Interview with

Mohan Embar

Name: Mohan Embar

Nationality: USA
Ethnicity: Indian (parents emigrated from India)

Where do you live?: USA

Languages:
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.

The International Association of Hyperpolyglots - HYPIA. (c) 2020

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