges on Skype ever since during my work lunchbreak on Tuesdays and Thursdays: a half hour of Swedish one day and a half hour of English the other. (It's hard to believe that this has been going on for nearly four years now.) I also found Elin, an online Swedish teacher, with whom I took lessons. I achieved my goal of having a full conversation with Elin at the end of 2016 and she congratulated me for that.
As for Portuguese, one of my Italian friends and former teachers told me she was starting a doctorate in Coimbra, Portugal in November, 2017 (the same time I went to Genoa for that week). So I went to visit her and gave myself the challenge of seeing how much Portuguese I could learn in two months. I found a good online website for the exercises, bought a European Portuguese grammar book and also found an online teacher and plunged myself into studying Portuguese for several hours a day until my trip. Fortunately, I had a really good base in Spanish as a starting point and I was able to converse with the people there. On my last day, I walked into a real estate agency and had a long conversation in Portuguese about buying and renting properties there 🙂. And that teacher is still in my life today.
So that's my story. It's long and I've left out quite a lot, but it's hard to imagine the impact languages have had on me if you take away the experiences that led to my learning them.
Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
All of them except French and Dutch. Especially German. It's frustrating (and kind of inexcusable) that after many decades, I still haven't put in the time to learn a decent vocabulary list with articles as well as the declensions. That's the problem with language learning: after you achieve a decent level conversationally and can say anything you want (albeit clumsily) and also understand a lot, the law of diminishing returns applies, especially if you are managing multiple languages.
What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Russian and Mandarin are the last two languages I'd like to learn in this lifetime, and then that's enough. Russian because I have yet another Italian friend who's planning to study there (but now with the pandemic, I'm not sure when that's happening or when it would be safe to go there, so I'm having trouble finding the motivation). Mandarin is a language I've also always wanted to learn.
So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
Argentinian Spanish. It's absolutely no contest. Russian is a close second. (Sorry to all my Italian and French friends.)
What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Languages have helped me form wonderful, amazing friendships. And since languages literally shape the way you think and perceive the world, the more languages you know, the more you're increasing your ability to see the world in different ways. When I have conversations with people from different countries, it's as if we agree to meet each other at this invisible line where to the back of me is all of my culture, language and lifetime experiences and to the back of the other person is all of theirs and we get to gaze at each other's worlds for a moment through our exchanges. (I suspect that those of you reading this will either wholeheartedly and enthusiastically agree or else find this metaphor clumsy and silly 🙂.)
I've always been fascinated by the theory of parallel universes. Languages are our opportunity in this lifetime and on this Earth to actually experience those parallel universes. For example, there's a Dutch author named Toon Tellegen who's written the most incredible children's stories in a book entitled Misschien wisten zij alles. These have to be the best children's stories I've ever read. Ever. In any language. And to my knowledge, these don't exist in any other language but Dutch and the entire non-Dutch speaking world continues to be deprived of these. And then I think: what other gems like this exist in other languages that I will be deprived of in this lifetime?
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?
It depends on your definition. If you talk about rare languages that are dying out and consider the remaining non-rare ones "few" in comparison, then the answer is yes. If you think that languages like French, German, Mandarin, Japanese, Italian, etc. are going away, that's silly. 100 years ago was 1920 and all of these languages were alive and well. Machine translation has made enormous strides since I studied it in the 90s. If anything, technology will enable the preservation of these languages because it will become increasingly easier to translate from one to another.
What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
If you are studying multiple languages just so you can have bragging rights to say that you speak n languages, then either a) you're going to fail because you'll lose interest, or even worse b) you'll succeed and feel hollow and empty inside because the goal itself is shallow and empty. For me, the only kind of meaningful language learning is where the learning is a means to some other end which involves human connection and interaction. That's why I find this obsession with drill and practice approaches, not losing your streaks, and similar nonsense kind of silly because people get wrapped up in the competition and streak preservation and forget that the end goal is conversation (or something else like reading and understanding works in your field of interest). To be clear: drills and practices have their place in self-study (and I should do more of them to improve things like my German), but if your actual goal is conversation and you exclude that from your learning routine, or else postpone it because you think you need to achieve some other difficult-to-attain goal first, then you're doing yourself a disservice.
If I had to offer just one piece of advice, it would be do anything possible so as to not lose interest. . That advice is more important than any other life hack, tip or technique. If you lose interest, it's game over and then no other advice matters. So find your personal way to not lose interest and stick with that. I love grammar but if the person I'm advising will choose to not continue with their studies because they hate grammar, then by all means they shouldn't do grammar.
The best way to learn a language is to live in the country for an extended period of time. This isn't always possible or practical. The second best way is through the magic of the internet and online language instruction and exchanges. We are living in what I believe is the Golden Age of language learning because we have options available to us that I could only dream about when I was studying languages in the 80s and 90s.
Wanda and I love languages and the online learning model so much that we've started our own company called PolyTripper. Unlike similar sites, this site was built from the ground up by two polyglots who love languages, the teachers who teach them and the students who learn them. It's the vehicle by which we share our love and passion for languages with others.